TVBEurope – Can the future of playout be software-only?


TVBEurope recently featured an interview with senior staff at a major playout centre, talking about the “uberisation” of playout, and noting that they now had the capabilities to playout a broadcast channel using only software applications.

As a follow-up, we talk to three vendors who have been leaders in advocating virtualised software platforms, capable of running in the machine room or in the Cloud. Jan Weigner of Cinegy, Adam Leah of nxtedition and Ciáran Doran of Pixel Power, a Rohde & Schwarz Company, gave their views.

“Being a software company is the only thing Cinegy has ever done – we have been saying ‘SDI must die’ for years,” Weigner says. “We never considered being a hardware company. Our first systems used MPEG-2, because that was what was available when we started out in 2006. It just made sense to us to keep the content in MPEG-2 rather than continually converting back to baseband, because every conversion step degrades the signal.”

Doran adds that Pixel Power started out making hardware decades ago because it was the only way to get the performance its software products needed. “As soon as it was practical we moved away from being a heavy metal company. Pixel Power was the first to offer premium broadcast graphics on COTS hardware, and from there we became the first to develop software-only automation.”

Swedish vendor nxtedition started life as a systems integrator, and found that automation systems invariably had gaps between the supposedly fully-functional hardware products. “We wanted to provide our customers with a system that not only worked, but reduced complexity,” Leah explains. “So we developed the functionality in software, because that is the obvious way to do it.

“Systems should be easy to use, and easy to maintain,” he adds. “If you reduce complexity you do not need so many technicians, so you can employ more journalists and creative talent. And if the system is so intuitive you can learn it in a couple of hours, you can be more productive. Our technology is largely used in news production, and being first and fast with the news is always the primary driver.”

While the nxtedition platform is designed as a single-source solution, it does include APIs and the implementation of open standards. For Pixel Power, Doran emphasises that “open standards absolutely has to be the way to go.

“Broadcasters have always regarded themselves as different, wanting specific functionality for their unique operations. With ST-2110, they can continue to demand best of breed solutions.”

Weigner agrees that open standards are vital, but adds a note of caution. “ST-2110 is designed to be used within one facility – other standards exist for the long haul.

“DVB is an IP signal. UDP as a standard is 40 years old. All the building blocks for IP connectivity between facilities and functions have been in place for 25 years or more.”

All three agree that to achieve the necessary performance, software systems for broadcast need to be built on an architecture that minimises the processor demands by only using the precise functionality needed from moment to moment.

Microservices form the foundation of virtualisation, and virtualisation leads inevitably to discussion of the Cloud.

“Cloud is a conversation starter,” Doran says. “People want to talk Cloud, but the reality is that it is more secure and more cost-effective to do it on-premise. The business model of the Cloud is that it costs little or nothing to upload: the costs are in the download. So do the maths.”

Adam Leah of nxtedition adds, “Because video servers get very big, they need to be near at hand. Having them on premises works out significantly less expensive – we did the sums for one of our clients and one third-party server charges worked out at around three times the capital cost, per year.”

He also says that latency is a critical issue. “Broadcasting is very hungry: we need a new frame every few milliseconds. But the Cloud is not about synchronous delivery, it is about scale. It really doesn’t matter if it takes 100 milliseconds or 220 milliseconds to authorise a credit card transaction. These delays can be problematic in delivering video”

“What people really want is virtualisation,” emphasises Cinegy’s Weigner. “The Cloud is just virtualisation running on someone else’s computer.” For an application like broadcast, where processes are pretty constant, then you do not need the elasticity, so why pay someone else to provide a service you could do yourself?

One area where elastic scale is a positive benefit is in disaster recovery. “We have been preparing for the wrong sort of disaster,” Doran says. Planning for business continuity has traditionally been based on a lack of access to the primary facility because of fire or flood, so all the staff get in cars to drive to a replica installation somewhere else.

Covid-19 has brought a different sort of disaster: the staff cannot get to any sort of facility, at least not in the usual numbers. So the ability to access playout from anywhere becomes very desirable.

“German broadcasters, for instance, are looking into a common, shared playout facility,” adds Doran. “If you can access a playout installation in one region, why can’t you access it from home? You only need KVM, and IP KVM has negligible latency.”

Weigner makes the point that the Cloud business model of very low cost uploads plays into this disaster recovery application, as you can have all the content and software ready and waiting for only hundreds of dollars a year, and spin-up playout channels very quickly should it become necessary.

“It is not only about CPUs,” he says. “One of Cinegy’s early projects was about accelerating video using GPUs – we have 20 years’ experience. GPU virtualisation in the cloud tremendously reduces footprint. You only need one CPU cored to run an HD channel if you have GPU acceleration. So you can run an HD channel for maybe 20 cents an hour.”