Broadcasters no longer have the monopoly on the delivery of A/V entertainment to the home. In the fiercely competitive world of media and entertainment, companies have to deliver more versions and formats, but without increasing their costs. A channel is now expected to have a Web presence, as well as mobile and tablet versions of their content.

Organizations like the EBU and Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA) are promoting the Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) as a route to provide the interoperable media services that can serve the new business requirements.

For the seasoned video engineer, the world of SOA introduces terms and concepts that at first encounter seem foreign and more suited to the IT specialist. As video processing migrates to the file domain, there is no option but to become familiar with what at first sight may appear alien.

Broadcast systems have evolved around the imposed workflow of the serial processing steps of videotape operations. Over time, many processes have moved from dedicated hardware boxes with SDI in and out to software applications on a network. A typical broadcast operation is now a hybrid of SDI and IP connections.

In many cases, the workflow remains as the original tape-based flow. Over time, other applications like asset and workflow management are layered over the entire process chain. The system has grown by accident, not by design, and become a web of custom or proprietary interfaces linking the many applications.

Sure it works, it was designed that way, but when the time comes to replace a component part — say the playout automation — the inflexibility of the system rapidly comes apparent. The parts of the system are linked by a web of custom APIs, often restricted to a specific release of a specific software application. It is just not possible to swap out the automation for the latest product without attending to the web of interfaces.

To meet the demands for new services to the public, the broadcaster must add facilities for a mobile news service, a 3-D channel and interaction with a social media website. Along comes CES and some new consumer device to consume content. How do you add support for this new device? Will it mean more custom interfaces or more special workflow applications? The EBU and AMWA are developing a Framework for Interoperable Media Services (FIMS), which aims to provide a new technology platform that leverages current IT practices, like the use of the SOA, to provide business agility and to control costs.

The legacy system architectures suffer from many problems, and these scenarios serve to illustrate just two.

Scenario One: Ingest
Take the example of ingest. A VTR connects to a video noise reducer via HD-SDI. This then connects again via HD-SDI to an encoder card. The card encodes to a suitable codec for editing and also creates a low-resolution proxy.

At some point this is updated so that the encoder card ingests directly from the VTR and encodes to an uncompressed format. The noise reduction is performed in software. The uncompressed file is saved in a watch folder and picked up by transcoder software, which creates files in the wanted resolutions and codecs.

Imagine more control is needed over the clean up, and the file is passed to an operator who will apply craft skills to the clean-up and repair process. Any changes to the process flow involve wiring changes and software reconfiguration.

The system is just not flexible or agile enough for the constant changes needed to serve today's requirements.

Each evolution of the ingest system needs wiring and configuration changes

Scenario Two: System Upgrades
A broadcaster has a transcoder that is interfaced to a DAM. The broadcaster starts with Transcoder A and DAM A. The transcoder is replaced by a later model from a different vendor, Transcoder B. This requires a new interface to the DAM. The broadcaster migrates to a new DAM B, so the interface to Transcoder B must be rewritten.

The broadcaster liked the compression quality of Transcoder A and decides to move back, but must pay for another interface to the new DAM. Next, the vendor for Transcoder A has to redesign its product to move from a 32-bit to 64-bit operating system. In the process, the API is upgraded, and a new SDK is issued. The custom interface must be similarly upgraded.

Using two transcoder vendors and two DAMs has required the development of five custom interfaces over time. This adds up to costs for professional services, and for the manufacturer, the opportunity cost of not using software resource to develop new products. It is an unsustainable business model.

Each upgrade needs a new custom API

Integrating an SOA
The implementation of an SOA in a media business must take into account the special needs of the processes that manage A/V files. Off-the-shelf IT products do not cater for these additional requirements without extensive customization. The work to develop FIMS will create a set of standards for vendors to create compliant products and save unnecessary professional services.

This melding of IT with a media-savvy system means that the video engineer and IT specialist can collaborate and share their skills in the creation of products and systems that meet the new demands of the media and entertainment sector.

The linear nature of legacy production is implemented by serial processes acting on the content: ingest, editing, transcoding, distribution, playout and archive being typical. It may be that content is transcoded at ingest — AVC-Intra to DNxHD, for example — and then transcoded after editing to different delivery formats. This could be done by a transcoder in the edit bay and a transcoder in master control.

In a file-based environment, devices all sit on the media network. It makes sense to pool all the transcoders as a central resource and make them available as a transcode service. It could even be that cloud transcoding could be used. This offers much more efficient use of transcoder resources, but for it to work, the service should be reusable at any point in the workflow and should interoperate with all the necessary equipment in the organization, whatever make or model.

This calls for standardization so that a transcode service has a common interface, whatever make or model, and capabilities. A given transcoder may not support all codecs, but the interface can still be common. If demand increases, new transcoders can be added; the architecture scales easily.

