The Missing Links
Vendors' new server features ease broadcasters' DTV transition
By Glen Dickson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
Ten years ago, video servers became the linchpin of information technology (IT) in the television plant. Broadcasters realized how reliable hard drives could be for playing back commercials, syndicated content and network programming, and many quickly replaced their master-control tape decks with video servers. As the price of disk storage decreased and networking technology improved, servers also found their way into production and archiving applications, helping to fuel the dream of a fully tapeless broadcast plant.
However, server sales slowed a few years ago, because the majority of broadcasters aiming to implement servers had already done their buying, and those reliable hard drives were continuing to do their job.
Today, server vendors say the market is healthy again, largely due to programmers' increased commitment to high-definition programming. Vendors have added format-conversion capabilities to their systems to make it easy for broadcasters to simulcast high-definition (HD) and standard-definition (SD) versions of the same program. New transcoding technology allows stations to use a mix of digital acquisition formats for applications like news production. And the steady drop in the price of hard-disk storage and improved reliability of IT networking technologies like Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) are bolstering sales, as broadcasters look to further automate their plant with IT-centric architectures.
Roger Crooks, product marketing manager for Profile Servers for Grass Valley, says the last two quarters have seen the strongest Profile sales over the past two years.
“It's a major market rebound,” says Crooks. “A lot of our software partners have seen the same thing. It's a good trend, and we've seen that not only in the U.S. but worldwide.”
A big factor is customer demand for high-definition capabilities. The sixth generation of the Profile family, the Profile 3500, is designed to ease the transition from standard-definition to HD operations. The format-independent server can store an SD clip and HD clip of a program in the same storage and play it out on the same timeline, easing the burden for broadcasters simulcasting the same program in SD and HD.
“You can play the HD out, or downconvert it, or put an SD clip and HD clip on the timeline and play them back to back, and upconvert or downconvert as needed, without missing a frame,” says Crooks. “An encoder and an up- and downconverter are built right into the server. So you don't need external modular equipment, or 'glue.' It's built inside the box.”
Another key feature of the Profile 3500 is that it can accommodate different digital compression formats—such as DV25, DV50, I-frame MPEG-2 or long-GOP (Group of Pictures) MPEG-2—put them on a timeline and play them back to back.
“Previously, what facilities had to do is pick a compression format for a facility, and re-encode anything different to match it,” says Crooks. “This was especially a problem for news organizations. Now you can store all the formats on the server, and just like you can play SD and HD on the same timeline, you can put all the formats on a timeline and play them out back to back. That makes it easy for automation to control playout.”
New HD capabilities
An entry-level HD Profile system costs under $100,000 for a system with ten 300-gigabyte drives (a total of 3 terabytes of storage); one input channel with a built-in encoder; and three output channels for playout. Storing HD at a compression rate of 50 Mbps would yield 82 hours of storage in such a system.
Omneon Video Networks also will head to NAB with new HD capabilities. An HD-playout component, the MultiPort 4100 Series, provides internal upconversion and downconversion capabilities that allow the Spectrum to play back simultaneous HD and SD outputs from the same timeline.
“Before, you had to pump material that was fed through the server to external devices for up- and downconversion, and you were using at least two channels to get your SD and HD feeds out,” says Geoff Stedman, Omneon VP of worldwide marketing. “This unit treats it as a single channel from the automation perspective, even though it has two outputs. That simplifies the automation complexity. You can build one playlist to run under automation control, and out of the MultiPort 4100 device, you can get simultaneous HD and SD feeds.”
An entry-level Omneon Spectrum HD server, with one channel of input, two channels of output and a small amount of storage—45 hours of storage at a compression rate of 19 Mbps—would cost about $65,000. That doesn't represent much of a premium from a base SD system with six channels and 72 hours of storage, which costs $50,000.
While Omneon servers have traditionally been used for program playout, an increasing number of customers are using the Spectrum as a storage platform for editing. Stedman says 25% of the systems being sold today are used with some type of editing application. The Spectrum supports the I-frame MPEG, DV and DVCPRO 100 for HD formats, as well as file transfers to Avid and Pinnacle editors. At NAB, Omneon will demonstrate a “direct edit and place” model with Apple's Final Cut Pro nonlinear editor, which allows Final Cut to open up a file on the Omneon server and edit it without ever transferring the material from the server to a workstation.
Two video-server products
Those new capabilities point to a growing trend in the $250 million video-server market. “Everybody wants more performance for fewer dollars,” says Pinnacle Systems strategist and fellow Al Kovalick.
Pinnacle Systems has two video-server products, the MediaStream, designed for master-control playout operations, and the Thunder, aimed at live-production applications. New features for MediaStream include support for up to 32 audio channels—which is helpful for customers with international operations, such as MTV Europe that require playback in multiple languages—and expanded HD output capabilities. Like its competitors, Pinnacle has added built-in upconversion and downconversion capabilities, allowing a broadcaster to simultaneously produce SD and HD outputs of a program from the same timeline, with both outputs time-synched (on the input side, customers will still need an external encoder).
“We're giving away HD outputs,” says Kovalick. “When you buy four SD outputs of MediaStream, you get four HD outputs.”
Pinnacle has already sold multiple HD MediaStreams in Japan, where broadcasters are generally storing content at a compression rate of 50 Mbps. With the latest 400-GB hard drives, one storage array can provide up to 80 hours of HD storage, or 400 hours of SD storage, says Kovalick.
“We're right on the bleeding edge of storage tech,” he says, adding that most customers can get by with one array but tend to buy extra storage in anticipation of expansion.
