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Hybrid move to IT-based playout

Recent advances include more mature server functionality and more tightly integrated ingest, writes Boromy Ung, product manager workflow & playout, Miranda Technologies.

Recent advances include more mature server functionality and more tightly integrated ingest, writes Boromy Ung, product manager workflow & playout, Miranda Technologies.
‘Channel-in-a-box’ products have moved into the mainstream, and have gained acceptance for a wide spectrum of playout applications. This increased popularity has been driven by technical advances, which have eliminated key performance differentials with more traditional equipment, as well as improved integration with existing equipment in facilities. Undoubtedly, the recent tough business climate has also done much to encourage broadcasters to consider lower cost hardware solutions, and their more productive, IT-based workflows.
The term ‘channel-in-a-box’ is typically used for products that integrate playout server, master control switching, and graphics functionality; all in a single device. The latest variants are designed for highly automated, IT-based playout, with content often fed from low cost, archival storage. This integration of functionality has been shown to reduce purchase costs, while also simplifying installation, systems integration and maintenance.
The more streamlined architecture of channel-in-a-box systems is especially beneficial for multi-channel playout. Whenever an additional channel is required, the facility can be quickly expanded by increasing the number of channel-in-a-box devices on the network. Naturally, with larger systems, the time and cost savings inherent with a simplified playout path are even more significant. This lower cost for additional channels is a critical issue when revenues per channel are generally falling, and it can make the difference between a new channel being viable or otherwise in a tight market.
Whenever more functionality is packed into a single box, there is often some concern about reliability because a failure is potentially more catastrophic. In reality, feature-rich designs often work in favour of resiliency because critical products are generally designed with exceptional levels of redundancy. Perhaps more importantly, the cost efficiency of these highly integrated products makes it much easier for facilities to add additional levels of redundancy to their system. This can be done by adding extra ‘channel-in-a-box’ devices to the system to create full back-up channels.

Integration with playout
Recent technical advances that have helped popularise channel-in-a-box systems have included more mature server functionality, and more tightly integrated ingest. These devices now provide a very complete server offering, with effective support for all the key clip formats for true interoperability with existing content storage systems. Content ingest can be highly automated by media management, with files pushed to the right playout device according the traffic schedule, all with minimal operator intervention.
The traditional master control type functions integrated in these systems are also uncompromised, with clean switching between stored and live feeds. Advanced audio capabilities include multi-channel audio mixing and track shuffling.
The graphics playout capabilities and workflows of channel-in-a-box systems now rival those of high-end, dedicated graphics processors. For instance, multi-level branding and promo graphics can be played out in realtime, with template population driven by the playout automation. The net effect is highly streamlined operations without impacting the quality of the viewer`s experience.
However, probably the most important factor behind the uptake of channel-in-a-box systems is the much improved integration with existing playout systems. For many facilities, the real need is for a development path that enables them to move towards IT-based playout, without abandoning all their existing investment in hardware and business systems.
It takes years for a station to develop effective processes across media management, traffic and sales, with this task made more complex because key systems, like automation and media management, tend to come from separate vendors specialising in these disciplines. Hence, many broadcasters need something quite different from the first approaches to IT-based playout, which were focused primarily on green-field site operations, where there is more scope to install completely new hardware and software systems.
With the emerging `hybrid model`, traditional playout chains can co-exist with new channels equipped with channel-in-a-box systems. This allows new channels to be added which operate with IT-based playout, while the existing channels are unaffected. The important thing about this approach is that it allows a phased migration path towards new technology, without the high level of disruption caused by a complete technology shift. With a hybrid model, broadcasters can leave their critical business systems alone until they are ready to make changes.
The key to successful hybrid operation is the ability of the IT-based playout devices to operate under the same playout automation as the traditional playout chain. For instance, the server portion of a channel-in-a-box device can be controlled by the widely adopted VDCP protocol, while the switching and branding functions are controlled by established switching and branding protocols. While this is an unremarkable concept, the impact is far reaching in terms of enabling the adoption of new technology among broadcasters.
To be a practical proposition, the automation integration to these ‘channel-in-a-box’ systems needs to be richly featured. For instance, the control of switching and branding should include full control of secondary events, with graphic template population directly from the playout automation. Ideally, the graphics workflows should also be integrated across the traditional and IT-based elements in a hybrid system, with common workflows across work order management, graphics preparation, data-interfacing and playout.
Looking ahead, as channel-in-a-box systems develop further, it`s likely that we`ll see an even higher level of integration of playout functionality, with more advanced metadata handling, along with further strides in cost reduction and space efficiency. It`s the way the television equipment market is going in general, and it may soon demand that we come up with a new name for these devices, as more channels are inevitably delivered from a single box.