Channel in a box or discrete components?

There is much debate around the merits of the channel-in-a-box versus the traditional solution for playout automation. Each side has its proponents, but Pebble Beach takes a more flexible approach, with products that support both architectures. Broadcasters’ requirements vary widely, so it’s no surprise that “one-size fits all” approach does not necessarily provide the best solution for all applications.

Tom Gittins, Sales Director at Pebble Beach, cited the example of a Los Angeles station he had just visited where a prime time 30-second spot sells for $1 million. Clearly, this station has a different requirement from a cable channel with an audience of a few thousand.

The channel-in-a-box (CiB) or Integrated channel device has become very popular for all manners of channels, and there is no doubt that the CiB offers simplicity and a low price. Yet, there still remains a strong market for the more traditional approach with video server ports feeding a master control switcher (with possibly graphics devices downstream).

There are two factors which lead broadcasters to stick with the traditional solution. First, they may want to add channels to an existing system, so sticking with the existing video server system is less disruptive. Maintenance, spares inventory, operations — they are all easier with one system to run.

Prime networks run complex junctions to support their channel branding an promotions. Snipes, data driven end-boards and all manners of eye-catching graphics add up to high demands on the processors.

There is an argument for separate video servers, switching and graphics. Each system can be optimized for one process, and the chance of running out of realtime resources is minimal. One only has to watch CiB systems in action, and the odd hiccup is visible on screen.

“Time will tell,” Gittens said, “if integrated solutions are reliable enough for support of prime channel playout.”

“It may be that an integrated channel device better suites the purpose for lower revenue channel, disaster recovery or opt-out channels. We think there is a role for both.

“Even looking at the channel in a box systems out there (in the market) they are not all the same, they have different capabilities: SD or HD support, different graphics capability, etc.”

Gittins believes that stress tests are vital to establish the limits of the channel-in-a-box. “It’s not just graphics capability, how many channels, what bit rates, do you need mixed timelines, with up and down conversion? Are graphics 2D or 3-D, are they animated? Do you need a DVE? Are you supporting additional audio tracks?”

“At Pebble Beach we look at each customer as a case-by-case basis. We want to understand how many of these operations are to be performed simultaneously. Networks and state broadcasters still go for proven discrete solutions.”

It is clear that the optimum solution for a green field site is going to be different from adding a sub-channel to an existing system. So perhaps the answer is not just moving to the latest technology just because its there. There are other factors, up-time, interoperability with the rest of the operations — the business should drive decisions, not the technology.

Perhaps there is a warning here. Benchmark your channel before upgrading or renewing playout systems. And look forward. You may have 2D graphics now, but what if the channel marketing department want to move to a new 3-D look, will the system you are buying extend, or will you have to retrofit additional equipment to meet that demand?

There is a very wide choice out there, CiB solutions based around Matrox cards, or just using raw CPU horsepower. And there are some powerful discrete graphics solutions that will support whatever graphic designers can dream up. Video servers are evolving, just as storage as a whole embrace new drive technologies, SSD, SAS and SATA, and storage networks increase in capacity to handle higher transfer rates. It looks like discrete and CiB are going to coexist for some years to come.