Bit of This, Byte of That

Manufacturers offer a variety of shapes and sizes to meet the differing needs of their broadcast customers

The days of video servers' being the broadcast equivalent of the Model T, with all looking basically the same, have passed, as video-server and disc-based products usher in a new era.

True, servers of the past had different-colored rack units, but that tended to be the distinguishing characteristic. Today, products like Thomson Grass Valley's disk-based iVDR or Doremi's MCS Server are clearly positioned in both price and style as a VTR replacement. Front-panel controls are like that of a VTR.

More important, they enable a broadcast organization to buy in to server technology in pieces without the outlay required to convert a large portion of a facility to disk-based storage. Video is no longer served from a rack unit in a back room; it may, in fact, be served from a desktop unit.

Despite looking like and mimicking a VTR, the units still provide the cost benefits that drive the move to server-based storage.

"If you only compare a video server to a VTR, the server is more expensive, but, as part of a total system solution, the investment in servers in the long run is more cost-effective because they are much more efficient," says Chris Golson, SGI senior director, Media Industries. "You shouldn't look at the purchase as merely a VTR replacement but as a significant opportunity to begin to address a workflow improvement."

Today's video-server market is divided into ingest and playout servers (typically MPEG-compression–based) and event-replay servers for sports and news (typically multi-format), according to Pinnacle Systems CTO Al Kovalick. A major differentiator, he says, is whether a server is standalone or part of a common-storage networked-server architecture.

"Standalone servers are still popular, but there is a major trend toward networked servers sharing very reliable common storage," he says. "An analogy is the standalone computer versus one that is connected to storage over a network."

The trend at Pinnacle is toward common storage. Kovalick says 70% of Pinnacle's MediaStream sales are the servers based on Palladium storage.

Also enabling common storage are improved networking capabilities, and they drive workflow enhancements. Eddy Jenkins, Leitch director of product marketing for video servers, says the ability to connect servers and provide all users with immediate and simultaneous access as content is being recorded is a powerful tool most broadcasters find attractive. Leitch, he says, uses 2-GB Fiber Channel for this purpose, with industry-standard host bus adapters and fabric switches that can be upgraded as new standards are adopted.

"We also use Ethernet networks for command and control, as well as to enable the user to send FTP files over IT networks," he says. "Our servers include 10/100baseT connectivity as standard with the option of GB Ethernet for local-area networks."

In shopping for a server, Golson says, the biggest mistake stations make is treating a server like a box or a VTR replacement and then either over-stressing it or overcompensating when facility needs require growth.

In the first instance, "people underestimate their future needs and choose a system that is not scalable. They think they can put in X number of channels, and a year later they find themselves stressed out," he says. "They then have to buy a new, larger system."

In the second, a station overcompensates when it anticipates future needs but buys too much of the wrong kind of storage. "Many locations have a lot of unnecessary storage, and that's because they didn't really understand the technology of the system," Golson explains.

Joe French, Masstech vice president of sales and marketing, agrees, adding that some broadcasters believe the bigger the server, the safer the solution. "We believe that the server should be very specific to the workflow. Using IT solutions, the user can build a network of alternative storage that best fits the overall workflow."

Despite the warnings, though, customers may find that falling storage prices make too much storage hard to forgo.

"After this NAB, with the drop in prices of servers, I believe a lot of customers are expecting a lot more video channels and hours of storage for a lot less then they have been quoted in the past," says Ramzi Shakra, marketing director at Doremi.

The complexities of server integration pose another pitfall, according to Jensen. Stations often underestimate the amount of training and familiarization required by operators and also don't change operating procedures to take advantage of workflow improvements.

The newsroom is probably the most sensitive area. The server must not only evolve but also manage to keep pace with changes in newsroom, graphics and newsgathering technologies.

The newsroom server needs production-quality compression like DV25, 50 or IMX, says Avid Broadcast Director David Schleifer; other servers, reliability and speed. Stations that use servers for long-form or commercial playback often focus on cost per stream and reliability only, making those servers a poor fit for news production.

In the end, Golson says, a server is selected to improve productivity and increase profits. Those goals can be accomplished through a variety of ways. Each manufacturer offers its own approach to meeting those two goals. On the following pages, we provide a closer look at the differences and similarities between the various choices.