This week, Rick Stora, product manager at Sundance Digital, describes the development of the Broadcast eXchange Format (BXF) and how a system was installed not long after the standard was ratified by the SMPTE.
In April 2004, a group of traffic and automation vendors banded together to work toward the greater good. Clients were asking for a messaging system that would advance communication of the metadata running the daily broadcast workflow. Every major piece of information, from dub orders to whole program descriptions and daily logs, were ripe for improvement with nearly every application working with a proprietary format — some invented as far back as the 1970s. The vendors formed the ad hoc group to answer the call.
Along the way, the group determined that organizing under a standards body would be the best course of action, and the SMPTE was the best choice; thus, the SMPTE 2010 standard project was born. Sundance Digital was a founding member of this committee that would eventually comprise more than 140 companies. Rather than risk another era of proprietary solutions, the committee decided to formalize the standard under a marketable name and dubbed it “BXF” – the Broadcast eXchange Format.
The basic scope of the standard is straightforward:
- Improve the broadcast workflow by developing an automated messaging system to replace the current practice.
- Use XML as the format for the messages.
- Establish a standard that a wide variety of application vendors could use without resorting to proprietary methods.
The first step — developing a data dictionary — took a full year to organize and gain consensus. The XML schema took another 18 months to develop. Documentation, architecture, schema and security issues were developed in parallel by subgroups. The SMPTE approval procedures took nearly another year. The body of work was formally voted a standard on April 1, 2008.
Sundance Digital development
Sundance Digital determined that a data gateway was the best approach to implement the standard. We developed the BXF Gateway to solve a number of challenges:
- A solution to allow secure messaging between diverse networks
- A single target and repository for the six separate Sundance applications that receive or generate messages
- A means to deliver security functions, XML validation, parsing and routing services
As the SMPTE standard was taking shape, Sundance Digital simultaneously worked on its own implementation. We completed the BXF Gateway when it was clear that the standard had progressed past the point of any serious architectural changes. When the standard had reached the approval process, Sundance evaluated its customer base for potential beta sites.
WJCT, the PBS station in Jacksonville, FL, was the ideal choice. Bob Culkeen, VP of technical operations, and Duane Smith, chief engineer, expressed great interest in the project. WJCT has an extremely strong technical and operational environment with traffic, operations and engineering staffs all in the same department.
Their traffic software is Protrack from Myers Information Systems, a vendor with whom Sundance Digital has a long, productive relationship. Michael Boylan, the SVP/general manager gave both vendors and his staff his full and attentive support. When the code was locked on April first, we scheduled the installation date for June 2, 2008.
Myers was able to upgrade its software remotely in preparation of the installation The Sundance upgrades would have to wait until we got on-site. Meanwhile, Sundance exchanged countless phone calls and e-mails with Smith and shipped him the BXF Gateway computer.
A single field technician normally facilitates Sundance Digital installations, but this time we also sent our primary developer and me, the product manager. Myers sent in their lead developer. We upgraded our Titan Automation package, List Processor and prep software and installed the BXF Gateway software. Myers touched up its upgrades to the traffic system.
We worked our way through the primary drive mapping and Web service configurations. Tests were conducted on basic IP traffic through the WJCT system and users were assigned.
During the afternoon, I conducted meetings with both the station managers and the operations/traffic/engineering staff to explain the benefits of the system and discuss the impact that it would have on their workflow.
Working with WJCT’s engineering staff, the Sundance and Myers developers set up data communications through the WJCT IT system. Master control operators were trained on new features of the Sundance Digital applications, while Myers trained the traffic operators on BXF-specific features of Protrack. We stepped through the system with specific test messages (doing the easiest ones first, of course).
The remainder of the day was spent fine-tuning the configuration of the BXF Gateway and setting up the specific connections required to allow the traffic and automation systems to interact.
On the third day, we began generating message examples from the traffic system, stepping through all the appropriate types. This is when we discovered our first snag in the implementation: The satellite record orders were not processing correctly.
WJCT had a specific requirement relating to a legacy practice in naming their receivers and satellite transponders. Up to this point, we had used only the XML fields that are available in the standard BXF code. Debate ensued about whether to use the private data function to solve this particular problem. Various solutions were considered throughout the day without resolution.
The fourth day was test day for messaging from automation to traffic and the sensitive routines for automated processing of traffic logs. Here we found another snag — a problem with the Sundance functionality. The Media Prep software version that we installed was configured to only process traffic logs manually instead of the automated routines enabled by BXF. We conducted a conference call with the Sundance development group to discuss setting adjustments, only to find that they were omitted from the current build. Together, we created a timetable to work within and correct this feature.
Meanwhile, we tested the remaining messages, running all tasks through the WJCT Protrack and Sundance Digital systems. Everything else worked as designed. We also tested some alternative configuration options in the gateway to fine-tune them for faster XML file delivery and improved security.
Our developer trained the WJCT engineering staff on configuration and log interpretation. He covered normal operation, how to read error codes and where to find the transaction logs and archived files.
Back in Dallas, the Sundance development team continued working on the missing feature and testing the results.
The developer from Myers headed home with a full notebook and some ideas regarding the satellite messaging issue.
With all other issues covered, we installed a fresh version of Media Prep from our developers in Dallas. Only one application required modification. We tested the implementation, and it worked fine.
Finally, we turned the system over to the WJCT staff and covered all remaining operational issues. We demonstrated all the automated messages on the system and pointed out the resultant effects. Everyone watched full runs of the log processing routines.
One of the most interesting and valuable consequences of conducting a beta installation is to learn “what you don’t know”. We were pleased that the process went so smoothly and the technology worked as designed. Discovering a couple of snags is par for the course, but a good working relationship with the staff at the site and careful planning makes those issues more useful and less fatal. We resolved the satellite issue remotely in the week following the installation. We will continue our regular communication with WJCT to uncover new issues and ways to improve our product. Work continues on the SMPTE committees (for recommended practices and version 2 development). These advantageous solutions will certainly find their way into general industry practice.