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Jack of all trades vs best of breed systems?

Autocue specialises in flexible multi-user systems. By Neil Hutchins, CTO, Autocue.

Autocue specialises in flexible multi-user systems. By Neil Hutchins, CTO, Autocue.

There have been many ‘in-a-box’ systems over the last 15 years; indeed Autocue has offered a few in the past – based either on our own products or in collaboration with other vendors. The scope, scale and cost of those many different offerings have varied wildly, as has their commercial success.

The concept of a self-contained solution is sound for many reasons. For example, integration issues between different components should not be a problem because all components are from the same vendor, which is important because integration between third-party systems is always complex and time-consuming to do properly and will often be the weak link in the chain during operation.

It should be a simple purchase for the customer, because they only have to buy one system from one supplier. It therefore follows that system installation and configuration will be straightforward, as the vendor only has to deal with his own system. On-going support should also be straightforward, as the customer only has to call one company if there is a problem.

However, it has to be said that there are also disadvantages to an all-in-one approach. A complete single solution is only appropriate for a brand new system, where there is no legacy equipment, or where all of the existing equipment is to be discarded. And, inevitably, a single solution will lack the flexibility and range of functionality of a system built from individual components, where the customer can choose separate elements that best meet the specific requirements for each part of the operation.

There are probably two different interpretations of an ‘in-a-box’ solution. Either literally a single box, for instance one high-powered PC or server which contains everything required for the system, or a number of individual units that are bundled together to form the overall system: perhaps more accurately an ‘in-a-small-rack’ rather than just ‘in-a-box’ solution.

The danger with a single box solution is that the overall capability and functionality is limited by the hardware platform – for instance the amount of storage or number of playout channels might be restricted. It is also very unusual to find true multi-user access (e.g. in some form of client-server configuration) available from a single box.

Autocue specialises in flexible multi-user systems, so our preference is always to provide a single system that consists of a number of individual units, rather than a single piece of hardware. This approach allows us to retain our underlying multi-user functionality with flexible system configurations whiles still being able to offer all of the benefits of an ‘in-a-box’ system, which ensure, as mentioned, straightforward installation and support.

Underlying hardware

Autocue has offered its own newsroom computer system (NRCS), prompting, automation and media management functionality from a single software product for many years. The introduction of the first generation of our own video server meant that we were able to offer an ‘in-a-box’ workflow solution that provided all of the functionality required to produce simple news programmes – and such systems have now been in use for several years by a number of UK universities teaching broadcast journalism.

The solution is based around standard off-the-shelf PC hardware, allowing a wide variety of system configurations at low cost, but managed by ‘clever’ software to make the best use of that standard hardware. This software element is the key to ensuring that the system is turned successfully from a series of standard hardware components into a complete functional solution, i.e., it is the critical factor in adding value to what would otherwise just be a collection of off-the-shelf hardware.

Our server has now evolved to an even more flexible platform that can be easily configured to meet specific requirements. The types of choices available include multiple bi-directional ports; a variety of video and audio connections; SD-only or SD/HD support; variable storage capacity and configuration; and a range of supported capture/playback formats and control models.

This ensures that the customer is only paying for the elements that are required and that the cost of underlying hardware is appropriate for the range of functions to be used. The use of standard off-the-shelf hardware and standard networking technology means that the system is very easy to integrate into an existing network, without necessarily requiring complex involvement from either IT or Engineering departments. The flexible platform also means that it is possible to buy a partial system that can be used immediately, but which has scope to be upgraded as needs or budgets expand in the future.

The third generation of our video server contains more functionality, providing a more compelling ‘in-a-box’ solution by incorporating vision and audio mixer handling; virtual playback channels (where video clips can be played back into the mixers, rather than simply out of a physical output port); internal character generation; and channel branding and virtual record channels (where the output of the mixers can be recorded straight back into the system without having to use an external unit).

Whereas our customers previously would have needed to provide some hardware around our systems (eg vision and audio mixers and a CG device) they can now use a single system to produce live programmes. All they need to provide are cameras.

Our multi-user software enables a team to work together to plan and produce a programme and our hardware provides the platform to store and transmit the material – a compelling solution in an environment where support for a complete production workflow is required but where cost and expertise are restricted.

Single ‘in-a-box’ solutions from any one vendor will never completely replace conventional systems built from individual components, partly because the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ approach cannot beat ‘best-of-breed’ hardware from specialist vendors. Conversely though, that best-of-breed hardware is inevitably expensive and potentially difficult to integrate. As there will always be environments where cost and simplicity are more important, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘in-a-box’ solutions to flourish.