The move to an SOA involves a change of mind-set to view processes within the organization as services. Since most post houses have a rate card of services they offer, it is not a great leap to understand this concept. The services include ingest editing, grading, dubbing, encoding, sound mixing, etc. Note that some services require extensive and lengthy use of creative staff; services are not only computer processing operations like transcoding.

A post facility can take a videotape and return a copy of the tape encoded on a Blu-ray disc. All the detail of the process is hidden. You don't need to know which tape deck was used or what software was used to burn the disc. It is all abstracted from the client. The facility performs a service and bills for that service; it is a business transaction.

In an SOA, this concept of abstracting, or encapsulating, the detail of the process is key. If the post house starts using different software, or a different VTR, you don't care as long as the disc is a faithful copy of the tape.

An SOA uses loose coupling for services, possibly a foreign concept for video engineers used to real-time systems. But many services are already loosely coupled. Captioning is one example. A low-resolution proxy is sent out to the captioning facility, and at some point in the future a caption file is returned. The process is managed at a business level by a scheduling department.

Service Adaptors
Many existing products need the user to control the service via a custom API using an SDK provided by the vendor. In an SOA, services are linked to the middleware via service adaptors. These provide the abstraction from the implementation of the service — how it works — to deliver the service at the business level.

The FIMS project is working to define standard interfaces for common media services. A system with FIMS components contains two broad service categories: workflow services able to realize a given business goal (media workflow services), and infrastructure services that are essential components of the media SOA system (media infrastructure services).

The first three workflow services to be developed are:
  • Transfer (moving files)
  • Transform (changing essence or metadata)
  • Capture (ingest stream to file)

It is envisaged further services will be added to the list as dictated by demand from vendors and users.

The first three SOA services for FIMS are: transfer, transform and capture

Building an SOA
In all but the smallest facility, some middleware is required to manage the services, scheduling resources and the workflow. To link services together to implement broadcast workflows, the SOA middleware orchestrates job requests, calling appropriate services to satisfy a request. There are many SOA middleware systems, but few are “media aware.” It is hoped that FIMS will make it easier for several manufacturers to offer compliant products.

One important term is “web services.” Web services are used for communications between the many components of the SOA implementation. SOA is just an architecture — a methodology; it is not a software application.

Web services have become a commodity, with companies like Amazon and Google offering storage, processing and many other services in the cloud. Web services are not exclusive to the Web, but can equally be used on the company LAN.

Web service standards have two interaction styles: SOAP/WSDL and RESTful. RESTful only operates over HTTP. SOAP is agnostic to transport protocol, so it can use other protocols like TCP. SOAP was designed for distributed computing, whereas RESTful is a lightweight protocol for point-to-point communications. Both can be used to bind a service provider with a service consumer. FIMS uses an object model described by XML schemas, which provides independence from the method used to bind services.

Media-Centric Issues
File-based media systems need to allow for certain issues not found in typical SOA implementations. One is the very large size of media files, terabytes in some cases. Media files cannot travel as attachments on a conventional enterprise service bus, the interconnection bus of an SOA. Instead a separate media service bus is used. This concept is common in broadcast facilities where a high-bandwidth media network carries files separately from the main network, which carries control messages, e-mails etc.

A typical SOA service, like converting a Word document to PDF, happens in seconds. Media processes can take hours or even days. Such operations must happen asynchronously from other processes. Operations such as transcoding must be scheduled to business rules to ensure resources are not used for a low-priority job, holding up a high-priority job.

A resource manager service must manage use of services according to business rules that manage the needs of broadcast operations.

The media bus is a potential bottleneck to scaling of services, so SLA monitoring is vital to ensure efficient running of the media systems. To the video engineer, used to non-blocking systems, with dedicated circuits and crosspoint routers, it is easy to keep track of bandwidth requirements. In a file-based environment, care has to be taken over the use of the media bus though continual monitoring of capacity and performance.

The AMWA and EBU have now joined with SMPTE to move forward standardization of the framework. After formalization by AMWA and EBU, the work will be submitted to SMPTE.

The standards work is not following a big-bang approach, but progressing in steps, with usable specifications released at regular intervals so that vendors and media companies can start deploying systems immediately, rather than waiting for a long, drawn-out standards process, which has been the case in the past. Businesses have to move now; there is no option to wait for an all-encompassing answer to everything in the media factory. By releasing the framework, and then key adaptors, further work will proceed as the demand arises from the community.

The move to an SOA, and to follow the FIMS route, promises many advantages to the broadcaster. The architecture is more flexible and scalable than legacy systems. The broadcaster can more easily outsource to external services or cloud provision. And finally, the system — through the dashboard — gives management a better view of key performance indicators of the business. The system agility and the better control gives management the ability to invest in new services and to improve the efficiency of existing operations.

By David Austerberry, Broadcast Engineering