Migrating a video library is worth the cost

For companies that offer digitizing services that convert a stack of aging videotapes into a compact digital video file server, the toughest problem is getting station management to understand the value of their assets and spend money accordingly.

“There are a lot of great assets out there but they’re just going to waste on a shelf because people have decided it’s just not cost-effective to [convert them to digital files],” said Tyler Purcell, senior engineer in charge of research and development at Alteran Technologies. Located in Chatsworth, CA, Alteran has been working with stations to transfer old material on a variety of analog and digital formats to a database that is controlled by asset management software.

“Thousands of 3/4in tapes are dying every day,” he said. “When they go, you can’t get the material back. Now is the time to take a hard look at what you have and how it can bring extra value to your business.”

By extra value, he’s not necessarily talking about repurposing because that too can cost money to get right. Companies in the category (like Alteran Technologies and SAMMA Systems) often cite the ability to repurpose old footage, but Purcell said stations have to establish a multilevel asset management workflow that could include Web developers and other staff to maintain it. So, repurposing should not be the only reason to digitize your footage.

Once stations decide to convert their tape libraries, it’s also important to pick the right storage medium. As everyone migrates to a file-based world, LTO-5 tape continues to be the most stable medium for long-term storage. Nearline storage content is used more often and can be stored on RAID-protected disk arrays.

“The great thing about LTO-5 tapes is that we get many hours on a single 1.5TB tape, which keeps the size of libraries down and makes it easier to find content because I’m searching through fewer tapes,” Purcell said.

Many media companies use a system whereby every year or two they just copy that information from one LTO tape to a newer tape, and repeat the process over the years. This retains quality and gives content owners a digital copy that will last for many years.

“It’s not a medium that lasts forever, but it’s the best we have for now,” he said.

Having content stored as a digital file also enables the owner to use an asset management system to do a quick cuts-only version, then automatically send the XML file to an Avid or Final Cut Pro system, where the editor can take those rough cuts and quickly create just a small portion of a larger file when necessary. The edit system then reads the required full-resolution data from the master tape without having to physically go get it.

Optical discs (Blu-ray at 50GB) are another good short-term solution, but Purcell said the problem is that they take a long time to write to. In comparison, LTO-5 provides 1.5TB per cassette and takes the same amount of time to write the data to it, so why not go with a format that provides more content per piece of media.

The one format Purcell advises against, although it is less costly to maintain, is portable hard disk drives. While the technology certainly has improved over the past few years — and capacities have skyrocketed — hard drives require a lot of maintenance to keep the stored data usable.

“What used to happen was that drives of 10 years or more would not spin anymore, so you couldn’t access the information on the drive,” Purcell said. “Users would have to constantly play that drive or read the material every few months in order for it to remain viable. Even if you store the hard drive correctly, the lubrication in the drive still tends to freeze up over time.”

Firewire/USB drives also have many issues with power supplies slowing up drives to Firewire ports blowing up a computer. So Purcell’s recommendation to anyone that wants cheap portable storage: Don’t use a Firewire standard. E-SATA formats are a lot better — the data throughput is a lot faster, so workflows run smoother. He suggested a four-drive array (RAID-5), where one of the drives is used for parity.

For most content conversion jobs, Alteran offers digitizing services where they’ll bring their integrated ViTaDi product suite to a station for rent (or long-term lease) and spend about a week ingesting existing tapes into a digital file system. The equipment consists of a flypack case with a portable ingest system (computers, Telestream Pipeline encoder and monitors). The ViTaDi flagship suite is used to capture, transcode and deliver video in multiple video/audio file formats to media servers, digital archives and asset management systems.

Files can be stored as DVCPro (50Mb/s), ProRes 422 (80Mb/s), MPEG-2 (50Mb/s) and other formats like MXF and IMX. Many clients also want uncompressed files, which offer a reduced compression ratio (1:1) and a higher perceived quality, according to Purcell.

Alteran’s engineers will do a three-part evaluation onsite to determine where the tapes are and what they contain. Betacam tapes can use Alteran’s robot system (the ViTaDi-RoboPack, with four VTRs, accommodating up to 80 tapes at a single pass), while non-Betacam tapes require Alteran’s semi-manual loader. Alteran supplies the decks to keep the quality of the copy at the highest level. The worst, Purcell said, is the 3/4in format. Unless the source machine is perfect, the tapes do not play back accurately.

In most cases, stations have found that the most useful archive is one configured as a combination of nearline (disc arrays) and long-term (LTO-5 tape) storage technologies.

“My biggest problem is getting people to understand that their assets are worth digitizing and saving for the future,” Purcell said. “Some just digitize select tapes, but doing it piece-meal usually winds up costing more in the long run. Remember, once the tape breaks down, it’s gone forever.”