File-Based Workflows


For perhaps two decades, much of the broadcast industry has made a fuss over “workflow,” treating the term as if it were something lofty and complicated - which of course, it isn’t. Workflow simply refers to the steps that users take to complete a task, start to finish. Thinking about workflow typically has been easy for the people and companies who actually perform the work. It’s been a little harder for vendors.
Over the past 20 years, vendors have had to transition from just knowing the “workflow” inside the boxes they sell to understanding larger workflows that encompass all of the boxes (and people) performing the work. The good news is that a transition across the industry is bringing the era of messy workflows to an end. This transition is being enabled by the “file-based workflows” now coming to prominence.
Prior to the introduction of file-based workflows, broadcasters’ beautiful flowcharts were marred by a little sneakernet here, some baseband transfer there, and the occasional re-typing of key information. Facilities didn't always have the interfaces and agreements in place to hook the output of one machine or process to the input of the next. True file-based workflows can eliminate these issues. Of course, advances in the speed of computer networking and the efficiency of video compression have helped to improve workflows, too.
While stunningly few media workflows are, as yet, entirely file-based, the model now is available and its benefits are being more broadly realized. As a result, traditional workflow problems are a thing of the past for most media workflows.
What does file-based workflow really mean?
Strictly speaking, a “file-based workflow” is one in which content is exchanged in the form of files, not as baseband audio and video. While it is significant that media is taking a new form, the implications of this change are most important. Arguably, there are two critical implications. One implication is that media does not need to be “handled” so often, which in turn means that workflows can be streamlined and automated. The second implication is that workflows can be extended geographically. This flexibility allows, for example, a media organization to think about its Los Angeles production workflow as being connected to its New York program prep infrastructure. The physical distance between the two is negated by a simple workflow step in which, thanks to clever WAN acceleration tools, a media file is transferred across the country without the need for cueing tapes or booking satellite windows.
What advantages does it bring?
The primary advantages of a file-based workflow are efficiency, speed, and global business agility. In a large media company with production centers located around the world, for example, each producer transfers completed programs as files to a central storage repository. Automated systems check for technical characteristics. Other processes may send files out for the addition of new language tracks. Scheduling systems “see” this collection of programs, and programmers make schedules. The programs are transcoded automatically to the right format and sent wherever required for air. They are then played on schedule or are made available for on-demand services.
With this type of file-based workflow, a broadcaster could launch a new service anywhere. Starting a new service in Cairo simply requires that operator to ship out a couple of rack units of edge server. The rest of the necessary infrastructure likely is in place already.
What’s needed to make this happen?
Business Process Logic
The servers, the wide area network, the file formats and file wrappers, the transcoders —they’re pretty much all there in today’s products. What’s needed to tie them together is business logic, which must be easy to apply to the system. A simple if-then flowchart demonstrates this logic. A file is received, triggering a QC process. If the QC test fails, the file is quarantined and an email sent to the distributor. If the QC check is passed, the file is delivered to the next location and/or user.
Tools such as BPMS (business process modeling language) are already in use in other industries. These tools allow process experts to “draw” a workflow and then export computer code automatically. The code can tell Web services-based systems (such as media storage) how to execute every workflow. Because it’s easier to implement, Web services technology is replacing or supplanting APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) as a means of one system triggering the functions of another.
“Media Aware” Systems
If the aforementioned workflow example is taken further, files are received from QC, after which the next step in the workflow might be to check that those files have all of the required content elements. One such element could be multiple language tracks. When this type of information or media is included within a file, it is advantageous to have a system that is “media-aware.
Every media asset management system can identify whether or not a particular file exists, but most don't have an understanding of media-specific issues. For example, MXF file wrappers often look like a single file to an external system, but they are really a collection of many different components. A media-aware system can understand what’s inside the wrapper, count the language tracks, etc. Some storage systems available today offer these smart capabilities, and with the right integration, their “media-awareness” can be extended to media asset management systems.
In combination, business process logic and the media awareness of storage systems and other equipment are enabling file-based workflows to change the way television content is created and distributed.

Tags: harmonic | workflow | qc | iss057 | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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