Tape still strong despite advances of IT broadcast architecture

Read or talk to some industry pundits and you'd think tape is breathing its last, ready to expire in nearly every aspect of the production and distribution cycle.

After all, solid state, computer cartridges and optical discs are the sleek acquisition formats that dominate the news. In production and playout servers, file-based workflows abound. As far as distribution, the scales have finally tipped in favor of DVD players versus VCRs in homes across the country as the DVD overtakes VHS tapes.

But before people start contemplating tape's epitaph, they'd do well to remember HD and its high data rates, according to Jim Hegadorn, director of technical services for Fujifilm Recording Media. Whether you call it videotape or data tape, it's still magnetic tape, and that's at least seven to 10 times less expensive than disk as a storage medium, he said.

HD Technology Update: What demands does HD place on broadcasters and other content owners in terms of archiving and retrieving?

Jim Hegadorn: Well, No. 1, they are certainly going to have to understand that they are going to need expanded storage capacity, depending on the strategies they use in handling all of that content. They need to understand how they intend to use it and what their long-term strategy is for dealing with those assets — whether they store them themselves or go outside and use a third-party partner to run their storage for them.

HDTU: Are different types of storage appropriate for various areas in the workflow?

JH: The technology has moved to a point where everything is staying somewhat closer to a pure electronic form as opposed to being stored on a physical media and needing to be carried around via Sneakernet.

So, if you are working on something in a facility and there's a daily or hourly demand for that content and a lot of people working on it, generally this type of information stays within a server environment, backed up regularly onto hard drives. As a project nears completion, then the strategy is 'What do I do with this content? What do I do with the finished product and all of the finished elements I've created? And how will I need those elements in the future?'

Generally, that's where disc/tape storage comes into play. I use disc for a 60-day window, during which I may need to go back and refer to it. Some portion of it will reside on a disc closer to the circuits of the work environment, and maybe all of the pieces that came into play while putting this together would go into archive.

HDTU: Are you talking about data tape?

JH: We are talking about data tape. But, it's been our experience that when we talk to people working in video about this IT infrastructure and workflow, they are still a little afraid of it and not sure what direction it is going to take. Some of the larger content owners have taken some bold steps with strategies employing that type of architecture.

A lot of people are still going back to a video format because they feel comfortable with that.

HDTU: Why would they feel more comfortable with videotape as opposed to data tape?

JH: Once you get into that IT infrastructure, there are niche applications where you could go to data tape simply or a data storage area simply and that would make it a comfortable way to store it and retrieve it, which is closer to a traditional videotape workflow.

Once you get into the IT infrastructure, you're dealing with offsite storage, servers, multiple modes — all of these different technologies where your physical media no longer exists. Your art and project are not at arm's length sitting on a shelf someplace. It exists in this netherworld of file systems.

I think from a workflow point of view that there are some people who are basically uncomfortable with that end result where their content is going to reside.

HDTU: How would you quantify those who are uncomfortable? Is it a majority or minority?

JH: I'd feel comfortable saying it's about 50-50. I don't think there is an overwhelming majority leaning in either direction at this point because a lot of the larger players are taking steps. Some of them are baby steps, some of them bit off a big project with a learning curve and quite a few headaches. Having to relinquish the responsibilities for the traditional video facility and that workflow and the engineers who operate it to an IT environment and an IT-like department causes some reluctance.

A couple of our largest customers have taken those steps and have integrated both a digital video facility with an IT storage workflow and architecture.

HD: Where does data tape fit in the whole range of storage solutions on a dollar per megabyte basis?

JH: The rule of thumb has always been that there's between a 10:1 and 7:1 relationship in cost, with tape being more cost effective than disk. Although disk continues to advance in terms of capacity and speed, it's not really catching up in cost, and there are a lot of reasons for that.

I think I find when I talk to people that they say hard drive is where it's going to be. On the surface, that is absolutely true. We are seeing a lot more hard drives being used as an intermediate resting place for your content in these new workflows.

But, the end result is your finished piece and where that is going to reside. It's not going to reside on a spinning platter anywhere. It is going to reside on a tape medium some place deep in the background.

HD: Some industry pundits have forecast a rather imminent demise for tape. How would you assess videotape today?

JH: We still believe magnetic media has a long life left in this industry in one form or another. So, instead of calling it videotape, let's call it magnetic media to start.

Even though there have been some inroads by other technologies with acquisition, the majority of acquisition is done on tape. That is slowly changing, but I don't think you're going to see the majority on alternative media anytime soon.

If you look inside the facilities after the images are acquired, what's going on? The majority is coming in the form of a file-based architecture or MPEG-2 or something else that servers are handling instead of tapes. People are running tapes around creating master tapes, and creating master files prior to whatever distribution strategies they are going to employ.

Archival, again, we feel is going to be tape-based for the foreseeable future — and of course, physical media and distribution.

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