Defining “Software Defined” for Media Companies?

george_boath-telestreamSubmitted by George Boath,
Director, Channel Management for Enterprise and Lightspeed products at Telestream

By now, you’ve seen the term “software defined” everywhere in our industry. There’s software defined networking, software defined TV, software defined broadcasting, and even software defined storage. It has been associated with just about any technology, sometimes with true significance and sometimes, frankly, it has been hype. It’s a phrase that some say was hastily adopted by industry analysts as a way to talk about something new in tech, but it’s a lot simpler than that. A Software-Defined “anything” should be one in which the function and configuration of the system is not defined or limited by a hardware platform, but instead can be dynamically changed by the nature of the software which is installed on the common IT-class servers. The term is commonly used to define networking systems, storage systems and video processing systems. Perhaps we should now take a broader view and consider that an entire architecture could be “software-defined” and consider what that means for broadcasters and media companies.

In some respects there have been Software Defined products available for several years, but for our industry at least, general computing and networking technology has been (until recently) unable to process live HD video signals (and far less so for UHD) in real-time. So, the concept of a software-defined architecture was limited to non real-time file based workflows.

Telestream Vantage – market leading media transformation capabilities

Telestream’s Vantage media processing platform has, since 2010, enabled standard IT servers to be used for transcoding, file moving, audio processing, standards conversion, quality control… and much more – with the server functions changing dynamically according to user needs. In a conventional architecture there could be a rack full of dedicated single function devices, all essential in their own way, but perhaps needed for only a few hours per day and therefore sitting idly but consuming electricity for most of day. With a software-defined architecture, these functions are performed by software services, which are simply processes called in software running on standard servers. As many of the services are used only sporadically, the number of servers required is usually much fewer than the number of dedicated devices. The rack space and power consumption for a software defined architecture is usually considerably less than for a system of dedicated appliances.

Now, with increased processing power and network bandwidth, we are able to process and distribute live video, including HD and UHD formats, over IP networks in “real time”- by which we mean in the same duration and the same cadence (frame rate) as the live video. Entire systems can now be built using software defined principles, replacing many specialist live hardware appliances with multi-function servers running video processing services.

Any typical broadcast or media production facility has a natural diversity of uses, with different services and processes peaking in their demand at different times of the day or week. In a conventional SDI system, some expensive equipment is required quite infrequently. A good example of this might be Standards Converters … specialized devices which are often used only a few hours each week, or they may be used extensively during a specific event such as the recent Olympic Games in Rio. In a software defined architecture the servers which run standards conversion services can host other services for the rest of the time, thus reducing the overall equipment requirement and the associated air-conditioning load and power consumption.

Users can also take advantage of cloud computing services (either private or public) to enable swift dynamic scaling of resources to match business demands, though it should be understood that software-defined architecture does not depend on cloud computing. In fact the entire topic of cloud computing for media – its benefits, implications, costs and challenges- requires in depth discussion on its own merits. However, it is the software-defined nature of the architecture that allows it to be virtualized.

The planning challenge

For the broadcaster’s system designers, planning for a software-defined system is more complex than for conventional systems. As a simple example, if you are designing a linear SDI system, it is relatively simple to calculate what size of video routing switcher is needed. You count inputs and outputs and add some spare capacity. You can be certain that every cross-point and every path can be used simultaneously. For an IP based software defined system however, you will require detailed knowledge of work patterns, peak loads, concurrency of events etc. to determine the correct scale of the system – the number and class of servers, the size and bandwidth of storage, the capacity of IP routers, the number and type of software licenses etc. – and at some stage a business decision is often required to arbitrate on compromises between cost and capacity to be designed into the system.

Unlike SDI systems, software defined systems cannot yet be considered as “plug and play”, even though various standardization efforts have made great progress towards this ideal. Therefore it is incumbent on the end user to proceed with due diligence and conduct thorough tests of the   proposed solutions with their own signals and files, before putting any new software into production. All manufacturers should be able to provide indicative benchmark test results, but definitive system scaling is often possible only once a solution is in “the real world”. This scenario presents a challenge that a system like Vantage can solve. On the one hand, standards are needed and on the other hand, Vantage can be the “glue” to enable disparate systems to work together.

Once your solution is up and running, any broadcaster should have a “sandpit” test environment for pre-production testing of new software versions. Ideally, any production software should have tools to manage version control, or at least to make it simple to roll-back to a previous version should unexpected problems occur.

Integrating IT technologies within broadcast investment cycles

The IT industry brings economies of scale and rapid development cycles but this also means that equipment life cycles are much shorter than for conventional broadcast products, and users must plan for replacement cycles of three years, rather than the usual five years (or more) they may be used to. This has implications for the depreciation costs and replacement costs of any equipment. Another factor which has changed from the days of dedicated hardware is that users should budget adequately for software maintenance contracts. Any software defined system is, by definition, dependent on the reliable performance of the chosen software. Neglecting software maintenance is as damaging in the end as failing to change the oil in your car. It will eventually cost a lot more to fix a seized engine.

The broadcast industry has adapted to many technology changes over the last 30 years… from composite to component, from analogue to digital, from SD to HD and now to UHD.  We have adopted IP technologies for file distribution and welcomed the growing number of ways in which our customers can view our content. Each of these was challenging and in the end allowed the industry to become more productive and deliver even better content.

The adoption of Software Defined Architectures offers many benefits in cost and flexibility to almost any broadcaster or media production company, but it also presents some new challenges which broadcasters can best overcome, as they have always done, through collaboration and discussion with their trusted supply-side partners.george_boath-telestream

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