By James Stellpflug, VP Product Marketing, EVS
A historic shift for the broadcast industry is happening. IP is the beginning of a transition that includes, but doesn’t end with virtualization. This is the next step in the evolution of IP and only when core aspects of live production like video production servers, switchers and camera processing are successfully virtualized will we start to reap the true benefits of the technology.
To this point, one of the biggest barriers has been the inability to virtualize input and output for point-to-point signals like SDI. Systems are bound to the physical interface, which has prevented advances in the live domain. But with IP standards and interoperability developed between multiple across the industry, we’ve been able to eliminate those physical connections. The age of virtualization is now possible.
We’re fully aware that virtualized processes are already in use today – especially across business systems, control layer tools, and file-based processing. And IP has been the enabler of this, supporting functionalities built on standard data center appliances with standard computing equipment at the core. Through functional separation – decoupling network control and forwarding functions – network virtualization and automation, users can control traffic from a centralized console with entirely.
This is where the virtualized production model comes into play. IP-enabled, software-defined, COTS hardware-driven. This is all increasingly paving the way for migration away from dedicated hardware, onto software and into the cloud.
What’s driving the market?
We’ve all heard about the immediate benefits of IP and virtualization – more flexibility, streamlined production and better economies of scale. But there are larger market forces at work. TV sets and traditional broadcasts are not going away but at the same time, broadcasters and content owners must create more content, faster to cope with the habits of today’s connected media consumers.
While people might be watching less traditional TV, they’re watching more video. They’re consuming more video when and where they want – on their own terms and on devices of all types. In this new world of non-broadcast channels, the need to spin production workflows up or down on demand is critical. And it must be done in a way that’s fast and cost effective. This is what’s driving the move away from infrastructures of purpose-built hardware.
And while the initial transition to completely IP-based systems will require the outlay of some capital expenditure, the long-term cost benefits are tremendous. Along with the new realities of content production, the need for new business models is also apparent. While we shift from hardware-driven workflows, we’ll also shift from a capex-based operation to an opex-based, pay-per-use model.
Plus, it’s impossible to imagine traditional point-to-point systems meeting the needs of new media distribution channels and evolving business models.
But all this does require a different level of planning, a rethinking of product development (or perhaps more accurately IT service development) rollout and lifecycle. It’s a matter of how and when, not if.
A different kind of production ecosystem
The key to virtualization is dissociating compute and storage equipment from their functionalities. COTS hardware and standard computing equipment will be deployed to add new functionalities with standard data center principles at their heart. This means equipment can be assigned to specific and instantaneous requirements of any production.
A good example is the use of additional transcode resources. Transcode engines will be launched on an as-needed basis rather than on the upfront allocation of specific video sources. Something that wasn’t possible years ago, this kind of extreme flexibility is only the beginning of where we can go. This principal is now being extended to video switchers, servers and even overall production systems, breaking down the business barriers to flexibility, and allowing the routing of video and other signals to every possible destination.
A second fundamental enabler for virtualization is the use of common data center equipment. In any system, dedicated hardware tied to specific functionalities limits possibilities. In contrast to SDI-based communication and hardware-assisted compute nodes, an all-IP environment allows the flexibility needed to assign services to whichever computing resources are available.
The flexibility of virtualization doesn’t end with specific tasks – the entire production workflow can be applied in on-premise data centers or in infrastructure as a service like the cloud. In any way, virtualization will create infrastructure that’s not only less expensive but faster to deploy.
It also enables scalable workflows that deploy only resources that are needed while enabling much easier resource sharing. Through functional separation, network virtualization and automation, users can control traffic from a centralized console for new production freedom and agility. A software-centric approach can provide on-demand transcoding, acquisition and playout scalability, as well as hardware optimization. The ability to turn on and off, and spin up and down functions brings critical elasticity and capex savings. Configuration and deployment is simplified, creating productions that can quickly switch or grow without needing to layout more infrastructure or buying hardware.
Once a virtualized infrastructure and its associated of resources is in place, the way these are managed becomes an additional layer of benefit. Users will be able to pre-define the needs of a production, store, recall and launch the configurations of a production on an on-demand basis. With a COTS-based infrastructure, engineering need not be involved to start and secure a production. Virtualization allows application launching and hardware activation as needed and facilitates the move to public cloud infrastructure for even greater IT industry critical mass benefits.
Elastic production capabilities
Taken together, the tenants and capabilities of virtualization provide what we call elastic production. This is made of solutions that leverage COTS hardware, maximize existing investments and deploy open standards supported by AIMS and SMPTE. With IP and virtualization at its core, elastic production allows studios, broadcasters and production houses to do more with better flexibility and dynamic capabilities.
Software-defined production switchers and server-based functions – even entire production systems are enabling different applications that create more flexible processes. Workflows must not only be easily configured and deployed but also easily switched and executed on infrastructure without capex outlay. The result is truly elastic production, growing or shrinking based only on present needs to achieve agile, flexible and cost-saving production.
Bridging the gap
Of course, a fully IT-based, virtualized production center popping up on its own isn’t how we deploy production technology today, except maybe in the most greenfield opportunities. For most, there will be a conversion path, one that protects current investment while moving to IP. The move to virtualization has already started with non-real-time functions.
Gateway solutions and technologies like convertors for point-to-point serial connections – RS422 and USB over IP links – and video IP gateways will bridge the systems during this transition, as will discussions of how global synchronization across IP and SDI can be achieved – either through generator locking or active synchronization using PTP.
The virtualized production center of tomorrow
But what will the fully optimized, virtualized production center look like? Well, it might not be on site. It could be down the street or in the cloud. In years to come the most important decision you make is where you put your data center. In fact, we’ll start to care less and less about where it’s running, whether off the shelf or on a rack. We’ll care more about what we can do than where we do it and how to plan for it.
It’s about removing the hardware shackles for a more dynamic production environment that benefits everyone – not the least of which: viewers.
James Stellpflug has more than two decades of industry experience including facility design and integration, mobile satellite communication, and mobile TV production. In his roles, he has overseen several major technology transitions, including migrations from analog to digital, SD to HD, and more recently from linear to cloud and VOD distribution. Stellpflug has designed and operated production trucks, as well as consulted on developments of early NLE news editing platforms. He has been with EVS Broadcast Equipment since 2000, serving in various roles from technical operations management and program management to his current role as global VP of product marketing.