by Pace Media

Is virtualised playout ready for primetime?

The industry is fast transitioning to common off-the-shelf playout automation platforms, but the question taxing the minds of chief engineers and CTOs is whether virtualised systems are as secure, as highly available, and as cost effective right now as existing on-premises hardware provision.

Almost all aspects of channel creation are now available as software in different shape and scale.

  • Channel in a Box software solutions are marketed to provide all the essential broadcast channel elements such as video server, master control, graphics and captioning in a software-only solution, capable of running on generic servers or cloud-hosted virtual machines.
  • Transcoders are common in cloud-based transcoding-as-a-service platforms. Some vendors market cards that not only encode video, but also support fully integrated graphic branding and local clip playout, running in a data center. Others claim to perform not just traditional DVE functions but complex dynamic graphics insertions and different audio manipulations all in software.

Are these solutions are as efficient, as predictable or as sophisticated as legacy hardware?

Resolving the issue is in many ways business as usual for new technology deployments. Before hitting the 'go live' button, broadcasters will evaluate and test new equipment in a setting that is representative of its particular production environment and operating models. They will look for other reference implementations for assurance of the readiness of the products.

Security and network infrastructure constraints make the public cloud a non-starter for naturally cautious media operations. Most broadcasters prefer to talk about Private Data Centers which can also be geographically independent so that they have all the potential benefits of cloud without the security drawbacks.

Many companies are still hosting their content and technology out of office buildings or basement server rooms, which were not designed to deliver the same benefits and features that purpose-built data centres can in terms of security, availability and disaster recovery.

There are other considerations too for prospective investors. Will a cloud solutions vendor provide full support for the implementation you buy from them? When something goes wrong – and let's face it, it probably will - is it clear what your own and the vendors’ responsibilities are?

The real-time nature of video delivery

Perhaps the most important factor that can affect the use of pure IT solutions is the real-time nature of video delivery. The cloud, with its shared resource model emerged like the internet as a best effort service. It gives high performance and it is highly scalable and highly flexible. But can software-centric virtualised IP-connected systems replicate the deterministic behaviour required of current linear playout?

Broadcast requires the fabled five 9s of frame-accurate reliability. Timing in the IT world typically operates differently. Best practice may be to challenge your vendor to prove the integrity of the signal chain in a real world environment before contracting them.

The next hurdle is managing control. Various de facto mechanisms and protocols (such as VDCP, CII, SCTE 104/35) exist but typically they do not address the needs of the on-air chain. So while virtualizing control is possible today, achieving a standards-based approach remains challenging.

There’s no denying that the advent of remotely-located data centers is muscling in on the market for the playout functions of traditional standalone video servers at broadcast and content distribution facilities.

It is also clear that in a relatively short space of time, as IP transport matures towards software-defined networking, the decline of appliance-based video servers will accelerate.

While these trends can be expected to gain momentum and become a very significant part of the business, today's reality is that the capabilities that can automatically replace legacy hardware with the same level of redundancy, availability assurance and performance need very careful assessment before switching on cloud-based playout.