IT@NAB: The Computerization Of An Industry

There was a buzzword of NAB at year: “IT.” You couldn’t walk three feet through the convention center without hearing about the “IT revolution.” In fact, next to the ubiquitous NAB words “solution” and “turnkey” that term must have been repeated at the show more than any other. And there’s a reason for that. Manufacturers were coming to Vegas this year with actual products and (forgive me) complete solutions designed to turn broadcast centers and newsrooms into complete IT environments.
What they’re talking about is very different from just going digital or tapeless; it’s about re-shaping the broadcast industry to look like so many other businesses that are already completely data-centric. It’s about replacing an old way of working and thinking with a new one. It’s about supplanting an old culture. The ideas have been bandied about for some time—there are facilities out there that have made the switch—but to hear the manufacturers talk, this year is the start of a significantly wider expansion.
Those Computer Guys
Companies that used to live on the periphery of this industry are looking to relocate to a position dead center in this new paradigm. “If you consider the evolution IT had in other industries, “ said Luis Estrada, global offering executive, broadcasting & post-production industries, for IBM, explaining Big Blue’s presence at the show, “we are seeing the same sort of parallel happening now with broadcast and post production.”
The company, of course, has been heavily involved in creating storage infrastructure originally used for supercomputing simulations of the human genome or nuclear explosions. The broadcast environment has a lot of similarities, said Estrada, “so you can bring the technology that was built for supercomputing and achieve all the benefits in the television industry. The best part is you capitalize on the development of that investment. The cost of developing IT technologies can be spread out over many industries.”
This has always been good in theory, Estrada added, but it is only now becoming practical: “It is the capacity to handle video of a decent quality that has really made the difference. And that did not exist until very recently. The other key factor is that most vendors in the market always worked with proprietary formats. The use of standards—something that is [a] totally granted fact in every other industry—was not present in this industry. So even if you had an IT environment that could handle the content, you would still have to face the difference in formats.”
The industry’s embracing of the MXF file format for moving media around is a good indication that manufacturers, from both the broadcast engineering and the IT worlds, are past the old ways of thinking and moving toward a set of industry standards.
SGI was also positioning itself more predominantly at NAB with the idea of taking a share of this emerging market. “We’ve been an IT company forever,” said Jim Farney, senior marketing manager, SGI. “We haven’t been so much a broadcast company. But now IT is becoming a key component of the broadcast industry.”
During our discussion at SGI’s booth, he used his finger to create a sort of interest gauge to demonstrate the buzz over IT. “In the early fall of last year everybody was suspicious and the needle was here,” he said, his finger-gauge pointed all the way to the left. “Then I went to the Broadcast News Summit in the early winter and the needle was over here,”—his finger at high noon—“Every single person there talked about IT in relation to any upgrade they intended to do. But there was still some concern.” Then his gauge pointed all the way to the right to signify interest at NAB. “Now the needle is here. Six months ago I was evangelizing this stuff. Now people are evangelizing me. I can’t believe that anyone is going to build a broadcast environment ever again that isn’t data-centric.”
There are just too many cost advantages, he elaborated. When stations are able to use commodity hardware and a shared file system like MFX, it just makes no sense, he said, to think any other way. “With MFX you can have applications that run on Irix, any of the Windows, 32- and 64-bit Linux, or Mac’s OS X and interconnect them seamlessly. That is why SGI is so involved in implementing MFX in its various offerings.”
Take archiving media, for instance: “Today, there are newsrooms where you can go in and do a word search for a clip, click on it, and up it comes in the browser and you can access the media for editing or broadcast or whatever you want. When I started out in the news business we had a thing called the ‘tin hut’ with all these 16mm films, and later 3/4-inch tapes, and you’d spend an afternoon in there. Maybe you found what you needed and maybe you didn’t. This is the direction the whole industry is going and SGI is perfectly positioned to help take it there.”
Ditto Cisco Systems. “We hope there is a natural tendency to consider Cisco for anything which is IT,” said Kittur Nagesh, practice lead at Cisco. “IT is our legacy.” Last fall, he explained, the company created a vertical, which he now heads up, with the charter to expand the company’s core business further in the broadcast and entertainment industries. “There is a lot happening right now,” he said. “Companies are digitizing and repurposing content for all kinds of new applications, cell phone, computers, and other media. The workflow is going to be different. The tools are going to be different.”
