IP Production Forum: Picking an IP Router Remains a Moving Target
From mobile units like Game Creek Video’s Encore and NEP’s WWE trucks to fixed production facilities like ESPN’s Digital Center 2 and NBC Sports Group Stamford broadcast center, sports-content producers are beginning to implement IP-based routers at the core of their operations. Although an IP router offers many benefits over a traditional baseband router, it also comes with a steep learning curve and presents new, IT-centric challenges for broadcast engineers.
At SVG’s IP Production Forum on Oct. 6, router manufacturers and end users took the stage to discuss when it makes sense to invest in an IP router and how working with IP‐based routing differs from baseband routing.
The Peacock Goes IP
The exponential growth that takes place with each Olympic Games necessitated expanding the NBC Sports facility in Stamford, CT. Prior to Rio 2016, NBC Olympics built out a control room, PCR8, powered by an Evertz EXE IP router. The ASPEN-based router, replacing a 1152×1152 baseband router, marks a major commitment to IP in Stamford.
“In 2014, as we saw the growth trajectory for the Olympics, we knew we were going to run out of outputs on the router, and we had to expand,” said Tim Canary, VP, engineering, NBC Sports. “Although we were well-positioned to expand the baseband path, and the facility was designed with expansion in mind, as we started talking to colleagues, we decided this was the time to go IP for the router. We then had a control room to build, and it became impractical to not use that IP router in production.”
PCR8 is fully IP-based from the router to the monitor wall, thanks to the EXE router and Evertz VIP 10G multiviewer system, but the uncompressed video paths are still de-encapsulated back to baseband before hitting the switcher or any other gear in the control room. The remaining IP ecosystem will be expanded down the line, but Canary says NBC felt the need to commit to IP even though industry-wide IP standards have yet to be fleshed out.
“The key point for us was, we had to make a decision on which way to go regarding IP,” said Canary. “We couldn’t wait for AIMS and TR-03 and all these other standards to work themselves out. We needed to pick something that worked out of the box immediately, and, at the time, ASPEN and the Evertz router fit all of those needs. [ASPEN] has been a very good, robust format, but we don’t think it will be the format forever. But we can flex down the road and go with different formats as they develop.”
COTS Switches in a Broadcast World
At one time, the promise of the IP revolution in the broadcast market was that, one day, broadcasters would be able to build their entire facility on top of a simple COTS [commercial, off-the-shelf] switch. However, today, the reality is that it’s far more complicated given the unique requirements of live video production.
“If we were able to solve that problem with an off-the-shelf switch, we would have done that years ago, because we’re always looking to reduce the cost of creating content. But that’s not necessarily the reality,” said Mo Goyal, professional engineer/director, product marketing, Evertz. “How do we bring the virtues of IP while still maintain our strengths in the broadcast space? We thought it would be easier to start from scratch than trying to fine-tune a platform that didn’t do that. Really, it comes down to the control system. It’s about the end-user operator: how are they going to interact with the system? It doesn’t have to change. It has to be the same control panel because they don’t care if they’re switching over SDI or IP.”
Competing — and Cooperating — With the IT Giants
As IT behemoths like Arista, Brocade, Cisco, and HPE (Hewlett Packard Enterprise) begin to address broadcast more directly (for example, Cisco’s M&E-friendly Nexus 9200 switch), broadcast vendors are finding that their R&D budgets simply don’t compare. However, many vendors are embracing an open-architecture philosophy that can build on these IT giants’ COTS switches.
“If you take every single broadcast vendor’s R&D budget, it’s still 100th of what Brocade or Cisco is spending in R&D,” said Robert Erickson, IP evangelist, Grass Valley. “So, if we can leverage their technology to make [broadcast] workflows better, that’s where we succeed. We are seeing that the COTS manufacturers are making products for our market, so our goal is to have a product line that interfaces with them both directly and through edge devices to convert from SDI to IP. In our opinion, the most important part of that is to have an open architecture. That way, the customer knows, if they buy a product from Grass Valley, we will integrate with third-party equipment using the SMPTE protocols being pushed through by the AIMS committee.”
Imagine Communications, an AIMS member, has also embraced the philosophy of creating IP-based routing fabric systems that can be based on existing IT infrastructure provided by COTS-switch manufacturers. Broadcasters benefit not only from the synergies created by having their broadcast and IT infrastructure rely on the same base platform but also from the cost savings created by cut-through COTS switch market.
“If you think Imagine, Grass Valley, and Evertz compete, we do, but it’s nothing compared to Cisco, Brocade, Arista, and HPE,” said John Mailhot, CTO, networking and infrastructure, Imagine Communications. “They compete with each other on a whole other level. The good news is that, [for] a customer, it’s great because they are driving their price [down].”
Tech Support Remains Key
Massive IT corporations may not understand the unique, often finicky demands of broadcast, which is why vendor tech support has never been more important to broadcasters.
“Customer support from the vendor was a big criterion for us in moving to IP,” said Canary. “We had a COTS vendor in to look [at our facility], and the chief technologist was very excited to see the first control room that they had ever seen. That right there was a red flag. I relay that story not to downplay the vendor but because, as broadcasters, if we have a problem, we have to be able to get on the phone to a support company that understands how important that [interruption] is to our business.”
Brocade is just one of many large COTS-switch manufacturers that has identified the broadcast market as a growth sector. However, as a multibillion-dollar company that is not M&E-specific, Brocade will continue to rely on its broadcast-centric vendor partners to deliver reliable support to the end user.
“I think the support conversation is an extremely strategic decision for people,” said AJ Casamento, principal/technology evangelist, Brocade. “You need to have partners that you can look to and know you’re going to get an answer with. We depend on our partners to know our gear and to be part of that solution with the customer as well. I don’t care how good your equipment platform is; you have to prepare for the concept that all hardware will eventually fail and most software will eventually work.”