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The Benefits of Virtualization for Automated Studios

Outside of the smallest independent single-station operations, most radio facilities today house more than one studio. Whether a large network or a small cluster of FM/AM stations, most facilities have a collection of on-air and production studios outfitted with dedicated equipment.ENCO1 Server

The traditional automation architecture requires a PC in each studio. This physical box connects to a central server, or operates as part of a separate production or on-air cluster that share a common network. However, the fact remains that this architecture is comprised of space-consuming, high-maintenance hardware distributed throughout the facility.

This architecture certainly suits staff working on projects across various workstations. Today’s hardware is faster, and the strategy of distributed hardware protects individual studios and stations. Each studio has its own hardware to accommodate its specific automation needs, and while shared data is typically pulled from a central repository, users can typically cache data locally to support daily playlists. That distributed storage protects against failures elsewhere on the network, ensuring the local operation continues without disruption.

The downside is complexity in maintenance, which intensifies as operations scale. Engineering staff not only has to move between rooms to work on the physical boxes, but every box is generally unique in design. Most will have a different complement of motherboards and hard drives, the latter of which delivers the most significant wear and tear on an automation system. And since hard drives require periodic replacement, the various workstations distributed across the facility will require a variety of different drives to maintain optimum system health.

This mixture of physical space requirements, system health and system maintenance are some of the key reasons that broadcasters are beginning to look to virtualized server and automation strategies.

The Benefits of Migration

Migration from legacy systems toward virtualization eliminates many of these problems. The transition to a virtualized architecture further centralizes the automation operations, technology and associated engineering. The end game is a central core with one specific physical location and complement of hardware – not to mention significantly lower operational costs.

The caveat of virtualization is that the broadcaster puts all his eggs in one basket. Therefore, it’s necessary to build in the appropriate level of redundancy to sustain multiple points of failure. This is achieved through build out of a highly redundant server mechanism that can host many virtual workstations – all used remotely from the same studios where the physical workstations were once located.

These physical workstations are instead replaced with a “thin client,” a simple, compact and generic computing device that contains little built-in intelligence. Its main purpose is to boot and run remote sessions that are displayed on the studio monitor. The intelligence once provided through the PC in the studio now lives in a protected, redundant core in the central equipment room. All features of the automation system are presented to the operator in the studio over a simple network connection and a thin client appliance.

The redundancy built into the server ensures that even if the thin client were to fail, the operation is not halted; all automation is handled in the virtual core. In these cases, repairs are limited to replacement of the thin client. Once the new thing client is booted, the entire operation picks up immediately where it was left off.

Simply put, the studio is a harsh environment. Drinks are spilled, and equipment is not always handled with care. There is an advantage of moving the electronics to a protected core and replacing it with a generic device like a thin client. Furthermore, building redundancy into the central server – both physical and virtual components like disk arrays – ensures that moving to virtualization will provide a feeling of safety without distributing hardware around the facility.ENCO RadiOhio

Laying the Foundation

The road to virtualization begins with transitioning the broadcast and production infrastructure to Audio over IP (AoIP). Since there are no physical cards associated with virtual machines, AoIP offers a far more effective path to virtualization versus shared hardware resources. AoIP allows for use of a virtualized network card to deliver packets over the virtualized network to a physical network, which then connects with various Audio over IP devices across the facility. This includes production consoles, routers and even the GPIO devices that live on the network. This paves the way to move automation operations to the virtualized world.

This strategy also enables the broadcaster to gradually transition systems to the virtualized core. A multi-studio facility can start with one or two workstations running through a thin client, and later transition other physical boxes into the virtualized environment.

Naturally, this also means building a server that can scale to support the amount of data needed for an eventual facility-wide operation. Once the server is transitioned into place, the data for all virtualized operations can be moved onto that server – along with any attached storage systems required. From this point, the physical systems can be connected, and the associated physical streams can be transitioned as desired to a virtual machine within the core.

This strategy works especially well in facilities with older infrastructure; as equipment begins to fail, centralized storage is the first place in the workflow to address in order to protect content. Installing a server that’s capable of virtualization will enable that centralized storage. As necessary, the engineer can begin creating virtual machines and transitioning physical devices – such as automation – to the virtualized core.

This is also a very handy architecture for broadcasters relocating to a new larger, consolidated facility. Once transitioned onto a virtualized environment, everything lives inside one box. These are generally compact 4RU boxes that can house eight to ten workstations. Therefore, a facility with a few radio stations can fit everything into a single box and seamlessly move to another building. Once plugged into a network infrastructure, the broadcaster is quickly up and running from its new consolidated home.

While the AoIP network simplifies the path toward virtualization, it’s helpful to establish a separate data network for office systems outside the studio environment. This still enables connectivity to external systems, like a scheduling system, that exist on PCs in business offices. Typically, these systems work well in a standalone design for standard file transfers into the automation core, and do not require virtualization since they do not have the same processing requirements as audio systems. Though they can be brought into the core if desired down the road, it makes more sense that office systems remain on a separate network for the foreseeable future.

Higher Efficiency

The ability to incorporate 10 workstations into a single 4RU box will also return a large amount of real estate to the facility. In a legacy installation, each automation workstation will typically equate to four rack units of PCs. A station with 10 workstations therefore would require about 40 rack units in a legacy architecture. Using this math, transitioning to a virtualized environment effectively returns 36 rack units of space.

The efficiencies continue with the central virtualized server. Though it’s a powerful device, these servers typically reduce power consumption by up to eight times – translating to a significantly lower monthly utility bill. This is magnified through changes to the HVAC requirements, since cooling needs are substantially reduced as well. The benefits extend to the studio, where the thin client appliances generate a very small fraction of the heat of a PC.

In addition to compressing the footprint and reducing bills, another noticeable benefit is the reduction of noise in the studio. Since PCs require cooling, they inevitably produce some amount of fan noise. Even the quietest PCs require a large amount to processing power to support automation and other tasks, and will inevitably produce noticeable noise.

Working to reduce or eliminate that noise in the studio can be complex and expensive. One solution involves creating custom furniture structures that focus the noise downward toward the floor. Alternatively, the PCs can be mounted backwards so they face out the rear of the rack instead of toward the studio. Or, they are mounted in an adjacent room and connected via a KVM system to extend the keyboard, monitor and touchscreen. Typically, this is the preferred method when it comes to PC-related noise reduction in the studio.

The benefit of moving to a virtualized system is that the thin client connects to the workstation over IP – the same philosophy as a KVM system, but with a much broader reach. While a KVM system effectively supports point-to-point connectivity – and can support multi-point connectivity through more complex switching designs – the thin client can connect remotely to any workstation in the virtualized core. The cost of a thin client is far less than a KVM system. In addition to eliminating noise from the studio, the move to a virtualized environment significantly cuts costs while enabling simpler routing and connectivity to more workstations.

Days Between

We are still in the early days of transitioning automation platforms to virtualized environments. ENCO’s design ensures a fully redundant architecture across the server and its components, including hot-swappable network cards, processors, disk arrays and power supplies. This redundancy allows the operation to remain on the air during a simple maintenance procedure if a component fails. There is no requirement for an IT specialist since the systems are self-healing once the failed component is replaced, automatically rebuilding itself as its redundant twin keeps the operation on the air.

The benefits of transitioning to a virtualized environment for mission-critical, 24/7 operations like broadcasting are abundantly clear. By keeping costs low and laying the groundwork for a modular and staged transition, we believe that this migration will accelerate industry-wide in the coming years.

Vice President at ENCO Systems
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