Can commodity IT infrastructure replace specialised video processing hardware?

Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) currently provide broadcasters with a high performance, highly efficient encoding platform.

Best in class, real time variable bitrate video compression is a very demanding process. Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) currently provide broadcasters with a high performance, highly efficient encoding platform. Real time, low delay performance is essential for use cases such as live interviews and direct to home transmission and with High Definition and Ultra High Definition services set to continue their quest to ubiquity, does this put FPGAs in an unassailable position? Or can commodity IT grab a seat at the table and become a serious broadcast contender?

What’s so great about commodity IT?

To start with there’s the opportunity to leverage the sheer power and magnitude of the IT sector and realise some very real commercial benefits. By contrast the broadcast industry is incomparable. Vendors can focus on the development of specialised processing and compression algorithms without having to undertake development and production of hardware. Consolidated multi-service, multi-tenanted IT infrastructure can bring greater efficiency when considered across an enterprise due to greater utilisation of resources.

Commodity IT also brings the opportunity to increase encoding performance by leveraging the rapid advances synonymous with the huge investments made into Central Processing Unit (CPU) technology by leading developers such as Intel. Traditional broadcast vendors currently maximise their investment from a bespoke hardware platform by maintaining it for a number of years until the performance improvements, via incremental firmware updates, tail off. Embracing commodity CPU technology leads to a more frequent increase in performance, ideal for addressing the commercial pressures on fixed and limited bandwidth platforms such as cable, satellite and terrestrial networks.

As with a lot of new tech, there are often lots of new opportunities to explore. Abstracting the specialised processing from the hardware can help open the market to new entrants, whilst established standards such as those defined in SMPTE 2022 mean broadcast specific interfaces can be eliminated in favour of Ethernet and IP. Machine virtualisation technology, which is well established within modern enterprise ecosystems, may also be appropriate for video processing, bringing numerous benefits including reduced lead times, agility and resilience.

Where is the industry today?

To put it bluntly, CPU based encoding is not new. Our Connect TV solution perfectly demonstrates how this technology is being used today. Applications such as video conferencing, online video streaming and transcoding already take this approach, often provisioned on  private and public infrastructure. Numerous vendors have already embraced the capabilities of CPU based software encoding, but where will the technology turn next?

There’s a selection of potential hybrid solutions vendors could explore too, in addition to pure CPU, but which, if any, will be crowned king? It could be possible to tap in to the processing power provided by on board Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), offloading tasks to a bespoke processor board or moving to true hybrid CPU/FPGA architecture, or maybe something else.

Why is this not the de facto standard today?

Whilst the market is awash with CPU based encoding solutions for fixed bitrate and Over-the-Top (OTT) streaming applications, there is currently limited availability of best-in-class encoding for direct-to-home broadcast networks. I’m in no doubt there’s considerable development underway to produce fit for purpose solutions by many leading vendors.

Whilst change is underway, there remains an underlying resistance when it comes to commodity IT in broadcast applications. Concerns regarding picture quality, security, density, power comsumption, availability, latency etc. have all contributed to the aforementioned suspicion. From a vendor’s perspective, how will they structure commercial models to ensure they can protect revenues gained through shifting traditional hardware, upgrades and in-life support?

To conclude

Some encoder manufacturers would argue that you need bespoke hardware for optimum performance in areas such as UHD, but I firmly believe it’s only a matter of time before commodity IT elbows its way in and becomes a key player in the broadcast game. As IT infrastructure and broadcast developers continue to invest heavily in these areas, it won’t be long before the potential broadcasting benefits become overwhelming and impossible to ignore.

At Arqiva we continue to explore how these technological advances can help shape the future of broadcasting and provide further benefits to our customers.