For vendors, automation support is tough business

While virtually everyone extols the virtues of a software-based automation system, what’s less apparent are the costs associated with maintaining and upgrading that system during its lifetime. By its very nature, software needs to be updated as new versions come along and new features are added to an existing platform. Broadcasters spending thousands of dollars for such software-intensive systems are often surprised by the ongoing costs that are incurred for several years after the initial purchase.

The resulting frustration among broadcasters has made it difficult for manufacturers of such software systems to continue to invest R&D dollars while still realizing a profit. For one, Tim Thorsteinson, president of the Harris Broadcast Communications division, has openly admitted that the automation software business unit is among the more challenging areas he oversees. Thorsteinson attributes that to the burden of supporting software engineers to maintain software running on existing installations, while also requiring engineering support to develop new software and features.

“It has been a challenge to explain the need for ongoing software maintenance fees,” said Brian Cabeceiras, VP of strategic marketing and technology for Harris Broadcast Communications. “Clients who are accustomed to buying capital equipment and depreciating it don’t always understand that we are continually enhancing our automation software to account for changes in workflows.”

Noting that Harris currently supports thousands of broadcasters worldwide using its D-Series and ADC automation systems, Cabeceiras said history shows that there have been a number of smaller companies serving the automation space that tend to have a good first or second year, then drop off soon after.

“One of them will attract some new business; then they get crushed under the weight of the commitments they have to make to support those customers,” he said. “Harris supports thousands of devices that we must interface with, yet when customers get to NAB, they see new features on other systems and want them added to their system, without the loss of any current functionality. It can be very costly to do this on a continuing basis, but we have to remain committed to our customers … and we are.”

With the emergence of multichannel systems, it’s getting harder for vendors, because not only does an automation system have to talk to an individual device, but also it is increasingly integrated into an overall system. This means many areas of the production process are affected when a software upgrade is necessary.

“It’s no longer point-to-point products; it’s now smoothing out workflows across multiple channels,” Cabeceiras said. “No two customers are alike; they’re like snowflakes. That gets expensive for a vendor to maintain. Customers are always balancing operating expenses of these software-based platforms versus using human beings at X dollars per hour to do the job. The key is figuring out which one brings the most benefit for a station or facility.”

The issue that broadcasters need to understand is that they are not buying a single-task piece of equipment, like a VTR, that can be relied on to perform at a certain level and needs few upgrades. Cabeceiras said broadcasters usually don’t plan for the additional cost associated with software maintenance over a system’s lifecycle.

System integrators also discuss the software maintenance issue with their clients. John Footen, director of software systems engineering at National TeleConsultants — a design, engineering and systems integration company that installs automation systems — said that the industry has to have a shift in mentality about software maintenance and how it’s dealt with in service contracts. He said that automation customers should expect to pay 10 percent of original system cost per year for maintenance.

Service contracts should be closely evaluated and software maintenance included as an integral part of that. In addition, broadcasters should adjust the architectures of their systems so they can more readily replace software without too much difficulty.

“Software-based systems are clearly what we need in order to execute the business models our clients now pursue,” Footen said. “The high prices associated with that are going to be the norm for a long time; however, I’m not convinced that the cost is prohibitive, especially when you look at the benefits an automation system provides. Software allows broadcasters to be more agile in how they build out their systems and what that system can accomplish.”

National TeleConsultants has been encouraging the use of service-oriented architectures that tie together all of the different proprietary software systems (e.g. asset management islands) yet keeps them separate when addressing maintenance. The key is to do so in a way that gives users better control over the process.

“We try to make our customers understand the full ROI of a system before they install it,” Footen said. “You have to look down the road at where you want to go and how you want to get there. There’s a cost associated with that.”

Going forward, automation software will become more of a networked tool that will be embedded into a product closely associated with a specific task as opposed to automating an entire workflow. Metadata will have a big role in making that possible. This trend is a move away from what automation has traditionally been — a tool to assist master control operators.

When determining the CapEX for an automation system, broadcasters should provision for the changing way they will use a system in the future. As broadcasters’ workflows change, the products will change. So for users, that means new software about every 15 months.