A typical four-channel MediaStream system—consisting of one SD input, one ASI input and two SD/HD decoder channels with 960 GB of RAID protected storage (which equates to about 250 hours of storage at 8-Mbps compression)—is priced at $72,000 and includes dual redundant power supplies and GigE networking for file transfer.
Pinnacle will also introduce Thunder HD, the first HD model of the Thunder production server. Available as a still store or with a clip option, Thunder HD serves video and key on each of its two channels and provides real-time DVE (digital video effects) transitions. Thunder HD supports the 1080i and 720p HD formats with native MPEG-2 MXF configurable storage and is able to share content with Pinnacle Deko character generators or Liquid nonlinear editors.
Another server vendor showing new HD capabilities in Las Vegas will be Leitch Technology. Over the past year, “HD has kicked into overdrive,” says Tim Slate, director of product marketing for Leitch's server division.
Leitch will show its Nexio HD server, which it has already shipped to CNN and Outdoor Life Network. The base unit is a two-channel HD system with eight drives of storage for around $50,000. It can be scaled up from there with additional storage and channels. The Nexio HD can be also be integrated with Leitch's Velocity nonlinear editor for production applications. To ease the DTV transition, Leitch is working to add HD upconversion and downconversion capability to Nexio HD by integrating new software codecs.
“It's not an unreasonable thing to ask for, and we have it on the pretty near-term road map,” says Slate, who says the capability should be a reality by early fall.
The desire by broadcast and cable networks to repurpose their video assets and derive extra revenue is driving them toward a “common warehouse” for assets that is disk-based and can be accessed with an asset-management system, says Bill Thompson, director of broadcast product marketing, SeaChange International. There is also an increased push toward a tapeless workflow for editors. Both trends are helping to spur server sales.
SeaChange has responded with the MediaClient platform, a network-attached streaming-media platform that uses CIFS (Common Internet File System) file protocols and Internet Protocol (IP) networking to capture, store, edit and distribute video. The MediaClient family includes a series of video-codec clients that read and write video files to the MediaLibrary, a centralized repository of disk storage.
“We have Gigabit Ethernet inputs and outputs, and we have developed codecs that can accept or pump out streamed video,” says Thompson. “It's a pretty broad stroke. You can have all assets in online form, and having them in the MediaLibrary lets you share files among multiple users. In the same MediaLibrary, you can play out in real-time to air. So it's a fully automated, tapeless workflow from ingest to playout.”
One way that broadcasters are looking to repurpose content is by making it available to cable video-on-demand platforms. SeaChange, a longtime VOD vendor, has developed a content-production tool for broadcasters to prepare their material for VOD playout.
“It's a low-cost workstation that lets you take a broadcast-quality input file from an ordinary production environment, encode it for VOD, add the necessary metadata, and ship it off to cable headends to play, either on a SeaChange VOD system or one of our competitors' products,” says Thompson. “It's the first practical product for content providers to help them fulfill the contracts they are signing with cable operators.”
This VOD-production system, which will be introduced at NAB, will sell for less than $100,000. That makes it more cost-effective than outsourcing the content preparation function, says Thompson: “If you're doing any sort of content, this thing pays for itself in a year or two.”
For several years, Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) has been making a video server for the broadcast market based on its proprietary IRIX operating system. But SGI has undergone a strategic and technical shift, changing its OS over the past year to the Linux IA64 platform co-designed by Intel and Hewlett-Packard, and creating a storage system, SGI InfiniteStorage, that will be marketed to end users by other technology vendors.
SGI's shift in strategy addresses the changing role of video servers within the broadcast plant since they surfaced 10 years ago as replacements for videotape recorders, says Chris Golson, SGI senior director for media industries.
Because servers were designed as a “box replacement,” they had to be based on proprietary operating systems to achieve the performance characteristics broadcasters wanted. Over the past 10 years, server manufacturers have increased their channel count, added broadcast features like jog/shuttle capability and tried to interface them with other devices as much as possible.
But while they are still very strong as a playout solution, Golson thinks they have lost traction in other areas where they used to be strong, such as editing and archiving.
Broadcasters are getting content in faster, and they want to be able to handle functions like low-res browsing or ingesting content with metadata and incorporating it into an archive. In those applications, says Golson, the “dedicated-box” server is seeing pressure as broadcasters look to use networked PCs with generic encoding cards. So instead of providing a dedicated box for ingest, as SGI did in the past, the company will now market its new Prism Linux-based system through asset-management companies and nonlinear- editing vendors.
“This is a Linux platform they can write to, and we will be soliciting their work in partnership to offer a solution,” says Golson. “Asset-management companies like Ardendo, which works with CNN and Danish Radio, is evaluating using our platform with their system. So if it becomes part of their system, and their software lies on our Itanium 2 Linux platform, and instead of buying a generic card and PC and writing software to that, they would use our platform.”
SGI is comfortable with having other vendors market its technology. The company has pursued a similar model for its graphics workstations in the past and already has a partnership with Omneon to resell its HD server.
A new player in the video-server/storage space is Exanet, an Israeli company founded in 2000 with venture-capital backing. Exanet started in the digital prepress and graphics markets, netting clients like New York Times Co. and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. It is now targeting the broadcast market and will be exhibiting at NAB for the first time.
Exanet's strategy is to leverage off-the-shelf components to create large central storage systems that link to other production and playout devices, says Exanet VP of Business Development Per Sjofors. A basic Exanet system would cost about $70,000 for 3 TB of storage, he says, adding, “You could have 1,000 clients connected to that.”
“The trend is very clear,” says Sjofors. “Broadcasters and production houses have changed from buying traditional video equipment and are moving completely to buying IT-specific equipment. When you talk to the large system integrators and VARs [Value Added Resellers], where six months ago their customers were buying traditional video stuff, now it's all IT.”
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