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Live server technology

The demands of today’s consumer are changing video production in ways that we could not have foreseen even a decade ago. Consumers today not only demand content on their own terms — at any time and on virtually any device — but also in near-pristine quality. Today’s live media server technology has advanced to enable completely automated, high-speed end-to-end workflow functionality. These state-of-the-art servers, increasingly specialized for specific media delivery needs and functionality, are delivering media with the quality, speed and reliability to meet the challenges of our new converged media landscape head on.

While the viewer may be ultimately driving innovation, new types of programming continue to spur technological advances. Live sports ushered in a generation of instant replay clips and slow-motion highlights that pushed technical capabilities. The rapid-fire nature of global news brought the need to improve workflows so news can be gathered, prepared and broadcast as it breaks. The advent and seemingly unabated growth of live variety shows and reality programming pushes for the near real-time interactivity that ultra-fast turnaround and agile production can provide. The simultaneous ingest, recording and editing of content is the boon to today’s media production. And broadcasters are leveraging the speed and mobility developed to full advantage for a range of onscreen programming.

A chain with no weak links

Disparate technologies such as cameras, production servers, controllers, switchers, and editing and automation systems must be more closely integrated for smooth and efficient workflow processes. Standard communication protocols and service-oriented architectures have been developed progressively, so that these technologies can form a whole. Seen as the central aspect for many production workflows, servers have evolved from standalone ingest and replay to fully integrated platforms, acting as a backbone for media ingest, editing, browsing and playout of production workflows.

Best-of-breed servers now deliver a fully integrated workflow, from content capture through post production, with tools and capabilities to support all production processes. They also feature an open architecture, allowing access to a host of marketplace production controllers for access and control of all content. Integrating with third-party editing tools and allowing third-party systems to control server ingest and playout channels gives broadcasters valuable, extended production capabilities. Most advanced live production servers now accept remote control protocols, making it simple to integrate with most standard automation systems, controllers and switchers. Switchers, controllers, automation systems, linear editors, as well as other systems using one of these protocols can easily and transparently interact with servers to control their content.

Natively supporting different high-quality production codecs is also critical to a fully integrated workflow, reducing the transfer time between production and post production as both parts of the process can use the same codec. In a fast-turnaround production workflow, content that is being recorded and encoded on the server is simultaneously accessible to post production. Today’s servers can now more effectively ingest and store greater amounts of content of varying formats and play out multiple synchronized and simultaneous video streams — faster than ever before.

The end result? Major gains in speed, efficiency and productivity throughout the entire production chain. Integrated workflows streamline processes, and speed workflow tasks and collaboration.

Editing, content management and storage

Whether integrated into the server system or accessed through plug-ins, editing tools are capable of delivering edits without the time-consuming rendering processes of older systems. Editing software can also be optimized for the specific application, allowing support for multiple formats and resolutions on the same timeline and extended metadata management features. Some editing tools and servers are fully interoperable with all existing post-production systems. Open content management systems are critical to third-party integration and successful workflows.

Some server technology incorporates comprehensive management suites that allow ingest control, metadata management, on-the-fly browsing and editing, and playout scheduling — all managed from a single interface and data model. Running on a common platform, all network personnel can instantly share content, metadata, edits and rough cuts. The software suite integrates with third-party systems, simplifying the transfer of media to post-production tools or archiving through industry-adopted Web services. Suites such as these also allow management and recording, enabling operators to stay continuously linked to the media. In post production, editors can use the descriptive information to search for certain clips or content. The system will retrieve specific clips, and editors can manipulate them through a simple drag-and-drop sequence.

More content formats spread over countless platforms makes for complex media content management. Centralized media management systems can perform everything from instant content identification throughout multiple platforms, intelligent media browsing based on descriptive metadata and logging to automated media digitization and robust processes for instant transcoding for greatly simplified promotion and distribution of content.

Record, edit and play out — simultaneously

Other developments, including nonstop “loop” recording, of some advanced live servers represent significant advancements to the production process. Guaranteeing uninterrupted multichannel recording and access to recorded content at any time, loop recording ensures that all recorded media is instantly available throughout the production network.

Recording starts as soon as the server is booted and remains on until the server is shut down. Recording capacity can be configured separately for each recording channel, and selected sequences can be protected and kept for as long as required without interrupting the recording process. Thus, content is available for simultaneous preview, rough editing, archiving, playback or post production.

Editors can browse and retrieve media while the server is still recording them, a significant productivity improvement compared to the old VTR workflow. It also allows operators to simultaneously cultivate content via clips and edited playlists, while producing rough-cut edits and transferring content to post production.

Playout automation

Reliability is perhaps the most important feature of any production process, and nowhere is this more significant than playout. But any automated playout system must also be dynamic, flexible and redundant. And playout is affected by the processes earlier in the chain, such as intelligent metadata during ingest. Playout automation for long-form content requires flexibility as well as highly efficient file transmission. The beauty of the best systems is their ability to remain controlled by automation while also enabling last-minute edits to be performed — only seconds before broadcast.

On the horizon

We surely haven’t seen the end of media server innovation. Tools will continue to get better and faster. But server technology won’t just reduce production time; it will redefine it. With the rise of applications for, and integration with, second screens, it will be more about transformation than optimization.

Next-generation servers will also be able to support multiple codec types in parallel. When recording video feeds, the encoding process will start simultaneously, making content immediately available for exchange. Providing people in remote locations with full workflow access and participation capability is another sure byproduct of our times. Access, speed and innovation will continue to transform how we work and what we see on screens of all types.

James Stellpflug is vice president, products and technical services, EVS.