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Corporate vs. production IT

There is an old saying that goes something like: With age comes wisdom. Actually, with age comes age — plus a lot of experience.

When I started in this industry, the great broadcast equipment companies were mainly American, with a few Europeans also thrown into the mix. That was when equipment was all about analog hardware, a business where one of the critical keys to success was manufacturing prowess. Then, Japanese influence brought high-quality, low-cost manufacturing combined with innovative designs, slick, intuitive user controls and ease of operation. Soon, the likes of RCA and Ampex were history, and upstarts Sony and Panasonic entered their broadcast heydays.

A digital Trojan horse

Unwittingly, the Japanese companies also sowed the seeds of their own downfall. As they developed even more technologically advanced products, they eventually introduced digital technology and formats. Digital technology proved to be a Trojan horse that allowed marketplace leadership to move back across the oceans and allow a mostly new crop of North American and European companies to again take the preeminent marketplace position.

Digital technology introduced a new competence into the mix: software development. At the time, the distinctive competence of those market-leading Japanese companies was in manufacturing. It wasn't long, however, before some hardware functionality gave way to instruction sets embedded into upgradable firmware and software. Software development, where North America and Europe excelled, became the key driver.

The new driver opened opportunity for many new companies to not only enter the market, but to become highly successful in the newly-found enterprise. A common misconception at the time was that the Japanese could not develop software because of logic flow differences between Occidental and Oriental thought processes.

While some still maintain the erred thought, the reality then was that upgradable, software-defined products were an anathema to both a business infrastructure heavily invested in people and capital equipment assets necessary for high-volume manufacturing, and to a box-sale business strategy dependent upon sales of new and replacement boxes. So, rather than leveraging and advantaging the seeds of the technology they introduced, the Japanese companies went into denial and created their own version of Steve Jobs' “reality distortion field” in a doomed attempt to protect their manufacturing investment.

As digital technology evolved, it enabled a new realm of software-defined architecture, from products and applications to systems and infrastructure. Coupled with this, and thanks to Mr. Moore's Law, ever-increasing computing power took products from non-real time, to real time and even faster video processing. Once real time and faster-than-real-time proved viable, files and the new broadcast and production construct of file-based workflows and systems architecture took off.

With downsizing and staff consolidations a problem during this period, the technology revolution's speed left traditional video engineering staffs scrambling through a decade of playing catch-up, setting up the perfect storm.

With an attitude of, “Gee, it's just a file; we know how to handle files,” enter corporate IT. Thus, the advent of file-based systems led to the entry of corporate IT — where trouble desk response delays and staring at hourglass icons were completely acceptable — into video network domains where a pause in data flow meant a dark screen.

While data streams and networks may be common denominators, deliverables, service level requirements and systems architectures are hugely different between production and corporate IT. Today's production facilities and broadcast networks continually seek, to greater advantage, efficiencies and capabilities that file-based video networks can deliver. And, therein lies a danger.

In this era of outsourcing, consultants and internal IT department involvement, a thorough understanding of production IT in relation to corporate IT is essential to ensuring success of these expanding and complex projects.

Follow-up footnote

Regular readers may recall my December 2011 column on Emmy award-winning ABC Network engineer Steve Mendelsohn. I am sad to report Steve has lost his valiant struggle against pancreatic cancer. But, a fighter to the end, he bested doctors' prognostications by a year.

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

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