On the path to the "cloud of real time"
A lot has been said about moving to a standardised infrastructure and IP connectivity. But it is good to keep in mind the main reason for this transition
There is little doubt that the broadcast, media and entertainment industry is a completely different space from what it was a few short years ago. With an ingoing evolution driven by technology changes, availability of content and even changes in the viewers themselves, one of the most talked about topics is that of the transition to IP.
A lot has been said about the benefits of moving to a standardised infrastructure and using IP connectivity to transport content from source, to viewers and around campuses. But it is good to keep in mind the main reason for this transition.
IP is just one of the building blocks for a transformed broadcast and media infrastructure, and that is the real goal. In fact, the real transformation will occur with the virtualisation of live production, which will radically transform workflows.
So what is virtualisation?
Virtualisation, as a general term, is defined as: a virtual version of (a computer, operating system, data storage device, etc.), which is not itself an independent device but both works and appears to the user as a single, physical entity.
In other words, virtualisation involves the use of software to provide functionality that appears to come from a dedicated device but is not.
Mapped into the world of broadcasting, this means essentially two things — having equipment that can perform multiple, often varied functions (what Nevion calls media function virtualisation), and enabling equipment to be shared more easily, for example between studios or locations (something we calls infrastructure virtualisation).
Media function virtualisation means that the functionality required, such as media transport and processing, is performed by software rather than hardware. Initially, this software will be running on specialized platforms, but in time “media function virtualisation” will involve software apps running on generic IT hardware platforms (essentially high-powered computers). The key point though is that the same hardware can run different functionality, and that functionality can be modified on demand and remotely with the help of a virtualisation orchestrator.
Media function virtualisation brings savings through reduced hardware replacements, lower space usage, as well as lower cost of training, maintenance and management.
Infrastructure virtualisation is a way to enable equipment to be shared more easily for live and file-based production, for example between studios or locations. Equipment sharing is obviously a concept that exists already to some extent in the baseband world. For example, it is possible to route workflows through a piece of signal processing equipment that is shared. However, infrastructure virtualisation takes this a step further, by detaching the physical equipment from the production workflow and greatly automating the process. The advent of IP makes this much easier.
Infrastructure virtualisation is achieved by using a software management layer (or virtualisation orchestrator) to elevate workflows to a level that does not require users to have any understanding of the underlying connectivity of the network and equipment. The orchestrator is intelligent enough to change the network based on information provided by the network itself, so effectively the network topology is software defined. Virtualisation provides a better overview of accessible resources across the infrastructure, as well as an easier access to the resources in the network, without need for additional physical setup.
Cloud will also make it possible for broadcasters to swap capital expenditure in equipment with operational expenditure in pay-per-use processing services
What about the cloud?
In time, the virtualisation of live production will lead to what Nevion calls the cloud of real-time — something that has the potential to revolutionise the way broadcasters work.
The term has been deliberately been chosen to challenge the industry to think about the genuine potential of the move to IP. For many in the industry, it is inconceivable that cloud technology could be applicable to live production.
The assumptions have always been that equipment would be owned by the broadcaster (as it always has been), and located on the premises where they are needed, e.g. the campus. However, both of these assumptions can be challenged.
The broadcaster’s pooled signal processing and transport equipment (e.g. embedders, encoders, multiplexers) could be owned and managed by a service provider. This is particularly conceivable as functionality moves to software running on generic hardware: pooled equipment would become computers, and service providers are experts in running data-centres.
If the processing and transport equipment is pooled and managed by a service provider, why keep it on-site? After all, the service provider could share some of that functionality with other locations of the broadcaster or even other broadcasters, effectively making the cost of use much lower.
The reality of modern, dedicated networks is that comparatively low latencies can be achieved over considerable distances. Uncompressed signals can be transported around 200 km or 125 miles per millisecond. So theoretically, a signal could travel 2000km - or 1250 miles - and back within one 50p progressive frame (20ms). This makes it totally possible to locate a live-signal processing data-center quite some distance away from the broadcasters’ facilities – effectively in the cloud of real-time.
Cloud will also make it possible for broadcasters to swap capital expenditure in equipment with operational expenditure in pay-per-use processing services. As well as the flexibility this offers them, it also allows them to line up costs with the expected revenue from content creation.
Furthermore, this concept can also enable broadcasters to offer their equipment as a service to other broadcasters. In this scenario, broadcasters would be service providers, and transform their equipment from costs to revenue.
While IP gets a lot of attention at the moment, it is actually the enabling technology for much more. With excellent compression (where necessary) and encapsulation of video streams we can move content from process to process, from virtual machine to virtual machine, whether those virtual machines are in the same hardware or a considerable distance away.
It is the virtualisation, the creation of a software-defined architecture, that brings massive benefits through being cost-effective, responsive to change and secure through redundancy.