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AMWA enables interoperability

As media organizations move away from physical assets represented by film and videotape, the well-established workflows of the past are similarly reaching obsolescence. And as broadcasters adopt file-based workflows, it has become apparent that new standards are needed to maintain interoperability between the new IT systems. Although standards from the world of data networking, such as IP, have been enthusiastically taken up, the media industry has special requirements.

The SMPTE has developed many new standards, especially as relates to MXF, which are helping broadcasters move toward interoperability in file-based workflows. Another organization driving innovation and collaboration in this area is the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA).

“(AMWA) is an organization that facilitates discussion around file-based workflows between users and manufacturers in the industry. We create technical specifications and software products like SDKs,” said Brad Gilmer, executive director of AMWA. The AMWA also encourages discussion around business needs and requirements in the area of file-based workflows.

“Contrasting with the SMPTE, with who we work closely, the SMPTE is a due process standards body that develops technical standards for the industry. Where we are different is that the AMWA is business-driven,” he said. Projects within the AMWA are initially analyzed by the Business Steering Committee, which vets technical proposals for real business needs. In contrast, the SMPTE standards work is often initiated by manufacturers.

Gilmer cited two recent examples. “The MXF Versioning specification, AS-02, was kicked off by Turner, and AS-03, the specification for MXF program delivery, by PBS,” he said.

These two application specifications are the latest AMWA standards. AS-02 defines repositories of MXF program components that can be used to aggregate versions for use in a multiversion, multilingual, multidelivery media environment. It is slated for final release in Q1 2011. AS-03 was released July 2010 and describes a vendor-neutral subset of the MXF file format to be used for delivery of finished programming from program producers and program distributors to broadcast stations.

A quick survey of media organizations will show that many have not adopted SMPTE standards like MXF for file-based operations; many businesses still use proprietary wrappers like QuickTime. Are there barriers that could be preventing media companies from migrating to SMPTE and AMWA standards?

“Do you want to link your business to a single vendor? It is easy to create a standard within one company, but it will reflect their business interests,” Gilmer said. “It may take more time for an SMPTE or AMWA standard, but it’s not going to wink out of existence.”

A fundamental philosophy of the AMWA is for non-proprietary standards. “Do you want to be in an open environment with parties competing on what their products can do?” Gilmer continued.

The alternative is the proprietary environment, which naturally favors the ad hoc “standard” and can lead to vendor lock-in. The AMWA is working to address some of the real interoperability issues with MXF. “To those that ask ‘where is support for AMWA standards?’ it is going to take a while for support to work through to the marketplace. The way to remove the barriers is for users to ask vendors to support these new standards (like AS-02 and AS-03),” Gilmer said.

There are two sides to interoperability: the wrapper and the codec. Support for standards like AS-02/03 does not necessarily address codec incompatibilities. “AS-03 narrows down the range of codecs, that can guarantee a level of interoperability. The market is adopting a small group of codecs, which is helping,” Gilmer said.

The AMWA is best known for developing standards such as AAF. The association has now partnered with the EBU on the Framework for Interoperable Media Services (FIMS) initiative, which incorporates service-oriented architectures (SOA). This seems a departure from the wrapper standards.

“I had always considered that standard file formats where necessary to build modern facilities, but they weren’t sufficient. To support file-based workflows you need to go above the wrapper and have systems that aid content to move through the systems from ingest to delivery,” Gilmer said. “The FIMS initiative is a layer above the wrapper, which allows you to have conversations on the network about what is going on in your facility; discover what services are out there to manipulate content; and to stop building stovepipe systems.”

A stovepipe system typically uses tightly bound components, often with custom interfaces. “Adapting to changes in a stovepipe system where equipment is hardwired together is very difficult,” he said. If you have a framework for interoperable systems, or if a CE vendor comes up with a new piece of silicon, then content can be repurposed for that platform without huge disruption to the existing systems.

There are no SOA standards for media services; however, there are standards for SOA operations in other sectors. The FIMS initiative is defining those media services. Will standards constrain the features a vendor can offer?

“A standard specifies a base level of interoperability, and companies can add functionality above that level,” Gilmer said. “The FIMS work is about establishing a framework, within which the interoperable services can exist, and this does not constrain those services. The gain from having a common framework is huge.”

Gilmer concluded, “FIMS is critical to enabling businesses; the point is to monetize content.”

Many of those working in the media complain that standards bodies take too long to complete their work. In Part 2 of this interview, Gilmer will talk about some recent moves within the AMWA to accelerate development.