The promise of Web Services

Rapid changes in software technology have brought providers of vertical market applications such as automation systems to a crossroad. On the one hand, they must maintain the stability of their mission-critical software products. On the other hand, by embracing the new technology and venturing into new territory, they can make significant leaps in product capability. For the broadcast-automation buyer, this can mean choosing between a proven, stable but obsolete legacy product and a new, more advanced product based on software technology that is not familiar.

We must consider the issue in context of the rapid changes taking place today in the broadcast environment, including DTV management, multichannel and distributed operations, streaming delivery, support for packaged digital content, media asset management, IT integration and more. Stations must incorporate all of these changes without interrupting their ability to broadcast programming. And, they also need to implement them in different timeframes to meet changing broadcast requirements.

In today's facility, change is constant and inevitable. Traditional models of workflow, staffing, equipment and physical plant may already be outmoded or are rapidly moving in that direction. In areas such as broadcast automation and media-asset management, flexibility and scalability demand new types of solutions. Perhaps the best chance for success lies in Web Services.

Web Services

The future of broadcasting technology lies in shared access. Media management, scheduling, and transmission need to work seamlessly together to distribute information and content among channels, stations and groups. They need a common language to communicate quickly and reliably. Web Services is a method for systems to communicate with one another using messages sent across the Internet or a private intranet. The messages are written in XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and are contained within a protocol called Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). Using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the commands are delivered via Internet Protocol (IP) to any device on the network.

Web Services offers two major advantages to the computer industry that are also applicable to the broadcast industry: adaptability and platform independence.

Because of its XML core, Web Services is adaptable. You can use it for communication among the systems installed today, and it will adapt to an upgrade or replacement of any system without “breaking” communication among the others. Each XML message includes both data and a description of the data. As a result, a receiver can understand a message even though the sender has started using an expanded “vocabulary” without advance warning.

Web Services is also platform independent. Systems using it don't have to share the same operating system, database software, etc. Web Services uses standards supported by every software or hardware product with Internet compatibility. Systems based on Windows, UNIX, Linux, Mac, or mainframes all can use Web Services. Virtually every piece of broadcast equipment today is really a computer, and the merging of Information Technology with broadcasting is the reality for all of us. More often than not, broadcast problems are solved using IT solutions.

Over the past 10 years, our industry has moved from stand-alone, proprietary systems toward networked facilities. During this process, we faced and solved numerous communication roadblocks in hardware and software. Today, most stations can move information easily from system A to system B, although it isn't necessarily true that system B will recognize that information once it arrives. Web Services provides a common command structure that can be implemented everywhere.

Moving information between traffic and automation

How does the daily schedule move between traffic and automation? In many stations, traffic creates a schedule combining programs, spot sales and other interstitials. At the close of business, tomorrow's schedule is handed from traffic to automation as a file.

Automation airs the schedule, making any changes needed for timing, missing content or network updates. If traffic needs to change a spot, it can call down to master control. At the end of the day, automation hands an “as-run” file to the billing system for reconciliation.

The process relies on two file exchanges per day, with little or no interim communication between the systems.

How Web Services can help

One of the biggest problems facing broadcasters today is finding ways to increase revenue. In this simple example, opportunities for additional revenue are limited by the “manual” steps in this process. If new services are to be added to the mix, it is imperative that a more automatic process be created. Web Services can improve communication between systems, allowing more systems to communicate more effectively.

With this increased speed and efficiency, salespeople can sell spots closer to air time, programs can be converted between formats automatically, program guides can be updated automatically, and everything will be confirmed and billed as required.

Pushing the envelope

The benefits of Web Services are obvious to some manufacturers, but not necessarily to everyone. To move the entire industry in this direction, the market needs to demand it. Once one supplier implements Web Services and sees significant sales growth, other manufacturers will implement it to remain competitive.

What about legacy systems? Our industry has a pretty good history of supporting legacy systems in new products and that is not likely to change. As a result, facilities should be able to move into Web Services one piece at a time, improving communication where possible and maintaining the status quo where necessary.

The last big issue with Web Services is something that we're all dealing with already. As broadcasting continues to merge with computing, the need for IT talent will continue to grow. Thankfully, Web Services is based on XML, whose files contain simple text. This could actually make it easier to diagnose and repair problems between systems.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so learn more about Web Services. Discover the benefits, include it in future plans and make it a requirement for new systems. Change is hard, but as long as it's coming anyway, make it work as well as it can.

Stan Kingett is vice president of technical operations for OmniBus Systems.