Tech Features

Going live on IP

Dr Glodina Connan.
Dr Glodina Connan.

Live production facilities, despite representing the final touches of an all-IP overhaul, will make the move to what is widely seen as a more agile and versatile environment, says Glodina Connan-Lostanlen

As media companies and broadcasters evolve their TV infrastructures towards IP-based generic computing and networking infrastructure, the widely held perception is that live production operations involving the manipulation of real-time video and audio signals will be the last part of the broadcast facility to make the transition from SDI to IP.

That perception is reinforced by the findings of a recent survey of more than 700 media and entertainment industry professionals. Asked which operations they would first move to the cloud, just 14% said signal routing – far from surprising, given the very special demands of live video. But the same survey conducted at the end of 2015 also found that 60% of media professionals expect nearly all of their SDI-based operations to transition to an IP-based infrastructure in the next two to five years.

The most salient conclusion to be drawn from these two data points is that live production facilities, despite representing the final touches of an all-IP overhaul, will make the move to what is widely seen as a more agile and versatile environment. The transition of all operations from SDI to IP is inevitable for a variety of reasons, because it delivers considerable short- and long-term benefits.

Benefits of IP

IP is about building a future-proof infrastructure and the huge cost benefits which commodity IT hardware offers. It is about designing workflows that accurately match the enterprise requirements of the content company, and it is about providing a flexible, agile, future-proofed platform.

Media companies will bridge the gap between traditional and internet-based delivery and its business opportunities, and they will use the IP environment to develop more appropriate workflows for playout and distribution. A natural extension of this will be to leverage the same advantages in live production, moving that to new technology platforms and taking full advantage of an entirely IP-based workflow, from production to multiplatform distribution.

In addition to agility and flexibility gains, broadcasters will experience significant cost efficiencies because the IT industry continues to invest hugely in raising performance and reducing the cost of its standard hardware. As the media industry demands higher bandwidth (for 4K or high dynamic range, for example), the processing power is becoming available. There is no point in developing industry-specific means of handling Ultra HD when IP is ready and waiting.

The ability to effectively transport high-quality video over long distances using IP also presents broadcasters with the opportunity to reduce the amount of equipment required at sports venues and other sources of live entertainment. Moving to IP may eventually reduce the need for expensive outside broadcast equipment, enabling broadcasters to deliver live content at a higher quality for a fraction of the cost.

The reality is that IP-based live production is not a matter of if but of when. In fact, the viability of IP to deliver live programming has already been proven. Multiple proofs of concept and real-world commercial deployments are now in place using IP infrastructure to transport live video signals and offer complete IP production chains. This summer’s major sporting events (including the Olympic Games and the football European Championship) will see the latest generation of OB trucks and production facilities in active use in front of audiences measured in the hundreds of millions.

Lingering obstacles

A major technical obstacle potentially delaying the transition of live production operations to IP is a fear that IT-based environments based on generic computing and networking resources currently lack the precision, reliability and responsiveness that broadcast-quality video demands.

These concerns are valid. The major reason that high-quality video is the last communications asset to be fully digitalised and distributed over IP, following telephony by more than a decade, is the difficulty in duplicating the timing precision of SDI.

IT environments, including data centres, must be conditioned to provide the precise performance and synchronisation that video production operations demand. The good news is that experts in the media and entertainment industry are now working closely with experts in the IT and data centre realms to give IT environments the ability to host media operations without sacrificing performance, precision or reliability. The technology is advancing to deliver the performance required for both uncompressed and compressed video and audio over IP.

Another technical hurdle that many live production facilities will need to scale before they feel comfortable enough to move to IP is the current lack of widespread interoperability among IP-based solutions. In the SDI realm, seamlessly interconnecting solutions from multiple vendors is a given. Widespread interoperability is taken for granted.

That is not yet the case in the IP realm. Standards bodies are working on interoperability, and multi-vendor bodies like AIMS, the Alliance for IP Solutions, are encouraging the widespread adoption of practical standards. Other solution providers are pursuing technology developed and supported by a single vendor.

Without widespread industry consensus around a clearly defined set of open industry standards, production facilities are likely to put off their IP transformation out of fear of stranding assets they purchase today or becoming overly dependent on a single or limited number of solutions suppliers. Understanding and adopting the best of open standards for media in the IP world also calls for new skills and experience to be developed among engineers and systems integrators, enabling them to pass on to operational and managerial staffs the confidence that the new technology will deliver the performance standards they expect, without significant changes to practical operations but within improved enterprise-wide workflows.

It should come as no surprise that cultural issues, such as the need to acquire new skill sets, pose nearly as big a challenge as technology issues for media companies contemplating a transition to IP. The same study cited earlier in this article found that almost half (48%) of professionals surveyed believe that cultural concerns pose more of an impediment to IP adoption than the technology.

One way technology suppliers are dealing with this obstacle is by providing command and control solutions that shield operators from the complexity and ‘newness’ of IP by delivering interfaces and tools with the same look and feel as SDI-based tools. The best of these solutions enable operators to use existing and familiar control devices and surfaces to manage the routing of video signals across an all-IP or hybrid SDI-IP infrastructure, exactly the way they used to in the days of SDI.

Glodina Connan-Lostanlen is CMO at Imagine Communications.