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A Software-Defined IBC

Software-Defined Workflows, courtesy of Imagine Communications Having lived in Asia for the past decade, I hadn't had the chance to visit IBC very often recently, so it was a great pleasure to be in Amsterdam for the 2014 exhibition.  I always like to take an initial stroll around the halls to try to get a feel for the likely overall themes of a show, and wasn't surprised to see the 'C' word in liberal abundance, as has been the case at all such gatherings around the world over the past couple of years or so. 

Undoubtedly, 'The Cloud' is a key component of future digital media infrastructure and workflows, but it does seem to have become yet another over-used marketing buzzword in some cases - a point made very eloquently by Ian Hamilton of Signiant in his article about 'cloud washed' software.

A relatively new term (to our industry) that I started noticing more at NAB earlier this year is Software Defined...  It was more prominent at IBC and, as with the aforementioned cloud epihet, it seems to me that there's a risk of the SDN moniker being hijacked to encompass a broad selection of solutions that use software in one way or another (and what doesn't these days?).

There's still a lot of hardware around (EditShare) Truth be told, equipment manufacturers have for a long time long been moving away from bespoke hardware (with custom PCBs), towards generic IT based platforms.  Typically the original firmware would then be ported to a Linux environment, with any specific I/O requirements being handled by off-the-shelf or plug-in cards. 

The logical extension of this is to move that software onto a 'cloud' platform, such as Amazon Web Services, and there were numerous examples of this approach on display at IBC, of which Elemental Cloud, Harmonic's VOS and Imagine Communications' VersioCloud are but three.

CDNs and SDNs

The World Map according to Limelight Networks For another view of how the brave new world of cloud-based infrastructure is likely to pan out, Limelight Networks, a major player in the CDN space, has expanded its range of services to incorporate some of the functionality that would traditionally be performed at a media company's own facility, such as transcoding and branding.

Going forward, there are undoubtedly services in the pipeline that will truly bring the power of SDNs to media production, management and distribution processes.  Along with many others, I'm sure, I eagerly await further news from Larry Kaplan's SDVI Corporation, a company that seems set to take the industry further along the path towards fully virtualised infrastructure. 

In the meantime, a paper* presented at the IBC conference dealt with one of the potential obstacles to a wholesale move away from SDI based infrastructure - namely the challenge of switching video sources cleanly and predictably in an IP-centric domain. 

Interesting times ahead

For a view of the overall outlook for the industry, a conference session organised by the IABM discussed the state of the broadcast technology market, supplier and customer sentiment, and the likely trends for the coming months.  Some interesting points that came out from survey data and the discussions during the session included:

  • Overall, the outlook for equipment manufacturers has improved over the course of 2014, with sales and profit growth of 5.8% and 12% year-on-year, respectively.  The global market is expected to grow from $40bn (in 2014) to $45bn in 2017, and the geographic split is currently 47% for the Americas, 34% for EMEA and 19% for APAC.
  • Profit growth was highest (7.1%) for larger companies, suggesting that the M&A activity we've seen over the past year is likely to continue as some smaller firms continue to struggle to obtain decent returns on their R&D investment.  This is despite the fact that a lot of the genuine innovation still originates from smaller and/or newer companies.
  • Price competition remains fierce; hence gross margins are under increasing pressure (with the vendor industry average falling from 60% to 59% to 55% over the past three half-year periods).  Clearly there has been significant cost-cutting in order to achieve the overall profitability growth mentioned above.
  • Customers are relatively optimistic for the immediate future, with 90% stating that business will either improve or stay the same over the next two years.
  • The overall revenue mix for broadcasters is currently 45% from advertising, 27% from license fees, 16% from subscriptions and 12% from other sources.
  • Most clients still prefer a Best of Breed approach for their infrastructure projects, with the main criteria for selecting specific suppliers being: 1. Best fit for functionality and efficiency (read: cost savings), and 2. Service & Support capabilities and reputation.
  • There is a feeling that many customers are still asking "What is the Cloud?" in the context of broadcast processes, or to put it another way, the 'C' word can often mean different things to different people.
  • There continues to be a shortage of people with the skills and experience appropriate to the new technologies and processes now being deployed worldwide.   Initiatives such as the IABM training academy, SMPTE's training programmes and Quantel's sponsorship of university students are good examples of the efforts needed to address this critical issue.
  • Further consolidation within the vendor community is very likely, but mergers and acquisitions have to be managed carefully, with appropriate planning for the post-merger period being undertaken at an early stage.  Furthermore, increased cooperation, partnerships and interoperability are what customers are demanding; hence suppliers who fail to adopt 'coopertition' strategies will likely lose out.

In conclusion, my sense of the general mood at IBC was 'cautiously optimistic'.  What was your impression?  Please feel free to leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts about the show.

Further reading

* The paper referred to above - Source-timed SDN video switching of packetized video, by Thomas Edwards of FOX Network Engineering & Operations - is available as part of a Best of IET and IBC 2014 collection - click here to go to the download page on the IET website.