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Workflow's new world

The world of high tech, it seems, is always rife with buzz words, and certainly broadcast is no exception. One of the buzz words we hear today constantly being bandied about is “workflow.” Companies talk about providing workflow solutions, increasing workflow efficiencies, end-to-end workflow, workflow ad nauseum.

So, what is this new technospeak, workflow?

Don't be intimidated by the fancy term. Underneath it all it is quite simply the process that you undertake, from beginning to end, to accomplish what you need to get done. Break that process down into its individual steps, and now you have a new technospeak term: workflow elements. One such workflow element is transcoding or format conversion.

Today's broadcast facilities find themselves dealing with an increasing number of video formats. These formats run the gamut from network distributed satellite content to user-generated cell-phone video (and in quality levels that can range from HD to Skype), not to mention everything in between. In this multiformat environment, a common workflow element is the transcoding of that content to a different format. Format conversion may be required on the input side for incoming material in order to get it on-air. The days of station output being solely confined to “On Air” are long past. Today's broadcasters find themselves supporting the requirements of multiple output platforms and, as a result, may be required to recode that same content to make it available for Internet streaming, for use on the station's website or for transmission via the station's Mobile DTV service.

For this particular workflow element, there are a number of offerings with various levels of capability. Recently, I had the opportunity to look at several of what might be termed enterprise solutions for transcoding and format conversion. The full extent of options may perhaps seem like overkill for a small local broadcaster today, but given the ever proliferating applications for video (more and more of those are in a file-based infrastructure, thankfully), it might be just what you need tomorrow. And, at the broadcast network level or for station groups that use centralized aggregation and distribution points for content, it may not be overkill at all.

Three of the systems I looked at were from RadiantGrid, Rhozet and Telestream. Some key parameters of interest in format conversion workflow are speed, quality and the number of formats handled. The best way to evaluate any product is by demonstration in your own facility, using the content you have to deal with on a daily basis and evaluating the results in the practical environment defined by your own needs and requirements.

Speed, for example, is a function not only of the workflow product processing algorithms, but also it is regulated by the computer hardware installed in a facility. Output quality is going to be largely driven by the quality level of codecs used in the processing software but can be influenced by the amount of time that is devoted to processing the content. Need a quick turnaround? Shorten the cycle, and normally one would need to be prepared to pay the cost in quality level. Perhaps not though, if you are using RadiantGrid's technology. Its grid processing technique can slice the content into bite-size chunks and essentially parallel process the transcoding effort across as many computer platforms as can be made available on the grid.

Then, there is the horsepower race of number of formats handled, which is strictly defined by the manufacturer. Give or take a few, Telestream can handle about 120 different formats. Rhozet claims upwards of 150.

RadiantGrid offers the option of containers, codecs, audio formats and ancillary data models. Customers can then mix and match in any way they see fit to satisfy the needs of the requirement. In essence then, the actual number could be hundreds of format combinations.

Should your daily routine not yet involve formal workflow products and systems, be prepared because they will someday soon be an integral part of your workday life. File-based workflow is already driving some automation systems from ingest to quality control to transfer to the playout server.

If you would like to delve into a more in-depth treatment of workflow and workflow processes be sure to check out Broadcast Engineering's webcast series at: broadcastengineering.com/webcast. There is a range of excellent tutorials offered as live webcasts or on an on demand basis.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

Send questions and comments to: anthony.gargano@penton.com