Playout providers today have to be flexible in delivering huge amounts of content in multiple formats to various broadcast platforms, to online and mobile streaming and to catch-up and VoD services. These modern demands are completely unsuited to the traditional playout architecture of hardware devices from one set of vendors, controlled by software from another.
One of the first playout providers to recognise that the solution lay in radically different thinking was ABS Broadcast. It is one of Europe’s largest independently owned television services facilities, based in West London, UK.
ABS set about creating the ABSolute platform. Developed in-house, this comprehensive broadcast management system covers everything from scheduling to EPG, metadata to asset management, linear playout and online services.
Central to the development of the ABSolute system was the realisation that it needed a completely new architecture to underpin it. This latest design had to be completely flexible, capable of reacting instantly to new workflows and content flows determined from the management layer. Traditional technology could not do this: it had to be a suite of software modules which could be connected to meet each changing need.
While a number of vendors were looking at software-defined architectures, the idea of linking each module using computer connectivity – IP – was very much in its infancy. Luckily, ABS Broadcast discovered Cinegy.
“Cinegy adopted and exploited IP long before it was fashionable,” says Mukund Patel, ABS’s head of technology. “In my view, everyone else is still playing catch-up.”
ABS’s business was growing rapidly, and continues to do so. Conventional architectures were hitting the limits: there was no physical space to add more hardware, no more power to drive it, no more air conditioning to cool it. Extending capabilities with traditional devices often involved developing and testing new interfaces between products from different vendors, which was also a drain on resources.
In a nutshell, ABS Broadcast had a lot of boxes that it no longer needed, and needed a lot of different boxes that it really did not want. The solution was obvious: create the functionality in software, running on standardised hardware that could change roles in the click of a mouse.
The Cinegy Solution
The modular nature of the Cinegy playout solution allowed ABS to realise their new approach to content delivery. In discussion with Cinegy, they found that it could do everything they wanted, and much more.
As part of ABS Braodcast’s facility wide upgrade known as GEN5 (ABS’s fifth generation Playout facility), ABS installed the Cinegy Air Pro software modules. This provides all the key functionality the facility needed:
Playout – Cinegy Air Pro controls multiple channels, from scheduling and traffic to final delivery. Working with the asset management elements of the system it automatically tracks media, metadata, placeholders and graphics elements.
In the original implementation Cinegy Air Pro played out 10 channels. In three years, this grew to 70 channels, and there is still scope for almost unlimited expansion.
Asset Management – Cinegy Archive provides comprehensive asset management, tracking and connecting material across multiple storage platforms. One of the advantages of the Cinegy approach is that users are free to choose the storage devices, provided they meet the recommended performance criteria. ABS currently manages close to a petabyte of video material through Cinegy Archive.
ABS has installed five Cinegy Desktop clients for asset management and conversion control. Most of the actions on the content store, though, are automated through the scheduling and playout applications, which locate, verify and transfer media as it is needed.
File Conversion – one of the biggest operational challenges for the modern playout centre is conversion between the multiple file formats in use today. Cinegy Convert automates ingest and export formatting, including metadata management, audio shuffling and other tasks, based on templates developed by ABS. This allows operators to largely forget about file formats, confident that the material in the archive will be accessible, and deliveries to other service providers will be in the right format, accompanied by the right soundtracks, subtitle files, and EPG and database metadata.
Graphics – Cinegy Titler provides real-time graphics and branding within Cinegy Air Pro. It enables ABS to programme multiple layers of titles, logos and animated graphics, drawing information through the integration with ABSolute BMS where appropriate, and ensuring a premium experience for the viewer.
Multiviewer – one of the unexpected benefits discovered by ABS was the ability to integrate multiviewers into the software-defined environment. As a content delivery facility, ABS needs to be certain that all media is correct and of the expected quality. For this reason, individual channels may appear twice on multiviewer screens: once as leaving the facility, and again as an off-air return feed to provide a comparison. With redundant feeds also monitored, there are now well over 100 tiles in the master control multiviewers.
Allied to the quality issue is the ability for Cinegy Multiviewer to alert client companies to any errors or failures that should occur. Clients can be alerted by text message or email with the potential error attached.
Implementing the Cinegy Air Pro Bundle to provide virtually all the functionality of the content delivery business could have been challenging. But that was not the case. “Set-up was an engineer’s dream,” says Patel. “Cinegy’s approach simplifies the entire process, and is more straightforward, which makes things so much easier.”
“What matters to us is not just the technology, but the people,” he continues. “We needed a partner that we knew we could work with efficiently, and could rely on if we encountered any problem with the technology. That is why we chose Cinegy.”
The relationship was very definitely not a set and forget. ABS and Cinegy remain in constant communication, not least to ensure a very rapid response should any problems arise.
Delivering the ABSolute system to its clients means that ABS continues to need new functionality. ABS regularly has conversations with Cinegy, to determine how best to proceed with their requirements. “A tight integration between ABSolute BMS and the Cinegy systems is key to running a smooth operation. Scheduling, playout, on-air graphics and reconciliation depend on it. Cinegy are always on hand to assist us in realising our customers’ visions,” explains Vikie Bennion, head of product at ABS Broadcast.
For some of these requirements, they use the Cinegy Professional Services team to create a one-off solution. For others, Cinegy’s product management team seizes on an idea from ABS and puts it into the development plan. “A lot of the updates we now see are ideas that we had!” says Patel.
ABS also benefits from Cinegy’s commitment to wider developments and standardisation in IP connectivity for broadcast. An excellent example is SRT (secure reliable transport), a set of open-source protocols for carrying broadcast-quality media over the public internet. This gives ABS’ ABSolute users internet delivery with predictable quality, latency and reliability, something that was not possible before.
“One of the benefits we most like about Cinegy is that they have embraced IP more than any company we know,” Patel adds. “They continue to develop, which helps us provide additional services for our customers.
“Cinegy has made our operation much more consolidated and efficient,” he continued. “We can now deliver far more channels in far less rack space – and do it 10 times faster. The tight integration with our ABSolute platform allows our customers to control their playout and assets with ease.
“In short, Cinegy understands what we are trying to do – they get us.”