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How can the cloud bring benefits to live broadcast transmission?
As broadcasters continue to embrace the move to commodity IT technology and virtualisation, the real benefits of this new approach are particularly evident for live broadcast transmission.
In one of our earlier blogs we discussed how broadcasters are embracing the move to commodity IT technology, but what about taking it to the next level?
For many years, enterprise IT has benefited from the numerous commercial and operational advantages that machine virtualisation brings. No longer is it necessary to have dedicated hardware allocated to one specific task such as an email or database server, operating with a low utilisation. It is now commonplace to virtualise, enabling many individual operating systems and their applications to share the same underlying hardware resources, yet remaining isolated from each other. Whilst this is working exceptionally well for traditional IT, bringing costs and space savings as well as increased resilience and agility, are we now ready to reap the benefits by virtualising the live broadcast chain?
Today, best-in-class direct-to-home video encoding continues to be found in dedicated hardware, and the leading manufacturers are focussed on the development of their software equivalents. Deploying software based encoding into a broadcast facility is already possible today with the reliance on specialised broadcast signal interface cards inside dedicated PC hardware. This step forward doesn’t bring you all of the benefits of taking a software approach, but what is necessary is to move away from specialist interfaces for both the media and control signals in favour of standard IT interfaces – Ethernet and IP. Widespread adoption of legacy interfaces in their equivalent IP formats is growing, although they are not without their challenges. Providing line-accurate timing and having low latency (end-to-end delay) are still common issues. SMPTE, The EBU and other bodies are continuing to drive the development and adoption of standards appropriate to the broadcast industry.
Within a modern data centre, there are intelligent capacity management and orchestration tools to enable rapid provisioning and reconfiguration of services. This is especially interesting for broadcast services when combined with appropriate software licensing models. A good example of where this agility lends itself is for special events such as music or sports, where numerous channels or video streams are required for short periods. Using a traditional approach, dedicated hardware is purchased, space and power allocated along with specialist cabling and other supporting infrastructure. With a software only approach, processing, encoding and multiplexing services could be soft-provisioned in a data centre from a pre-defined template and available to use within minutes. Should surplus capacity not be available in your own data centre, an elastic model may be implemented where public cloud provider resources are used to support the current demand.
Virtualisation brings greater options for resilience with high availability hardware combined with tools such as shadowing, replication and live migration. It is however essential to understand the behaviour of these various fault tolerance mechanisms, whether this is at the network, physical, hypervisor or application layer in order to achieve the desired behaviour. In addition, tools enabling snapshots and rollbacks are incredibly useful whilst upgrading and modifying applications to ensure the highest levels of service provided.
So is the industry ready to make the change and what could the future hold?
Deploying a best-in-class, fully virtualised broadcast encoding and multiplexing system which is hardware agnostic and relies on Ethernet and IP network infrastructure is a target architecture. I believe this will take a number of years to become the default solution.
The broadcast industry is going through a significant period of adopting COTS (Commercially available Off-The-Shelf) hardware and standards based protocols from the IT industry, so it’s only a matter of time before wider deployment. There is also a role for SDN (Software Defined Networking) to help maximise use of network resources throughout an enterprise by flexing it to meet the current demands and this could be appropriate for high bandwidth, occasional use services.
The industry should take the opportunity to explore beyond just the technical aspects to see what other advantages there may be such as enabling greater creativity, improving the production process or increasing advertising revenues. The BBC’s IP end-to-end project during the Commonwealth Games was a very interesting proof of concept and demonstrates what is becoming possible.
Arqiva is continuing its deployment of virtualisation infrastructure across the business and is continuing to work closely with leading broadcast industry vendors to evaluate and deploy software based broadcast services.
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