Operational Support Systems in the new broadcast environment

Even the casual observer can see that the broadcast industry is going through a period of massive change in terms of how content is created and distributed. To those within the industry, this change provides massive challenges and opportunities. The seismic technology shift taking place — from analog to digital and beyond — is backed by the spread of IT-based solutions. We are witnessing the death of the dedicated hardware. A new era that combines these software solutions with years of experience delivering audio and video is now upon us.

These significant changes in the basic infrastructure, plus the emergence of true multimedia delivery requirements and the move away from the linear broadcast model, means that network solutions are now performing a primary role for many organizations. And the importance of these network solutions is only going to grow.

It is clear that many broadcasters are still grappling with these workflow changes. As the industry increasingly moves to file-based digital content generation and playout, there is an inexorable pressure to cap or reduce operational expenditure. The rapidly increasing level of IT in the broadcast chain provides a higher level of machine and network intelligence that the industry has experienced. This provides a clear opportunity to track performance in a way that was previously impossible. By accurately tracking performance over time, operational efficiency can be improved and operational expenditure reduced. The question remains: How does the industry monitor performance?

By looking at the telecommunications industry, we can draw some instant parallels. The industry has undergone technological and business model shifts throughout the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. That industry is also trying to generate maximum revenue from digital content while providing a quality of service in a cost-competitive marketplace. Both shifts in the market require an increase in the customer base and loyalty.

Operational Support Systems

The telecom industry is way ahead in its deployment of network technologies. One of the key elements in facilitating the efficient deployment and subsequent use of new network technologies in that sector has been the use of Operational Support Systems (OSS). There is now a major opportunity for the broadcast industry to move rapidly beyond the early adopter phase of exploiting enterprise applications — software that tracks separate business functions — to OSS, and therefore to be able to successfully view the network as a strategic tool.

So what are OSS and what do they do? OSS combines the real-time monitoring of engineers with a historical view to reveal trends and patterns of management.

Operational support systems first appeared on the telecommunications market in the late 1980s as billing integration systems. New breeds of OSS began providing system integration, network management and equipment inventory capability, with the ultimate aim of reducing operational expenditure, increasing profit margins and improving commercial viability. The OSS market is now a huge worldwide business in telecommunications. Consulting firm RHK predicts that it will top €31 billion in 2006.

Broadcast topologies

Of course, there are considerable differences in network topology between the telco and broadcast industries, but the fundamental principals remain the same. Today's broadcasters are rapidly switching over from analog to digital. And they are driven by new regulatory and compliance demands and customers who want more and show an increasing willingness to change providers.

While the next 15 years in the broadcast industry will not be a replay of the last 15 years in the telecommunications industry, enough overlap exists to warrant a serious comparison of winning and losing strategies. OSS present broadcasters with a significant opportunity to exploit existing telco experience, and to invest in OSS as a means of containing or reducing the cost of maintaining their infrastructures while they implement additional delivery paths for content.

Although digital infrastructures provide greater flexibility of resource deployment, it is vital to maintain the integrity of the signal path. This is labour-intensive and dependent on operator skill level. Traditional broadcast engineers have an ability to understand signal path configurations and to deal with any issues that arise, but such skills are not universal and are costly to attain and maintain.

OSS can significantly reduce operational expenditure by providing infrastructure management tools and information. These are closely related to those found in telcos, but with critical differences arising from the need to sustain signal paths and with special user interface techniques being developed to address this.

OSS deployment does not in itself guarantee workflow continuity. The organization may need restructuring around the OSS functionality to optimize business benefits. OSS need to address four primary business drivers:

  • Provide the tools to enable the infrastructure to be viewed as an enabler of profitability.
  • Support an increased diversity of program output at constant or reduced operational expenditure.
  • Provide for an increased level of reporting capability and business continuity.
  • Maintain a comprehensive and overarching monitoring system.

So, how is this achieved? In practice, OSS consist of a number of servers distributed around a broadcast infrastructure then connected together through a normal WAN.

The analysis tools that a system provides must be flexible and easily accessible, e.g. from any PC client on the same network using a standard Web browser. Because of the inherent greater complexities in displaying the operational state of a given network, it is often necessary for a dedicated client to be used, particularly if a 3-D virtual environment is the chosen illustration method.

OSS are designed to capture events within the broadcast infrastructure nonstop. Events include everything from control system commands to low-level alarms such as GPI closures. The use of an underlying database structure will enable events to be viewed within the context of live broadcast paths. The time from an alarm being detected at the edge of the network to indication on a user's screen should experience the least delay — a matter of seconds — in a typical WAN installation.

OSS provide statistical information on equipment use, frequency of alarms and compliance with service level agreements (SLAs). Not only are traditional approaches to broadcast monitoring static in that they attempt to replicate or mimic the wiring details, but there is never enough room on the computer screen to display all the features of immediate interest.

The user interface

An immersive environment solves both problems. Broadcast paths can be displayed dynamically. That is, the user selects an end point and the path analyzer algorithm propagates backwards from there, displaying all the devices that comprise that path. This environment allows users to display as much detail or perspective as they are interested in, simply by navigating around and zooming in and out. This means that users do not lose contextual information even when they are looking at individual devices in detail.

One basis for an immersive environment is the reference model developed by the EBU/SMPTE Task Force on Harmonized Standards for the Exchange of Program Material as Bit Streams and published as a report in 1998. The EBU/SMPTE model defined the broadcast infrastructure in terms of devices, paths, services, content and management services.

An immersive console can therefore display the broadcast path and any redundant paths. This also works for multiplexed signal streams and broadcast services.

As well as showing signal path devices, this console can provide actual monitoring of sound and pictures. This is achieved by selective placement of streaming engines throughout the broadcast infrastructure.

It is important in OSS that previous configurations of the infrastructure can be examined. By recalling stored events and stepping through them, the user can examine the state of the infrastructure, a given event or sequence of events. Alarm analysis, report generation and trend analysis are also central to OSS and the benefits they will provide. This should include:

  • SLA compliance;
  • device use;
  • signal path use;
  • alert history; and
  • event history.

OSS reports normally take the form of tables or graphs that can be exported as management reports. Trend analysis allows users to identify areas particularly prone to failure or areas of the infrastructure that are underused.

The detailed information that OSS collect is often used to define SLAs, which in turn define the commercial arrangements between broadcasters, suppliers and transmission providers. For commercial broadcasters, the cash flow controlled by SLAs determines operating profit or loss, which can be constantly monitored by the OSS.

This strategic tool enables managers to run the business efficiently, and also serves as a tactical tool for operators and engineers. Of course, the design architecture must be fully scalable with each of the components designed so that it can cope with future load issues and address the size of any potential installation.

We all understand the huge technological changes that the broadcast industry is currently experiencing. As network-based IT solutions roll out and come to dominate, understanding the role of each piece of technology in a network becomes not only possible, but desirable. By deploying OSS designed specifically for the complexities of broadcast networks, technological efficiencies can be achieved that will prevent outages — and therefore viewer dissatisfaction — and should also reduce costs over time.

Rick Bolin is director and CEO of FBBT.