The momentum behind moving media operations to IP-based environments is unstoppable and to stay ahead of the competition these days, companies need to be migrating operations away from rigid, single-purpose components and towards software-based common computing resources.
The good news is a well-architected IP-based production facility is now able to provide the same robustness, reliability and performance as traditional SDI-based infrastructures. Broadcasters can now transition operations to an IT-based infrastructure without compromising current benchmarks for quality, performance or reliability.
The flexibility and economic benefits associated with leveraging the cost, performance advantages and economies of scale of the multi-trillion dollar IT ecosystem are too compelling and attractive to ignore. Still, a fair degree of scepticism remains. Some media professionals still harbour concerns about replacing SDI-based infrastructure with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing and networking platforms of the IT industry.
Following a decade of false starts and broken promises about the ability of IP to handle live production operations, broadcast engineers justifiably fear that the production and delivery of high-quality video may remain beyond the capabilities of 'best-effort' networks and the comparatively modest performance and reliability standards of the IT domain.
In addition to non-technical implications, such as lack of skill and diluted job descriptions, they fear that what are now increasingly rare glitches in the SDI realm, such as lip sync issues and other timing mismatches between video and audio essences - or even catastrophic failures - will again become commonplace in an IP-based environment.
While it's understandably hard to let go of SDI-based broadcast equipment and purpose-built infrastructure, which has delivered rock-solid reliability and precision timing for more than two decades, significant progress has been made in the past couple of years to address the technology shortcomings of IT-based infrastructure for the production and delivery of media.
The reliability of IP, for example, is no longer an issue. In addition, IP-based networks can also be architected to meet the stringent technical requirements of high-quality video, including low latency, precision timing and synchronization. Despite the connectionless nature of IP, latency is essentially a non-issue for today's Ethernet switches. Delays are nearly infinitesimal, enabling media organisations to move video great distances and through multiple processing cycles without introducing quality-robbing delays. In addition, broadcast professionals are able to employ a variety of traffic engineering and timing mechanisms that shrink latency and jitter even further and well within the acceptable range for the production of high-quality video.
An IP-based environment also brings advantages in terms of control and security. Much of the success of transitioning media operations to an IP-based environment, as well as a hybrid facility constructed of both SDI- and IP-based equipment, is dependent on the imposition of a control system that defines policies for the routing of media signals across the underlying transport infrastructure.
Advantages of a software-defined routing control layer that is agnostic to the underlying transport layer include the fact that such an approach overrides all of the code and features built into COTS IP equipment, many of which are not applicable to the broadcast domain. Policies and parameters, such as routing paths and quality of service, are dictated exclusively by an intelligent routing control system that is able to fully exploit the speed and raw power of a datacentre environment.
In addition, the importance of standards that attract a broad industry consensus and lead to widespread interoperability in any technology sector is impossible to overestimate. A major contribution to SDI's long-term success has been its plug-and-play nature and the confidence that all products based on SDI from virtually all vendors will interoperate.
That is why Imagine Communications, through its work with AIMS, the Alliance for IP Media Solutions, is helping to set the roadmap for adoption of open standards in IP connectivity. The goal in setting up AIMS was to take the standards already available, work done by great bodies like SMPTE, AMWA, VSF and EBU, and get people using them.
AIMS published its roadmap that sets out an open, collaborative way in which IP connectivity can be implemented in all areas of broadcasting, including live production. It is the only set of IP standards in the industry that has been developed using a collaborative, non-proprietary approach. As a result, it has the support of more organisations than any other - over 50 vendors large and small to date, along with a whole host of other bodies - and most importantly, the standards that AIMS is promoting are available now. Even though the SMPTE 2110 specification is currently in draft, it is composed of standards that are currently in use in live settings, eliminating the need for vendors and media companies to delay implementation of solutions using those standards.