Achieving IP-Based Facilities for Content Creators
By Michael Goldman
As content creators and broadcasters continue to build new IP-based foundations for their facilities, two factors are becoming increasingly clear. The first is that Ethernet technology is rising to the forefront of this transition as the industry's best and most reliable replacement for SDI technology to move live video data streams over IP networks, as recommended by the SMPTE 32NF-60 Working Group and discussed in the November 2013 Newswatch, bringing with it lots of corresponding technological innovations to make it possible for broadcast plants, production companies, and studios to build IP-style plants. The second point is that all the cool technology in the world won't matter much if it can't be seamlessly designed, engineered, utilized, and integrated by such entities that, for decades, have used analog equipment and physical, passive media inside the heart of their facilities. This is a particularly difficult circle to square for content creators specifically, because their ranks cover the industry's gamut, from the large studios and networks that also distribute content, to boutiques and smaller entities that create specialized content for varying new platforms, and need to connect to and deliver material to other collaborators and partners, large and small.
And therein lies the problem, suggests longtime communications and broadcast industry practitioner Fred Huffman, a consultant, author, and educator on the topic of broadcast networking technologies. "The devil," Huffman insists, "lies in the details." By that, he means that a meaningful and complete, industry-wide transition to relying on true IP-based content creation facilities built around Ethernet or alternative technology requires not only the right equipment, but a level of human effort and collaboration that requires two fundamentally and culturally different industries--the IT industry and the video broadcast industry--to come together in ways that are simply not yet feasible on a wide basis. Therefore, Huffman says, a wide ranging understanding of how to arrange an array of components and subsystems, along with comprehension about how to conduct ongoing educational initiatives across the industry, needs to happen in conjunction with the ongoing technology revolution, before the truly networked, IP-based content creation facility becomes anything close to ubiquitous.
"The basic fundamentals of what you would need stay the same, whether you are a content creator only or a broadcaster," Huffman suggests. "You would be dealing with cameras, file servers, graphics equipment, switching, processing gear--those sorts of things. Those basics won't change. What changes is how we transport, switch, and mix it--what we do with the signals themselves. It used to be that the content creators were the same Hollywood [players]--the studios--who passed the content on to the networks, who then passed it to the end delivery points, such as the cable distributors. But today, with the Internet and VoIP, it has all gone crazy, and we have over-the-top and all the various buzzwords and acronyms. In my view, while that framework isn't changing much, what is changing is the fundamental understanding of what a network is as far as [content creators and distributors] are concerned."
"To get in synch with IT professionals, the content industry needs to look at networks based on the OSI (Open System Interconnection) networking model used in the IT world, which for computers, basically offers seven layers of networking protocols, with control moving from one layer to the next (see a basic video tutorial on how the OSI model works from Cisco Systems here). If we apply that to what we are experiencing in the transition from SDI to Ethernet, we would mainly be concerned with the first three layers. Layer one, the physical layer or lowest layer, is where you talk about bits in a stream across a connection--layer one is at the bit level. Layer two is the next step up in this layer structure, and that is where framing and packets and bits get put together in envelopes and are encapsulated or multiplexed so that other associated components, such as captioning, audio, and metadata, can be carried through the local area network [LAN]. Layer three is an extension of that if you apply it to the inter-network or typical IP technology--the packet layer."
"What will be required for this transition is for chip organizations and equipment OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to be able to take, for example, a camera or file server and look at a block diagram and understand that the video comes off a sensor in the case of a camera, or a hard drive in the case of a server, and then those bits at that point--I look at them as layer one. I then think in terms of an end-to-end model as [data] goes from one point to another. As it passes through, each bit has to traverse the first three layers of the OSI stack. That is how computers work, and it this how the same computerized technology used in switchers and routers on the Internet works. These are the key pieces that we need to focus on as the new world order approaches, and we adapt and adopt new and existing technologies to serve the purpose that SDI has served for so many years. This means being concerned with factors such as interfaces on each box, protocols used to process switching, and transmission for switching bits starting at the lowest layer."
Getting used to thinking about networking in this manner is the cultural problem that the content creation industry grapples with, Huffman suggests. Newswatch discussed this issue as it related to broadcasters generally, in July of 2013, but Huffman emphasizes that content creators, in particular, won't be able to build truly and completely networked, data-centric plants until they "get on the same song sheet" with IT ways of approaching the problem. More specifically, Huffman says he hopes that video engineering professionals will start thinking in terms of "communications networks" and not just "IT networks," meaning "networked media is no longer passive. It is made up of active components. The new way of doing things includes active circuits performing electronics-based processes and functions. One area that needs to be considered in depth is test and monitoring equipment and methods. In a network way of doing things, if there is a problem with the picture quality, measurements help to figure out if the problem is with the content itself, at the point of creation, or if it has been distorted somewhere along the way, and if so, help to figure out where. Someone needs to be working to develop better test and monitoring, methodology, and equipment that can allow you to look at every layer below the OSI application [L-7], to figure out if the problem was the switcher, router, or a network element between Layer 1 and Layer 3. One important issue is that, when dealing with the underlying infrastructure in a network-based facility, we do not have the tools today--certainly not combined in one box anyway--to quickly diagnose, identify, and resolve a concern or issue. What we need is tomorrow's version of a waveform monitor for the underlying network."
