Just about every broadcast engineer has had to deal with interoperability issues that crop up in the field—unexpected glitches and bugs that emerge when upgrading a piece of software or adding a board. And although such hardware and software upgrades might meet “industry specs,” specs are no guarantee of interoperability.
For a company like Harris, with a huge portfolio of products ranging from servers broadcast graphics and automation systems to multiviewers and even test and measurement equipment, maintaining and certifying interoperability, not just among its own products, but also with third-party manufacturers, has become a huge challenge.
To help the company determine interoperability issues before such issues pop up in the field, Harris recently opened a state-of-the-art $3 million interoperability lab in Toronto.
The 3,000-square-foot lab houses approximately 43 racks of equipment as well as a demo room and a conference room, all of it wired for 3 Gbps SDI. The lab will be used to test new versions of software from Harris and to help the company develop an interoperability guide for customers.
(click thumbnail)Harris graphic designer Mike Lanni sits at the Harris Interoperability Lab’s master control desk equipped with IconMaster master control, Nucleus control panel and Centrio multiviewer (all shown) to simulate any master control environment.SEVEN-YEAR SUPPORT
“Customers buy a lot of point products, so if there’s a new installation—there could be seven different vendors in there, all with different product roadmaps,” said Tim Thorsteinson, president of Harris Broadcast Communications. “And although there’s been a philosophy about ‘interoperable systems’ in the industry forever, that doesn’t mean that when you get into the real specifics, that our automation control and Evertz’s master control, down to every detail will work well together. Plus we have to be aware of the most recent release of software for that Evertz Master Control, so over time we plan to have all of the leading suppliers equipment in there.”
Thorsteinson estimated that the company gets a couple thousand service calls a week, and in the broadcast industry where product life cycles are a lot longer than in IT, for example. Harris supports its product base for at least seven years.
He explained that the “fix-it-in-the-field model” is expensive and ultimately undesirable.
“What invariably happens when the technician shows up on site is he says, ‘Oh my God, you’re still running version 7.3. I can’t believe that. We’ve moved beyond that,’” said Thorsteinson.
With an enormous installed base of products ranging from editing systems to transmission equipment, it’s easy to see how interoperability can become a big challenge. “The variations are incredible,” he said. “Let’s say you had 50 point products. Each of those is going to go through two or three software revisions a year, just maintaining the matrix of data is a big job.”
(click thumbnail)Gleb Butuzov, Interoperability System Engineer, adjusts settings on a Videotek TVM-950 on one of the 43 equipment racks in the Harris Interoperability Lab.BEYOND THE STANDARD
It’s a scenario that every broadcast engineer is familiar with going back to the old RS-232 standard, according to Stan Moote, vice president for corporate development at Harris Broadcast.
“You’d get RS-232, try to connect it, and before you know it, you need a switch box and a kludge box and every engineer has been through that aspect of it,” he said. “And of course it didn’t mean it didn’t meet the standard, it just meant it wasn’t interoperable.
The same thing can happen with software and control issues, Moote said. “Somebody changes a software revision on this piece of equipment, but it doesn’t work with this other piece of equipment,” he said. “The other thing that often happens is people put in software features that become dated and nobody uses them anymore… well, maybe there is somebody out there that is still using it.”
Initially, the lab is configured to emulate two different types of operations—a network and an affiliate station including all of the equipment from ingest to up to the transmitter. But the lab is designed to be quickly reconfigured to emulate any real-world scenario that emerges, including European-style operations based on 50 Hz or PAL.
On one side of the lab, the network operation features D-Series Automation, HD and SD play-out servers, master control and branding, up/down/ cross-conversion, ad insertion and traffic systems, as well as NetVX and fiber transmission to affiliates. It also features multiviewers and other infrastructure.
On the other side, the affiliate operation features NetVX and fiber reception of feeds, ADC automation, ingest into a digital asset management system, master control and branding, up/down/cross-conversion and graphics, as well as a server with editing to emulate a local news operation.
The company has hired former Corus Entertainment broadcast engineer Reagen Mitchell to serve as manager of interoperability and systems engineering, overseeing the lab.
RUNNING THE GAUNLET
Thorsteinson explained that his job will be to “pound on the system,” running various scenarios with the whole gauntlet of Harris products, as well as other manufacturers’ equipment.
“If we are going to have problems, we want to be able to catch it here first,” said Mitchell. “Interoperability issues come up a lot. So the idea is we’re going to create an interoperability guide that says ‘Version 11 of this will work with Version X of that.’”
He explained that the lab will be constantly changing and evolving as they change software versions, add new boards, and new pieces of hardware, and that while interoperability is the prime objective, the lab can also be used for training, presentations and demos, as well as serving as a test bed for product innovation.
Moote stressed that the lab is quite different from any of the integration labs or QA labs that the company runs in various locations around the world. While an integration lab might certify that product A works with product B for a specific requirement, the interoperability lab will look at systems as a whole identifying problem areas.
On the systems level, one key challenge that manufacturers and station engineers will soon be facing is working with the emerging Active Format Descriptor (AFD) standard, which defines how to display video of one aspect ratio on a display with a different aspect ratio, allowing broadcasters to define whether an image is cropped, stretched or squeezed to fit the screen.
“AFD is metadata that needs to move between systems, buried within the HD-SDI stream along with the data throughout the entire workflow,” explained Moote. “They’ve had a format in Europe for a number of years called Wide Screen Signalling and AFD is basically an enhanced version of that. The ATSC is making it part of the stream and the consumer manufacturers will be putting it in receivers and set-top boxes. AFD is a prime example of something new that we have to accommodate, and we’re focusing the lab more on new stuff rather than legacy equipment.”
He explained that even Harris’ Videotek test and measurement equipment will need to accommodate AFD in the near future. Other problem areas that the lab will be looking at include ANSI/SMPTE-259M, embedded audio and SNMP.
Moote explained that often, interoperability issues boil down to how different manufacturers interpret a SMPTE spec, and that within the specs themselves, there is more than enough flexibility to cause issues.