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Convergence—The Wave of the Future

Media management technologies supporting content creation and delivery have seen dramatic changes over the past five years, the most obvious being the migration from dedicated purpose-built hardware to flexible software-based systems. IT continues to play a key role in facilitating this change, a fact we expect to persistently increase as the needs for new services grow and the time to deploy those services shrinks.

Hardware-based systems, once primary components in many media systems, are fading, giving way to the convergence of IT-based components on network-centric architectures. The convergence is leading to faster times to market and less-costly efforts to adjust when changes in or new services are needed.

One reason for the move away from hardware-based systems is development time. In the past, developing a new product could take years from concept to first release. If the products were built on new technologies, it would take enormous efforts to develop, test and release those systems to the industry. When those products required integration with third-party components, it could easily take another year or more for entire systems to reach maturity and be accepted by mainstream users. By that time, the industry’s need for the product could have changed substantially or even been replaced by a competing technology offering a better solution for less cost.

As solutions shift from purpose-built dedicated hardware to hybridized server and software-oriented systems, new and more programming services begin to emerge. This capability to add services or create new revenue streams was boosted by changing the way manufacturers approached the technologies necessary to assemble, test or reconfigure file-based workflows for program generation and distribution.

In today’s rapidly changing marketplace, businesses can no longer afford to wait six to nine months to spin up a new service. Stakeholders often address new business plans that necessitate bringing on a new service in a matter of weeks, not months. The effort to bring up new competitive services can no longer be driven by hardware development cycles or burdened by unpredictable capital cost or budget restrictions. Systems are becoming more flexible and less costly to deploy; and have less impact on operations if the service needs to be modified or even shut off after an unsuccessful run.

Furthermore, these systems now offer resource independence; that is, servers no longer need to be dedicated as a single resource to a single solution—they are now capable of serving multiple functions that can adjust based upon demand or need.

Media management, content creation and program distribution now depend upon a new dimension called “software-defined” networking, storage or services. The emergence of this approach reduces the time to market and in turn changes the landscape of technological development forever. And these systems can be deployed in the cloud, data center or enterprise.

To support this paradigm shift, product requirements and system architectures now heavily leverage IT functionality; which is why IP, Ethernet and networking in general is found in nearly every aspect of the video media industry today. Systems that once consisted of dedicated purpose-built boxes are now enabled on commodity (or common) off-the-shelf (COTS) components.

Systems that once utilized a few PCs to interface hardware among systems or were employed strictly as administrative tools, now utilize multiple servers as core components to orchestrate and manage multiple tasks simultaneously. Servers have essentially taken the place of the hardware-based devices, allowing for increased flexibility and service modifications without a forklift change or a major new capital procurement process.


Fig. 1: The discrete components found in legacy video server playout systems (A) are now integrated into the Channel in a Box system shown in (B). Future IP-only systems are virtualized (C) with various services distributed ‘as needed’ and managed over the network (D). The practice of deploying multiple servers for a set of specific subsystems such as a transcode farm, encoding farm or archive management system, is only about a decade old. Dedicated server concepts continue in many of today’s system architectures; but that perspective is likely to change in the next evolution of IT-based technology for media.

For example, the early video server (circa mid-’90s) was assembled in similar fashion to how component stereos were outfitted in the ’70s (see Fig. 1-A). Today the video server’s entire functionality is integrated directly into the same physical chassis as the broadcast playout channel chain (see Fig. 1-B).

These “integrated playout systems” now include file-based transcode, software decode and IP playout featuring various codecs, graphics and audio overlay, short-term storage, automation and internal SDI conversion. Some or all of these services are wrapped into a single channel and deployed on a dedicated server—and they are entirely software-enabled—meaning users don’t need to buy another box or wire another component to gain current or future features.

Channel-in-a-Box (CIAB) playout systems operate fundamentally like their discrete legacy systems, but with more functionality. But the difference is that manufacturers now assemble discrete sets of software routines—once allocated to dedicated boxes—into a single, powerful computer-based server running as IT.

The CIAB model is likely to remain the traditional broadcaster’s operational mode for the relative near term. However, for those service providers who address dozens of channels, provide for thousands of streams or routinely need to change program delivery methods, this CIAB model is unlikely to be their ideal solution.

Even with the CIAB model fairly well established, the handling of multi-hundred streams requires a different set of parameters. Traditionally—like in the data center domain—when a new application was to be presented, the IT department would deploy a new server, expand or add new storage and add another pair of network switches. This is a costly, time-consuming task that often prohibits experimentation by the programmer.

Even today, conventional broadcast plants are built out using a hundred or more COTS servers, dozens of network switches and multiple sets of individual storage systems. They, like the legacy broadcast facility, required a main (and backup) central core network switch, redundant firewalls, aggregation switches and other network components.

Cabling is hardly ever reduced because the systems now need dual home runs to multiple sets of 24–48 port switches. The

dangers come when equipment, power and cooling overrun the physical space available to contain those components. Once that happens, the scaling model becomes severely constrained and the number of expandable services is reduced.

Another significant change is on the horizon. As the media industry moves forward, systems will be configured using virtualized environments. Virtualization enables new services to be spun up, placed online and manipulated. If (or when) the services are no longer needed, they are simply shut off and reconfigured for another service or application. Conceptually, Fig. 1-C depicts an all-IP-based virtualized environment providing various services on an as-needed basis; operating entirely over a network in Fig. 1-D.

The management framework that allows these software-based infrastructures to operate is orchestrated as though it were addressing an entire platform on a global level. This framework, like its data center counterpart, is referred to as a “converged infrastructure”; also known as a “converged system” or “unified computing system” (UCS).

Relatively new technologies, changing business trends and continually adjusting service demands are shaping media services to look more like the information technology world than the traditional broadcast world.

Virtualization is simplifying networks, allowing us to take advantage of the expanding 10 Gig and 40 Gig pipes. Automation is reducing the manual intervention needed to facilitate new services. Solid-state storage is relieving many storage performance bottlenecks. Optimization of the LAN/WAN, coupled with enhancements in caching and improvements in data transmission all contribute to improvements in these technology areas. And cloud services are allowing the enterprise to store data or add or burst up services with improved accessibility, offering greater flexibility and easier scaling with a capital cost.

The end result is that businesses should be able to streamline management functions, deploy new services faster and reduce operational costs. With integrated systems composed of fewer components, troubleshooting connections or problem areas become less complicated. Components can be managed by a single operator console, instead of a variety of incompatible management systems.

Convergence is the answer to the future of multiple services such as OTT, multiscreen and directed program content delivery for wired or mobile users. These concepts can, and most likely will over time, be deployed universally—even for the traditional broadcast programming service provider. It is relatively easy to see the broadcast central equipment room being shaped into a virtualized central data center.

Karl Paulsen, CPBE and SMPTE Fellow, is the CTO at Diversified Systems. Read more about other storage topics in his book “Moving Media Storage Technologies.” Contact Karl at