Huffman points out that phone companies, traffic exchanges, data centers, cable companies, service providers, disaster recovery services, and many other industries have made their own cultural transitions successfully in recent years, and are now using Carrier Grade Ethernet in various stages of deployment. He urges the content industry to take lessons from these earlier adaptations, even if it's a different kind of industry. He also notes that although Carrier Grade Ethernet specifically may have greater meaning for different industries with its ability to be delivered through different kinds of transport technologies, he expects it to continue rising in significance for the content industry, given its VoIP compatibility as the industry transitions further into the IP universe. "One of the things that Carrier Grade Ethernet does very well is transporting VoIP traffic," he says. "It does this because it is specifically configured to transport voice signals with their unique characteristics and transmission requirements. The same configuration capability can be leveraged to transport video with the same high-quality results."
Recognizing that content creation and broadcasting are different from other industries, Huffman is currently drafting a paper he says "was inspired" by SMPTE's educational initiatives on this topic. The basis of this initiative, among other things is to simplify the basic understanding of what, in fact, would be required to design and build the kind of meaningful and permanent IP-based content creation facility he discusses. At the end of the day, Huffman says, such a facility would require certain basic components that are not on the surface and are different from what preceded them. However, they are functionally quite different in that they would work together to give the facility an "active" rather than a "passive" network infrastructure with the bandwidth it needs to move huge quantities of realtime or live data. The first item on this list involves hardware such as cameras, graphics generators, monitors, switching, automated test and measuring equipment, and items that are compatible with Ethernet or other such Layer 2 replacements for SDI. It should also be capable of dealing with the 4K and 8K/UHD signals of the looming future.
The second item would be "active" media such as cable, wiring, and patch panels that are active by virtue of the fact that they would utilize automated circuits to connect components, and thus, would be software-controlled and capable of performing accurate "smart" fault isolation, rather than only when an operator asks the system to run a check. The third item would be "IT friendly clocking and synchronizing signals and compatible distribution methods to each system component requiring synchronizing signal input." Here, Huffman points out that SMPTE has been working hard on this issue and is now close to adopting a new standard, ST-2059-1 (the SMPTE Epoch and generation and alignment of interface signals standard), which includes provisions for use of the IEEE 1588V2 clock synchronization algorithm that other industries have been using for quite some time. Related to this, the fourth item on his list includes switching and mix effects equipment configured with OSI model Layer 2 (L2) logical interfaces.
Next, such facility networks will need new kinds of test and monitoring capabilities that will ensure signal compliance all the way through a packet-based network infrastructure. Huffman says there are reams of fine testing technologies--both hardware and software-based--now available, but such tools "need to incorporate recently adopted ITU-T and IEEE standards covering new ways to test and monitor underlying network infrastructures" to be completely effective in the kind of facilities he envisions the industry will want.
After that, automated operations control, including device and facility configuration, will be a crucial element in such a facility, as a way to potentially reduce labor costs. Huffman envisions a time when engineers will be able to talk to the network to configure equipment or set up cameras or connections, when directors will call shots and a robotic camera pedestal or lens control system will execute his commands, much in the way that a Smartphone can be commanded to create an email or configure GPS software to provide directions. "Configuration, setup, and operational control of the IP-based content creation facility components will require significant hands-on effort and time," Huffman says. "So making the machines smart enough to be communicated with by voice and more intelligent software routines will aid in keeping a lid on labor costs, which is a major goal of those promoting IP-based production facilities."
