Qatar-based Al Rayyan Satellite Channel recently virtualised a large part of its broadcast IT infrastructure with the aim of transitioning to a full cloud setup in the future. Haitham Zaidan, who heads Engineering at the TV channel, speaks to Vibhuti Arora extensively about the virtual setup and his vision for a future in the cloud […]
Qatar-based Al Rayyan Satellite Channel recently virtualised a large part of its broadcast IT infrastructure with the aim of transitioning to a full cloud setup in the future. Haitham Zaidan, who heads Engineering at the TV channel, speaks to Vibhuti Arora extensively about the virtual setup and his vision for a future in the cloud
Launched in 2012, the free-to-air Arabic-language TV channel beams across the MENA region and Europe. The programming mainly targets Qatari youth and promotes the countrys culture and traditions. The channel produces most of its content in-house and has more than 500 staff including production, technical and creative professionals.
The channel recently undertook the implementation of a virtual channel playout setup using Imagine Communications VersioCloud. The first phase of the project was initiated two years ago by Haitham Zaidan, who was then Head of Broadcast IT at the channel and was recently promoted to Acting Director of Engineering. Zaidan hoped to upgrade to a virtualised setup two years ago although broadcast vendors then were unable to offer the necessary support and recommended that he stick to physical servers.
Having come from an IT background, I wanted to have similar systems in place for broadcast as well, says Zaidan.
Virtualisation within the IT sector began almost ten years ago and is now well established. IT infrastructure has dominated the architecture used in broadcast engineering and it serves a vital role in networking, storage, databases, media delivery, post-production, asset management and traffic management.
My objective was to have as little hardware as possible, and make the infrastructure more software-centric so as to save time, effort and money that would traditionally be spent on servicing and maintaining hardware, he says.
Despite the lack of vendor support, Zaidan moved forward with his venture and virtualised the software part of Al Rayyans in-house systems, including media asset management, traffic and scheduling system, databases as well as workflow management systems.
We virtualised anyway and asked the vendors to just install their software and not do anything else.
Virtualising machines meant converting all of the resources of those machines to virtual copies virtual machine, virtual memory, virtual network adapters, virtual processors and so on and hosting them on a physical host. This physical host is a cluster of servers with multiple virtual machines. It provides redundancy to the hosted systems.
This is what we call a private cloud, Zaidan explains.
At NAB this year, Zaidan had the opportunity to witness Imagine Communications VersioCloud in action. The fully IP-enabled, integrated playout in the cloud platform serves as a playout solution that is 100% software, running on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) IT platforms.
He approached the vendor and offered to trial the solution at Al Rayyan, whose virtual infrastructure is capable of hosting this new setup.
I told Imagine that we wanted to be the first to test this in the region. We had several meetings but it took some time to be released, and by July, we had the system up and running at our facility.
Imagine Communications deployed VersioCloud as a proof of concept (POC) at Al Rayyan TV. The playout automation, graphics engine and master control switcher have been virtualised with this deployment. Playout involves a lot of hardware, but in VersioCloud, everything is combined in one machine, including the Nexio Playout Server, ADC Automation, Icon Master Control Switcher, Logo Generator and audio video encoders and decoders.
By leveraging evolving IP and cloud technologies, we are able to move beyond whats currently possible with traditional broadcast infrastructures. A traditional playout setup used to depend on dedicated hardware from specific manufacturers, while the playout from the cloud in this project comprises only software provided by Imagine Communications that can be installed on any kind of hardware from any major manufacturers. In our case, we have HP for servers and storage. The hardware required for the playout from the cloud is significantly cheaper than the hardware required for the traditional playout setup.
Another cost saving in using this technology is that your data centre will have fewer physical machines, which means less power consumption and less cooling requirements, points out Zaidan.
Since the playout from the cloud project is all about software, it is very easy to deploy without large-scale hardware purchasing, shipping and installation. The traditional studio output is converted to IP and the Versio inserts that feed into the playout chain. While the playout at the facility uses Imagine products, the broadcasters studios use Grass Valley HD cameras.
Simply put, the VersioCloud is a virtual MCR. We still have to use our existing setup, as the entire broadcast chain at our facility doesnt support IP. Versio is based on IP, but our existing setup uses traditional baseband, which means integrating the two systems into one chain. The output of Versio is converted to HD-SDI and then passed on to the traditional chain.
The implementation was completed within 48 hours during the first week of June. Al Rayyan ran the testing for the remaining three weeks in June, before going live on July 1 this year. The end user and the vendor worked in unison to implement the solution.
Virtualisation of systems has several advantages, including cost savings, ease of deployment and easier maintenance.
This is especially useful when we need to add a new channel to the playout chain. All we need to do is set up a new virtual machine, download and install the software, and its ready to play, says Zaidan.
Virtual machines are very easy to maintain, especially when you need downtime, as these can be moved to another physical server during maintenance or upgrade works without interrupting the running workflow.
Moreover, with a virtualised environment, technology refresh is much easier and cheaper for the company. With constantly evolving technology, it is imperative for broadcasters to keep up to date to stay in the game. At Al Rayyan, we constantly try to update our existing facilities with new technologies, and this move is in line with that vision.
