Aiming for IP: A new industry trade org looks for common ground

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Neal Romanek
Analysis
April 7th 2016 at 3:55PM : By Neal Romanek

AIMS is a new partnership of broadcast manufacturers aiming to smooth the transition to IP. We talk to some of the group's founders about the IP roadmap and what customers really want

AIMS, the Alliance for IP Media Solutions, was formed at the end of 2015 by a group of broadcast industry suppliers to promote open standards and interoperability in the transition to IP. That the industry is moving to an IP-based world is clear, but how to get it there with a minimum of turbulence occupies a lot of headspace for broadcasters.

Television is an industry tightly bound by standards. Its function, since its inception, has been to distribute information, but with the fundamentals of how information is distributed and received undergoing radical change, the industry is having to completely reinvent itself. And that means coming up with new sets of standards – that everyone can agree on.

AIMS announced its presence last autumn by publishing a white paper, “An argument for open IP standards in the media industry”, written by its founding members Grass Valley, Imagine Communications, Snell Advanced Media, Lawo and Nevion. In January Arista Networks, Cisco Systems, EVS and The Telos Alliance also joined the Alliance.

In its white paper, AIMS supports the roadmap that the 74-member Video Services Forum (VSF) developed, with the support of SMPTE and the EBU. That roadmap calls initially for the adoption of SMPTE 2022-6 as a baseline for interoperability. The second stage would be the adoption of VSF TR-04, which recommends the use of SMPTE-2022-6 for video with embedded audio and AES-67 for separate addressable audio streams. The final step in the transition would be TR-03 transport of uncompressed elementary stream media over IP. It’s hoped this SMPTE/VSF interoperability roadmap will be realisable this year.

Different-sized tracks

“It’s crazy now in the market. It’s a bit like the railroad industry when everyone had different-sized tracks,” says Mike Cronk, Grass Valley’s senior vice president for strategic marketing. “We’re talking about a transition from SDI to IP-based systems. One of the things we’ve enjoyed with SDI is the interface is ubiquitous across many products, so we had interoperability. When we go to IP, that’s something we don’t want to lose.”

Cronk looks forward to the possibilities opened up by IP. “At the end of the day the protocol we use for IP will give us perhaps even greater interoperability than SDI, and that’s a common goal shared by all the companies in AIMS. From the vendor perspective, we need to realise the benefits of IP.”

Embracing IP means embracing the reality that the television has transformed into a fully IT industry, which opens up the field beyond traditional broadcast suppliers. Will AIMS jealously restrict its membership to traditional TV space players?

“You don’t have to be a broadcaster, anyone can join AIMS,” says Cronk. “We think IT-based companies are pretty central. In no way are we looking to exclude anybody. The salient point in the bylaws is the AIMS roadmap. If you believe that’s the roadmap forward, it doesn’t matter if you’re HP, Cisco, or Microsoft.”

What do customers want?

Tim Thorsteinson became CEO of Snell Advanced Media last year. In his long career heading some of the industry’s biggest vendors, he’s seen many upheavals. He thinks the principles underlying the industry transformation aren’t anything new, but the business is very different from what it once was.

“Fundamentally, what customers are asking for isn’t any different from what they’ve always wanted,” says Thorsteinson. “They don’t want to buy a system and find two or three years from now it isn’t upgradeable or isn’t going to work with other solutions. But what is different is that the end customer has more uncertainty about their business model. How content is commissioned is different. You may get eight episodes and a break, then maybe eight more. You’re not signing up for three or four years where you can put a big capital plan in place. So customers want a lot more flexibility in their technology decisions than frankly the industry has been able to provide in the past.”

Fundamentally, what customers are asking for isn’t any different from what they’ve always wanted

“AIMS de-risks some things for customers,” add’s Neil Maycock, SAM’s EVP of marketing. “Everybody says they’re doing IP, but they don’t know which vendor to go with, and they don’t want to invest in a dead-end technology that’s not going to interoperate. If a group of us vendors say, 'We’re going to interoperate, and it’s a level of buy-in over and above just following SMPTE standards', they can go ahead and use normal buying criteria because they know they’re not going to be dead-ended."

A new explosion

AIMS member Imagine Communications has been producing virtualised systems, running entirely in the IP realm for some time now. “There’s no question that IP is going to be the underlying transport and networking technology for the broadcast industry for the foreseeable future,” says Imagine CTO Steve Reynolds. “You just can’t argue with the economies of scale and the pace of innovation. It brings to our industry the same kind of benefits it’s brought to other industries. CND broadcast will become an IP based industry. There’s almost no doubt about it.”

So once everything has transitioned to IP, what then? Will it be all smooth-sailing? Will broadcasters and vendors finally get a rest?

“I think there will be a stability at the lower layers of the stack,” predicts Reynolds. “It will stabilise around broadly deployed IP technology. That will be great for all of us. It will give us that layer of stability around the physical infrastructure. But I think what you’ll see is a real explosion in terms of the types of applications that people can run on top of that.”