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IT in Broadcast: Dispelling the Myths

It never ceases to amaze me how certain ideas and misconceptions manage to survive and even thrive amid large segments of any population, despite the existence of copious amounts of information to the contrary. Our willingness to accept facile explanations, especially when the conclusions drawn neatly fit into our preconceived ideas and personal biases, can quickly become the gating factor in our careers and worse yet, a burden to the companies that employ us. Such is the case in a lot of broadcast environments today where there still exists a book of "knowledge" about what IT is and what it brings to the table that deviates from real-life experience everywhere else.

RELIABILITY

You don't have to look very hard to find folks that will tell you that IT technology cannot be counted on to display the reliability necessary in broadcast. But a close look at reliability in any technical environment will quickly reveal a direct correlation between proper funding, professional administration, exacting workflow processes and the high availability numbers that we all seek.

It is easy to confuse the ease of setup for baseline systems with a proper professional installation dedicated to support mission-critical applications. Take for example a simple switched Ethernet network with Internet connectivity. Nowadays, just about anybody can march down to a consumer electronics store and purchase everything necessary to set up a high-performance, wired 100 Mbps switched network with wireless connectivity at 54 Mbps and with a 3 Mbps broadband connection via cable modem for a relatively paltry $200 and with some luck, it can be accomplished in less than an hour. Never mind that those specs would have made most IT managers (not to mention their CFOs) go weak in the knees just four or five years ago. Would you trust your on-air automation to run on it? Probably not and you shouldn't. It is almost a trivial task to set up a file and database server combo-a couple $2,000 servers and a few hours and you are up-and-running. Should you trust your ad sales package to run on it? Not if you want to keep your job.

IT-based systems will continue to offer dramatic improvements in price performance ratios, but they must be treated as the mission-critical infrastructures that they have become. The same holistic perspectives that have historically kept banking systems, stock markets, telecommunications networks and ICUs humming 24/365 must be deployed commensurate with the risk profile of a particular application. Maybe your station's e-mail can be down for a couple hours a month for maintenance in the wee hours without major upheaval, but that certainly is not true of your IT-based digital media archive.

CARE AND FEEDING

As we continue to migrate to IT-based systems, the anonymous components that provide the glue in our plants become part of an ecosystem where the weakest link can be your downfall, and as such they must be handled in a thoughtful and professional manner. From your authentication server to DNS, from your high availability load-balanced database cluster to your IDS-protected DMZ, these systems require a care and feeding that we are accustomed to deliver in our broadcast facilities, but that we often overlook in what we call the "IT" environment in many broadcast facilities.

The same goes for broadcast hardware and software suppliers. Although we applaud and appreciate the speed with which these vendors are incorporating IT "think" in the form of Ethernet connectivity and TCP/IP-based communications and control, there are still far too many examples of what could be called "island thinking." The concept that an application will be installed in its own dedicated server and run in its own playground without regard to its neighbors and the world at large is quickly becoming anathema to IT's best practices. In this day and age of global connectivity and streamlined supply chains, our mission-critical application has to be aware of its surroundings and capable of taking advantage of resources beyond its immediate horizons. As the price-points continue to change, we are likely to see the emergence of truly hybrid push/pull systems that leverage cheap-edge storage where needed with centralized historical archives where latency thresholds allow it. And that interplay necessitates a high level of integration that is not easy to create in "network unaware" applications. Cluster awareness, XML-enabled touch points, the ability to leverage integrated security for single sign-on capability, Web services orientation and eventually the ability to use network resources like computing, storage, bandwidth and "least cost" routing to continually optimize its operating characteristics will become the hallmark of future generations of broadcasting systems as we adapt to the rise and demise of different content distribution channels.

So when we take our annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas and the NAB, let's keep our eyes and ears open as we search for those vendors that did not just incorporate RJ-45 connectors in their backplanes and TCP/IP in their protocol stacks but have embraced the thought processes, advances and methodologies that keep mission-critical IT infrastructures operating at those near mythical "6 nines" of reliability-because after all if IT works for them, IT can work for you. Count on IT!