Software-defined production is not a new idea, but it's catching on fast.
The real value of a software-defined production system like Grass Valley's iTX is fewer moving parts. A number of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA)-type software platforms, from companies like Avid (Avid Everywhere), Dalet (Media Life), Grass Valley (Stratus), Sony (Media Backbone), and others are now available to help broadcasters and production companies streamline their content creation and distribution operations by providing "task-specific" software tools under a single common interface.
These production platforms include an underlying orchestration layer or application framework upon which customers can add different modules (transcoding, logging, editing, playout, etc.) built for video production and distribution. But is this a "new" idea? Interestingly, these platforms are strikingly similar to the iTX intelligent transmission software platform, which was introduced by an automation company called OmniBus in 2006 to redefine playout applications. It's safe to say iTX was a bit ahead of its time.
"When we first launched iTX, many people were very skeptical that it would ever be suitable for primetime playout and we certainly didn't make many friends with hardware manufacturers," said Ian Fletcher, the man who first developed the idea of "software-defined workflows" and current CTO at Grass Valley (a Belden company). "However, now everyone has realized that the integrated playout channel is the only viable way forward and virtually all automation vendors and most server vendors now have at least some level of integrated solution."
Of course, this software-centric strategy has also driven a M&A frenzy in the marketplace (there have been more than a dozen acquisitions in this industry since January), as hardware vendors recognize the complexities of automation and the huge amount of domain knowledge required to put such a platform together. According to Fletcher, it's sometimes more cost-effective to buy companies rather than trying to build the technology from scratch.
"iTX was always much more than just playout and, even today, many people don't realize this," he said. "We have always felt that the future of playout was increasingly around the workflow and orchestration required to deliver content in many different formats to many different platforms."
Grass Valley CTO Ian Fletcher has seen SEO-style platforms gain favor over the years. Interestingly, when Omnibus first launched iTX, the company thought that the initial early adopters would be small, low-revenue channels. However, right from the start iTX was adopted by many of the world's largest broadcasters "because they had the most to gain from the business benefits it provided," Fletcher said. "Whilst this has given us some challenges, it has also enabled us to deliver a rich feature set that meets the requirements of these most demanding of customers. And we continue to develop this, particularly in the areas around the production of VOD content and catch-up TV, as part of an integrated transmission workflow."
Basically, the real value of a software-defined production system is fewer moving parts. Clearly, if you are removing 6 or 7 discrete devices from different vendors and replacing them with a single, integrated solution, you have reduced potential points of failure and lower maintenance costs. The other major advantage is the agility of software systems. When new codecs or formats, such as 4K, come along, it is much faster to bring those to market as part of a software system.
"Of course no piece of software is infallible and so it is important that your system is designed to cope with potential failure," Fletcher said. "The advantage of the reduced cost of software systems means that it is a lot more financially viable to maintain completely redundant transmission chains. Broadcasters also need to treat their IT networks with increased vigilance, both in design and maintenance, as they become part of mission-critical transmission systems."
However, does hardware processing need to get faster and more powerful to keep up with what broadcasters need to do?
"You can never have enough processing power," Fletcher said. "As Moore's Law has continued to serve us so well over these years, the software systems simply expand in scope and complexity to soak up that additional power. When we first launched iTX the available computing power was just about sufficient to manage a stream of HD. Now we are doing many channels of HD, advanced 3D graphics, up and down conversion with high quality de-interlacing and advanced audio processing all on a single server. And now we have to do it all again in 4K!"
Looking at the implementation issues surrounding software-defined networks, Fletcher said customers should be less concerned about technical issues and far more about business re-engineering.
"A straight swap of a traditional transmission chain for an IT-based transmission chain isn't going to fundamentally change your business," he said. "Most of the major projects we work on are broadcasters re-designing the way they acquire, manage and distribute content. This is more of a classic business process change challenge than a technical one because, in order to design your new workflows, you first have to understand what you do today. You would be amazed how many broadcasters don't understand this until we force them to sit down and think about it."