The Opportunities for Virtualized Playout

NEW YORK—Virtualization first emerged in the 1960s and was based on the model of creating a computing environment where independent applications and/or services could appear to utilize the same server when in actuality it was more of a timeshare-based solution. Today the virtualization of servers and networks as cloud-based solutions allows broadcasters to take advantage of new automation systems, content channels and distribution.

More importantly this can all be done in a purely software environment as well, but there are still challenges that lay ahead.

Ian Fletcher, CTO, Grass Valley

“One of the first challenges is to simply determine what virtualization is, as it can mean different things to different people,” said Ian Fletcher, CTO for Grass Valley in Montreal. “One part of it is an IP-based solution running on a VMware system, which has been in place for more than 10 years.”

In the past decade it has become apparent that software-based applications have advantages over traditional hardware systems, but it is important for broadcasters to have the right architecture in place to support this shift to virtualization.

“Some are still learning this, and we are in an interesting time when economics are forcing broadcasters to think differently,” added Fletcher. “We are still in the transition of software-based playout, and as a result many users may skip a generation and go straight to the cloud.”

Then there are those who are taking a slower transition, and may not be ready to jump to a cloud-based solution. In the near term this could have advantages.

“It probably has not escaped anyone’s attention that the majority of hardware-based playout solutions are, in fact, software solutions running on vendor-provided hardware,” said Andrew Warman, director of production and playout strategy and market development at Harmonic in San Jose, Calif. “This works well because the vendor gains agility from developing features in software that can quickly be tested and rolled out, running on a predefined hardware platform that guarantees a fixed level of performance. The end user gets a known quality with quantifiable capabilities that can be deployed and will perform to a set level of performance for years to come.”

This move to virtualization, whether virtual machines, software running on bare metal and/or private or public cloud could also enable the use of software for a similar level of agility, decoupled from the hardware.

“This means that broadcasters and content creators can choose if they want control over the hardware or absolve themselves entirely of the management and maintenance of it,” Warman added.

Virtualization could further create an elastic relationship between demand and resources by enabling media companies to instantly provision the resources to accommodate spikes in workload. Media companies could then re-provision those resources to meet a new demand, before de-provisioning to save on costs.

Brick Eksten, chief product officer for playout, networking and distribution, Imagine Communications

“Severing dependency of purpose-built hardware creates the opportunity for tremendous benefits in the areas of agility, flexibility and cost-efficiencies across the entire media creation and delivery chain,” explained Brick Eksten, chief product officer for playout, networking and distribution at Imagine Communications in Dallas. “A few of the obvious and immediate advantages of running software on commercial-off-the-shelf [COTS] equipment, in addition to tapping into the economies of scale and continuous improvements in processing power of the IT industry, are the ability to precisely match demand to available resources, portability and speed to market.”

While there are cost savings that can come with the adoption of virtualization, these are not the primary reason why broadcasters are considering it, but it does provide an added benefit.

“In the past broadcasters were prepared to pay 100 percent of the price for a product where they used 60 percent of the features 40 percent of the time,” said Ciaran Doran, executive vice president at Pixel Power in the U.K. Instead, a virtualized platform can provide the broadcaster to specify, with deep granularity, the feature sets they use and only charge them when they use them, according to Doran.

“This is a massive change in concept from today,” he added. “The technical and operational side of broadcasters love the idea as it means they can get down deep on the exact feature sets they need and quickly turn on other feature sets for short bursts when they need.”

Karl Mehring, director of playout and delivery at Snell Advanced Media

This transition away from hardware systems could also allow customers to better and more efficiently utilize resources, deploying these where needed and avoiding the need to have systems sitting unused.

“The main advantage that software systems deliver is the ability to accommodate busy workflows, so you can scale up for peak demand and then once the demand subsides, that standard IT kit can be repurposed for other functions,” said Karl Mehring, director of playout and delivery at Snell Advanced Media in Newbury, U.K.

“When you have all your content on a single consolidated platform, and one storage location so you don’t have to keep moving it around, it makes it much easier to push material out to different platforms—whether that is OTT or mobile,” Mehring said. “A lot of the savings are operational rather than pure cost savings as a virtualized environment allows you to have better, more automated workflows in place. However, while it flattens the cost out over time, it shouldn’t be assumed that replacing an appliance with focused compute or FPGAs is cheaper than bespoke hardware in the short-term.”

Even with the move to virtualization, it won’t signal the complete end of hardware-based systems. At least not in the near term, and most vendors would agree that hardware and software will co-exist.

Ciaran Doran, executive vice president at Pixel Power

“Hardware will be with us for a long time to come,” said Warman. “There are other factors, such as the use of uncompressed IP, interconnection of best-of-breed solutions, control systems and other equipment that are currently better suited to hardware. That said, the use of virtualized playout systems is rising and continues to gain traction in scheduled playout environments.”

Location may also play a role as well, as in many parts of the world, SDI playout remains the norm, noted Doran. “As with anything, it’s not useful to move the technology base simply because the technology is new; it has to make sense either financially or creatively,” he said.

The end game for virtualization shouldn’t simply be seen as the elimination of hardware systems. “The goal is to find the most efficient solution for a given workload as defined by the customers’ requirements and that means that in some instances we will definitely need hardware for some time to come,” said Eksten. “One thing we can count on is that the broader enterprise community will continue to drive innovation in CPU capacity and network speed, which in turn will drive down costs and create more opportunity to scale services. Aligning the broadcast industry to those trends will drive undeniable benefits for all of those who would buy into that strategy.”