Monitoring and control

Complexity is an insidious and invisible enemy in any human endeavor. What makes modern media facilities interesting is in no small measure that we have implemented complex webs of baseband and IT technology, which often exceed our ability to fully monitor and understand. It is fair to ask why we do this. The answer lies in an often poorly understood interface between software and hardware. Given that modern digital technology is often crammed into small modules in card frames, manufacturers have done a good job of providing software interfaces to control hardware processes, in no small measure because this miniaturization of components makes anything else difficult at best to build.

Think about a frame sync living in a frame of modular products. It might have 50 or more adjustments and settings available to the user. That is no problem for a well-designed software user interface and certainly can be done on a stand-alone control panel. But it essentially cannot be done with controls on the cards themselves. Thus, some form of control system is an essential part of building a facility. The question becomes not whether a control system is necessary, for it may be unavoidable on a small scale, but rather whether a system that monitors and controls large portions of a facility is an inevitable choice.

The implications of equipment choices have a lot to do with the decision. Every manufacturer of modular equipment has its own homegrown control and monitoring system. In addition, there are companies that specialize in monitoring and control systems, as well as specialized systems for satellite system control and ones that provide a degree of automation.

SNMP protocol

Many systems use the IT Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) protocol. SNMP offers a standard method for hardware manufacturers to provide access to monitoring and control of their hardware using interfaces built on a management information base (MIB).

There are wrinkles, of course. One server manufacturer, for instance, might provide access to information about power supply health and fan status in its MIB, while another might offer completely different information. However, with some qualifiers, it is true that SNMP offers reasonable information in a common application interface. IT hardware, including video systems designed on IT platforms, is much more likely to implement SNMP in a more complete manner.

Many manufacturers have recognized that although they would prefer that every item in a facility has their logo, the reality is that if a monitoring and control system is to be optimized from the user's perspective, it must connect with multiple manufacturers' hardware. This has led to one of two approaches. Either the control system must be capable of monitoring hardware from any manufacturer publishing an API or SNMP MIB, or the manufacturer must make a provision in the proprietary control system to accommodate connections outside of its own products.

IBM, HP, EMC and many other mainstream IT technology companies offer comprehensive SNMP packages. When combined with MIBs from broadcast equipment manufacturers, a significant portion of a facility monitoring system can be assembled.

But that is the hard part. The truth is that much of the baseband- and broadcast-specific IT hardware one might want to monitor is not covered fully by the MIBs generally available. Even when MIBs exist, there is often less than a full feature set available. As a result, it is often preferable to use a manufacturer's own monitoring product, and to the extent SNMP integration is offered, one can pull other devices into a holistic system.

Another approach is to window SNMP or other monitoring systems through a common control and monitoring interface on a proprietary system. Though less than ideal, this at least provides the capability to minimize the number of systems one must actively monitor and control.

Keys to effective control

The purpose of monitoring and control is to gather information about the operational status and health of the equipment in use in ways simply not possible in an environment without machine assistance. The rub is in how that is displayed and used. The best monitoring and control systems are ones that adapt to the status of the devices being controlled.

For instance, the system might show a general screen that looks like a schematic diagram of your system, with green indicators highlighting everything is working. When a failure occurs and a device turns red, you have to still be looking at the device to notice the fault. It is quite possible that in complex systems, many such screens are available displaying the status of hundreds of devices.

The key to an effective system is the way the system adapts and tells you that you should be looking at a particular screen due to an error just detected. It might, for instance, bring that screen forward so you can see the error, or even zoom the section that is in fault condition to fill the screen. It may also send e-mail or text alerts to maintenance at the same time, notifying them of a serious issue that must be addressed. Just logging the error to a printer would not be useful, though a permanent log (electronic or paper) is always a good idea. That may allow you to quickly see errors that happen routinely and plan an approach to minimizing future problems.

Types of control solutions

Control systems in today's hybrid environment take many forms. Often hardware has embedded Web servers, allowing garden variety browsers to provide effective interfaces on computer screens. This is convenient, particularly when a lot of devices must be controlled. Embedded servers get around needing proprietary control software but sometimes at the expense of less information displayed. Many manufacturers still choose to build stand-alone control panels for repetitive tasks, like setting levels on frame syncs for ENG ingest. Control panels of this type are intuitive and uncomplicated. Usually they can be steered easily to many devices, often adapting their function and display to the module in use.

There was a time when large broadcasters took the bull by the horns and built their own custom control systems. Those days may be returning with at least one large company choosing that route, with router and device control brought to a common interface for the operator's use.

Lastly, though manufacturers would like to get you to buy their proprietary control and monitoring solution, it is sometimes better to approach a vendor that specializes in just this area. Using this approach may allow you to build a single system that can attach to a large variety of manufacturer solutions without prejudice. A Google search will turn up many stand-alone products intended for just this purpose. Their ability to provide best-in-breed solutions across a wide swath of interfaced products can be appealing.

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

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