Channel-in-a-SoftBox

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There have been huge changes afoot. The traditional technologies employed for the playout of video material to air have been challenged. Broadcast video playout has evolved with available technology that is today traditional all-digital workflows including video servers, stills stores, graphics, QC, monitoring and automation. It works, but is, compared to the channel-in-a-box, costly in equipment, infrastructure, rack space and operation. That’s not all, it leaves a big question; how does it fit into file-based workflows? Also how can it increase the reach of services? Today’s channel-in-a-box can do all that in what is basically a PC platform with added hardware inside for baseband and ASI outputs (not required for IP), and the rest is just software. Right?

There are myths and misunderstandings about the “supposedly new” channel in a box. First, it is not new; PlayBox Technology has been delivering it since 2000. Recently some traditional playout system suppliers have awakened to the idea and started offering their version of ‘box’ playout. This may look like a technological breakthrough but for us it has been a 12-year development programme that continues today. We have now delivered over 11,000 playout and branding channels, the product has grown in capabilities, reliability and the available platform, now Windows7-based, is vastly more powerful. Also we now have major national broadcasters among our clients.

Second, when you see an installation, there is normally more than just one box. So clearly ‘channel in a box’ is a misnomer as there will be a bundle of functions within one box that is based on a computer platform. The functions can include automation, playout, interactive graphics and text, QC, subtitling and more. Also two boxes could be running four fully redundant playout channels, so now there can be fewer boxes than channels.

The headline change from tradition is the use of commodity PC platforms’ commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, IT infrastructure and storage rather than bespoke hardware. This means the cost can be greatly reduced with performance very much driven by the quality of the software. Today’s Intel Core i7 processor technology has taken PlayBox beyond a tipping point, supplying huge processing power that now enables running not just 1:1 playout, but performing many other live operations at the same time. This means other hardware requirements beyond the standard PC platform only amount to the absolute minimum of only basic I/O cards for video or ASI.

Intel’s hardware acceleration allows more channels per server and creating more features in all our products. For example, our new playout server, AirBox MPO (Multiple Parallel Outputs), can simultaneously scale several video streams to output different formats (SD, HD, 25fps, 30fps) and outputs (SDI, analogue, IP streaming, etc.). It can run multiple outputs to provide parallel outputs in any required combination, eg, SDI in HD and SD, and IP streaming.

A standard platform is file-based and so can connect directly into a file-based environment. Starting with a green-field operation the file system can be chosen to suit the equipment. However, most new installations add to existing workflows with an existing preferred file format. Back in 2000 the start-up PlayBox was in no position to impose its own ‘pet’ video file format onto the established industry and so had to develop format codecs to work with others. This apparent problem has turned 180 degrees to become a huge benefit. Following a commitment to work directly with any required video file format, it can now do just that. The conversions take place invisibly in software. As this can now run in real time there is no need to rely on conversion hardware, typically a part of the video I/O card. There is a knock-on benefit of freeing-up the choice of I/O card, as only its basic functions now are needed.

Such file freedom allows straightforward plug-and-play installation into any existing file-based system, while also often streamlining operational areas where format disparities had blocked the file flow. It also allows it to be a plug-in replacement for aging file-based equipment, with the ability to directly access the existing archives, so avoiding the time, cost and generation losses of re-formatting.

Going further
So far so good, but new technology should not just replace the old. It should do more. Making use of the biggest of all file-based systems – the internet – has enabled new workflows and opportunities for broadcasters. One is 24/7 remote technical support monitoring and control. This fits well with another; EdgeBox is a playout system that can operate anywhere with internet as its only connection to its distant host broadcaster. Beyond low running costs benefits include almost instant set-up as no fibres or traditional feeds have to be ordered. Rather than replaying generic ‘global’ output, it can be fed with appropriate, up-to-date local programming, IDs, commercials and have full local branding.

As channel numbers expand and budgets contract, the deployment of very cost-effective ‘channel-in-a-box’ playout solutions will continue to increase. The truth is channel-in-a-box is already mainstream.