Finally, Huffman insists that the content industry's need for education about this new world is central. We have already discussed the need to adopt the OSI layer model, which is not possible if the industry does not fundamentally understand it. But even beyond that, he points out that the issue of Lingua Franca, acronyms, nomenclature, and general definitions is a far bigger stumbling block than one might think because, quite simply, some terms do not always mean the same between the two industries today. "We need to stop using terms we don't really understand or know what they mean, and we need to intervene when we clearly see someone else using a term incorrectly," he suggests. "Let's stop saying 'media' when we should be saying 'content' or 'essence,' for example, and take care when using the term 'network.' "
Huffman adds that only a vigorous, ongoing, industry-wide educational effort can help achieve these goals. That effort, he is happy to report, is well under way, but needs to expand even more. Huffman has been helping SMPTE's New York Section plan monthly programs designed to discuss networked media fundamentals and illustrate equipment and software technology, expected to debut in early 2015. Another initiative, in which he is involved, is a new SMPTE Education online course, designed to offer weekly classes on live IP production, slated to be available in early 2015. The IEEE also offers a two-day online seminar called "Bridging the Gap" that is specifically geared toward helping engineers and technicians from the media content and IT worlds come together for mutual understanding in the development of IT-based broadcast technologies and facilities. Huffman also emphasizes that SMPTE's 2014 Annual Technical Conference in October had more papers presented on the topic of the IP transition than ever before. Also, the defining body for Carrier Ethernet, the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF)--an alliance of more than 220 organizations from several industries--currently offers many kinds of educational programs, Huffman says. Companies such as Cisco, Juniper, Brocade, and Arista also offer ongoing certification seminars to train and certifiy industry professionals in networking technologies on an ongoing basis. And the work of the Joint Task Force on Networked Media continues unabated with seminars and workshops for industry professionals.
To read a detailed paper that examines many of the issues raised by the challenge of integrating IT technologies, techniques, and methodologies into professional media networks and facilities, check out the report prepared by the SMPTE Study Group on Media Production System Network Architecture earlier this year.
4K Content Conundrum
The recent SMPTE Annual Technical Conference featured numerous topical presentations on important issues impacting the content creation industry. As reported recently by The Hollywood Reporter, one of those topics was the issue of how Hollywood studios are going to efficiently monetize the creation and distribution of 4K content along with other concurrent developments. The article mentions panel discussions in which the industry's simultaneous interest in 4K, higher dynamic range imagery (HDR), higher frame rates (HFR), and other developments were discussed--developments that could, in the long run, mean that different business models, and different tiers of content and content quality will end up being required for the looming next generation of digital content. The article quotes industry leaders who participated in the panels as saying that the need for consistent workflows for content to be able to travel through the ecosystem to different distribution venues and platforms may, in some respects, conflict with the concept of rushing out reams of 4K material right now. "The question is how to monetize the content. My feeling is it's going to be challenging for the studios," the article quotes Mitch Singer, president of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem consortium behind the UltraViolet initiative. In other words, it may take a lot longer for the creation of large amounts of high- resolution (4K, 8K) content to catch up with the technology innovations that make it possible to create, distribute, and watch such content.
SMPTE Features Lucas
Meanwhile, at the SMPTE Honors & Awards Ceremony, the organization bestowed an honorary membership to legendary filmmaker George Lucas for his decades of work helping to drive the evolution of digital editing, digital cinema, digital camera and sound, and visual effects technologies that have revolutionized the filmmaking industry. During his acceptance speech, Lucas thanked the SMPTE membership and stated that he owed a lot of his success to "engineers and talent, who said it was impossible and came through for me every time," adding that "we pushed the envelope." View the video. During the event, SMPTE's highest award, the Progress Medal, was bestowed to Dolby Senior VP Ioan Allen, who during his speech, took time to hail Lucas, claiming that some 40 years ago, Lucas asked him how sound should be recorded for the original Star Wars. Allen said he suggested a then-brand-new form of boom mic, rather than lavaliere technology. "Eighteen months later, Star Wars was released and it was one of the earliest uses of that technology," Allen recalled. He also payed tribute to his close friend Ray Dolby, who passed away in 2013. Here is coverage of the event from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and SMPTE's original press release.
Film Business Difficulties Continue
Studio Daily recently reported that the last motion-picture film processing and printing lab in New York City will be shutting down at the end of the year. The 110 Leroy Street Lab, co-owned by Technicolor-PostWorks and Deluxe in New York, was closing, according to sources in the article, because HBO's Boardwalk Empire, one of the last 35mm-acquired shows on television shot in New York, had ended its run, and there was no longer enough business to keep the facility open. This report comes on the heels of an analysis piece that Studio Daily ran in October pointing out that despite a spate of good news in recent months about efforts to preserve and protect Kodak's 35mm motion picture film business, and the high-profile of Christopher Nolan's 15-perf IMAX release, Interstellar, that the company is still moving ahead with layoffs (85 total, including 70 at the company's Rochester headquarters). According to Bryant Frazer's reporting in the article, industry analyst George Conboy of the financial services firm Brighton Securities is claiming that the company is running far behind in film stock production from what it had budgeted for 2014. Conboy thinks the highly touted deal earlier this year to get major studios to commit to minimum purchases of Kodak film stock might have been exaggerated, and claims in the article that, thus far, only one major studio has actually signed such an agreement. The article states that Kodak officials are not commenting on speculation about its current levels of film stock production or details regarding their arrangements