Redundancy and disaster recovery in the broadcast environment is about replicating everything, which in a virtualised environment, is cheaper.
Some of the major elements of this workflow besides the Imagine Communications solutions include:
HP Proliant servers with dual 24 core processors and 256GB RAM, which have been deployed at the facility. HP MSA 2040 storage with fibre channel is used to ensure there is enough online storage for the working virtual machine, as well as spare capacity for future growth.
A significant part of this setup is the WMWare ESXI hypervisor, which serves as the operating system on the physical HP servers that creates the virtual environment to host the virtual machines.
The WMWare VCentre combines and manages all the HP servers or hosts into one cluster, and the WMWare VSphere controls and manages that cluster.
The current network infrastructure at Al Rayyan TV is also powered by CISCO switches such as the Nexus 7000, which is the core of the IT infrastructure that now serves the traditional setup as well as the private cloud.
The virtual MCR
As proof of concept, the Versio Cloud MCR runs in parallel with Al Rayyans traditional setup. Hence it needs to be integrated with the playout chain, to share media, databases and metadata between the two systems (traditional setup and the new system). This way, both systems share the same media, databases and network infrastructure and play the same content. This also allows Al Rayyan to compare both systems in terms of functionality, performance, reliability as well as integrity.
The existing playout domain was fitted into three racks and includes multiple video servers with shared storage, ADC automation, IconMaster master control switcher and its logo generator. The output of this setup is HD-SDI.
Zaidan explains that the new setup only requires half a rack of space to create a private cloud cluster that hosts virtual machines. This includes all of the traditional systems and the devices that convert the network IP stream to baseband as an HD-SDI signal. No new metadata is generated, as both systems share the same metadata.
Both systems are sharing the same network infrastructure, databases, metadata, traffic and scheduling system and workflow management system. The outputs of both setups are connected to our central video router to continue the playout workflow to other sections of the channel, clarifies Zaidan.
The output of the new system is converted from an IP stream to baseband and integrated with the existing video and audio infrastructure, to compare the picture quality of the two systems.
So this achieved the current workflow of the two systems running in parallel. This is the first step towards our future plan to virtualise the entire traditional broadcast IT setup in the channel. In addition, it is also the first step towards moving from traditional baseband playout to network IP, explains Zaidan.
VersioCloud is a complete software, IP playout solution which incorporates the same core elements of automation, playback and graphics engines as the hardware Versio appliance. In the cloud setup, all of the traditional integrated channel playout functions such as branding, editing, graphics, automation and server capabilities are cloud-enabled.
Also available as part of the cloud playout solution are Imagine Communications Magellan SDN Orchestrator software control system and Selenio processing and compression solutions, enabling the transparent management of hybrid SDI, ASI and IP content, including a seamless on-ramp/off-ramp between IP and legacy baseband transport that accommodates media companies eventual transition to all-IP networks.
The combination of cloud-based playout with hybridised legacy and IP transport enhances all aspects of the broadcast business. Benefits include improved visibility to optimise advertising playout, efficient methods of disaster recovery, fast channel creation to accommodate seasonal or one-time events, the expansion of brands and content into new markets and new geographies, and a pay-as-you-go Platform as a Service (PaaS) model to lower the cost and time barrier of the traditional methods of establishing a channel.
Live compressed and uncompressed IP streams for later audio and video processing are decoded. Video from live sources or the two internal clip playback engines are up-/down-/cross-converted, before the internal master control switcher switches between sources and adds graphics, branding and DVE moves. The audio is mixed, with loudness corrected, and encoded before final transmission. The branded channel is streamed as an uncompressed video-over-IP signal (SMPTE 2022-6) or a compressed MPEG transport stream with either H.264 or MPEG2 video compression.
The Zenium workflow manager is part of the VersioCloud instance and is used internally to configure and design the video and routing signal flows. The modular and flexible Zenium architecture provides the capability to plug in audio and video processing components, as well as content augmentation functions such as live captioning.
Third-party processing components, such as Linear Acoustics loudness monitoring, are enabled by the modular design.
The VersioCloud is controlled with its internal ADC automation, but can be integrated with external ADC or D-Series automation systems.
Every aspect of Versios clip playout, graphic branding and master control is available for automation control.
The graphics engine can be driven via automation, and maintains a database of upcoming broadcast schedules which is updated as and when they are published. Up to ten graphics layouts can be loaded into memory and displayed on-screen simultaneously. Each layout can contain many individual elements, including test, graphics, animations, video clips and audio files. Mixing video, graphics and audio is managed by the Versio master control system. Controlled by automation, all of these aspects can be managed to create the exact on-air look needed.
The Magellan SDN orchestrator provides a Software Defined Network (SDN) orchestration management system to manage and simplify signal distribution and routing in the IP stream realm.
Al Rayyans operators and support engineers were using the same technology on the physical setup. The technology in the virtual setup requires the same knowledge.
Currently, the solution is used in our headquarters only. However, eventually it will be used in different branches, such as disaster recovery sites and playout centres.
A deep knowledge in broadcast, and IT systems and technologies formed the basis of this deployment. We will leverage the implementation in the future by creating new playout and disaster recovery sites with ready infrastructure, for any future seasonal/temporary channels or new permanent channels, points out Zaidan.