Channel in a box – or boxes?2 February 2010
By Don Ash, sales director, PlayBox Technology.
The technology of television has been evolving fast, affecting some areas more than others. Changes in playout have been huge and the ‘Channel in a Box’ marketing tag is designed to draw attention to new approaches available for tapeless playout.
The fact that much of the functionality required to present a TV channel on air can be housed in a modest 1RU, 3RU or 4 RU box is rarely of great significance. The main importance of the tag is that it signifies a large reduction in cost compared to conventional multi-box playout systems and can scale by increasing the number of boxes.
Over the last ten years PlayBox Technology has supplied over 8,000 tapeless systems — representing a significantly large slice of the total playout and branding channel market. It has also opened 11 offices in eight countries to cater for the expansion in business and to provide the expert local pre-sales support needed to define and design the required solution, as well as post sales support.
Although R&D develops software, the company delivers complete turnkey finished systems designed for customers’ specific needs. This is the best route to providing what customers want; long-term reliability, effective customer service and, in many cases, a system that fully integrates with existing equipment. Today all sizes of operators, from start-up channels to international broadcasters, are using our solutions.
What’s in the box?
First and foremost the system supplied must fulfil customer needs in performance and price. That may be possible in one ‘box’ or it may take several; it is immaterial so long as the criteria are met. In truth we are talking about PC-based IT and although the PCs and their added hardware, I/O cards, etc, may be similar across suppliers, their performance and capabilities certainly are not. This is defined by the software, which is the key to everything in the box — what it can do and how it can enhance a station’s whole operation.
Although ‘the box’ typically fulfils many operations such as automation, subtitles, ingest, traffic management, playlist creation, live graphics, text and more, at the core is playout. Our original playout engine, contained in AirBox, started out in the right direction and has stood the test of time, having been continuously developed over the life of the company — adding features such as HD and mixed-format playout onto the original playout core. But most important of all, it has allowed time and effort to enhance reliability – the number-one essential for on-air operation. The implications go deeper.
The ‘box’ never works on its own. The television industry is well established and so many customers have existing equipment they want to keep using along with any new playout system. This reasonable requirement involves working with customers to meet their interoperability needs. Often there are existing archives or editing systems that it would be ‘oh so nice’ to tie in and create a complete tapeless workflow.
As a low cost supplier there simply is not the luxury of defining an own pet file format, so a key to success is being able to work with other peoples’ formats – all of them. Recognising this situation, and having the time to do something about it, has allowed direct plug-and-play compatibility with broadcasters’ existing archives, acquisition formats, edit suites and other new and old material, saving the large quantities of time, money and picture quality otherwise involved in transcoding and re-recording.
It makes the tapeless dream a reality for the many stations that wrestle with file incompatibilities, reverting to baseband video and even tape as a workaround to get from one file format to another. Or, for a new station, it gives them a flying start and easy integration to the ever-growing number of file-based systems.
The FoxBox example
Exactly how big the hardware component is depends on customer requirements for workflow and redundancy. In any case, broadcasters do not want to buy boxes but complete solutions. A single ‘box’ could include dual redundant power supplies and RAID protected media storage as well as a selection of functions such as graphics, subtitling, content management and alarm reporting as well as playout for SD, HD or DVB (ASI/IP).
If a fully redundant channel were required then this would involve a second box. Multiple channel systems often access shared storage and functions such as ingest – depending on the demands of the workflow. When you add in monitoring, compliance recording and an Ethernet switch, you start to fill a small rack. In practise, customers can pick and choose what functions they want and what other equipment they need to make the playout system work for their requirements.
Over the years the customer base has expanded as word spreads that these solutions really do perform and can be meaningfully integrated into existing infrastructures. Perhaps a measure of where we are now is that, within the last year, PlayBox supplied edge servers to international broadcasters, including Fox International Channels. The Fox project, nicknamed ‘FoxBox’, initially produced a remote unattended channel located in Athens complete with local content and branding, entirely run from the broadcast centre in Rome. The only connection is via the public internet. More remote channels in other locations and with other broadcasters have followed. At the same time the new µPlay is aimed at entry-level customers, providing video and graphics playout for the AV and IPTV market.
Today we are able to offer the stable, reliable easy-to-use products customers want. We also work closely with clients to provide not just the functionality but also the interfaces to work with existing or planned third-party equipment. There are also major systems including Metus MAM and NewsAir newsroom computer system that can closely integrate with PlayBox servers. In all cases customers are free to choose whatever they want – in one or more boxes.
The reality and benefits of good channel-in-a-box solutions are now well recognised. Using PC-based IT with good software and the support to supply what broadcasters need will continue to increase the penetration of these low cost products over the coming years.