Rather than media that exists as we know it today, he said, the industry will soon be about “silos of storage and management of massive amounts of data. The future of the industry is about networking, digital rights management, and scaling. This is a very important time for a company like Cisco to get involved.”
Those Television Guys
This is certainly not to say that the traditional kings of NAB, companies like Panasonic, Sony, or Thomson Grass Valley have any intention of throwing in the towel. Manufacturers with a history firmly planted in this industry stress that there are challenges unique to broadcasting that they’ve dealt with for decades. In TV, the server cannot go down. Channel 7 cannot be “under construction.” In broadcasting, seconds matter. Frames matter. A few minutes of downtime can spell disaster.
“In many IT environments reliability of 99.99% is perfectly acceptable whether that means there is a problem that happens once a week or a glitch that occurs every ten seconds,” said Steve Mahrer, director of product engineering for Panasonic’s Broadcast and Television Systems division. “That is not the same for broadcasting. A problem once a week is bad enough, but every few seconds is unacceptable. There’s a paradigm shift for the IT world.”
“Mass change in any environment is usually quite difficult,” he added, but he intends to see Panasonic front and center in the IT revolution. “DVCPRO,” he pointed out, “is a tape format and also a compression format and a file format. And that has opened up a lot of things in newsrooms using networking and servers. You can move files around transparently. You can have multiple access by many people at once from servers.”
Though Panasonic still rakes in cash from dedicated pieces of tape-based hardware, the company realizes the indisputable allure in IT-izing newsrooms and broadcast centers. “It’s the economies of scale when you’re talking about computers,” said Mahrer. “Rather than buying two VTRs, a switcher, and an audio board, now you can buy a computer at Sears and have it run DVCPRO 25. You can scale the system from laptop to multiple servers. You can’t argue with that.”
Ray Baldock, CTO of Thomson Broadcast and Media Solutions, agrees. “PCs are great because they’re cheap and provide a lot of flexibility,” he said. “But dedicated platforms are great because they’re closed and you can’t muck with them. It’s very easy to muck up a PC. A lot of that happens because there’s no control over upgrades and what software you put on it. People use their PCs for all sorts of things.”
So Thomson is offering systems to monitor what goes on within a network so the transition to IT doesn’t have to move a company toward anarchy. “The system looks for too much memory swapping, too much overload on the CPU,” said Baldock. “Say someone in the newsroom left a flight simulator open on his desktop. That takes up a huge amount of graphics memory and processor time. It’s important to be able to monitor what’s going on. The change is happening, but it’s important to manage the change.”
“The IT world has pros and cons like anything,” said Hugo Gaggioni, CTO, Sony Electronics. “If you were to employ an IT infrastructure without any consideration of broadcast requirements demanded by production people you’d find yourself in a lot of trouble. The beauty of the analog world of NTSC was you only had one type of signal. When you bring in an IT infrastructure and anything going on in the network can be any shape or form then you create a lot of opportunities for lack of compatibility for exchange of information.
“Sony,” he added, “participated aggressively and harmoniously in developing the MXF format, which has helped with that tremendously.”
No matter who you talked to at this year’s NAB, you got a sense that this is an important time of change as well as a lucrative time for any company equipped to help broadcasters make that transition. “Most people have finished their upgrade plans [to DTV],” Gaggioni said, “and so there’s money out there. That’s not just Sony’s perception. Many companies see that too and so we’re seeing mature products now that will make this shift to IT a reality.”
But, he added, it cannot happen overnight. “As much as we are pushing IT technologies and servers and all that, a very large population of our customers are still linear-based and tape-based and we cannot dictate that the end user migrate at our speed. If we continue to offer equipment they can use today with their mix of analog, old-fashioned digital, and IT digital then we can make a sale.
“Our customers have to be sure that they can undergo this transition but also stay on the air from one day to the next.”
Editor’s Note: Next month, the second part of our story will touch on this same subject from the perspective of those working in the broadcast industry.