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The future for Automation

Television is hugely popular in the Indian sub-continent. At the beginning of this century, a third of all Indian homes had a television. Today it is more than two-thirds. But at the same time, new media services have sprung up. Content on demand on smart phones is gaining ground, particularly as network capacity improves and intelligent techniques to boost quality are developed.

Consumers in the region are demanding the highest quality in broadcast television, and also the ability to watch what they want, when they want. The result is that broadcasters have to find new ways to manage workflows and automate processes. Automation for television playout first came onto the scene 30 years ago. That was a time before video servers, and content came from standalone VTRs and robotic tape libraries like the Sony LMS and the Panasonic Marc.

While these were designed for computer control, computers of the day were very limited. So, the early television playout automation systems depended on PCs running customised software to track playlists. Instructions were passed on to real-time interfaces — special purpose hardware — which performed the machine control.

These early automation systems allowed system designers to choose the hardware they wanted: not only the video recorders, but also switchers and graphics devices. Provided they had a published API, they could be controlled by the automation.

The other side of that coin was that the automation system was tailored to the devices under its control, each of which would have different characteristics. If you wanted to change anything, it meant re-engineering the software, and if you wanted to extend the outputs you needed to buy new hardware.

With the coming of the video server, the idea of a channel-in a box became popular. This put the basic functionality you needed for a single channel into one device. Typically, these were 1RU, so they were certainly compact and convenient. But choice was limited: you were locked into the functionality of the device. Today, with the growing number of channels and outputs — along with the ever-present demand for high quality and reliability — broadcast engineers have to look at the challenge of playout from the other end of the telescope. Rather than have technology dictate our capabilities, we want to define our business requirements and have technology support them.

That means having scalability and extensibility built into the design. We need a playout automation platform that we can adapt at any time — with a few software commands — to suit our dynamic workflows and ever-changing market demands. If our business analysis says we need to add a new channel, or a streaming version, or an output in Ultra HD, then we must be able to do it, and do it quickly.

The only way to achieve this level of agility is through a software-defined architecture running on standard commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The Versio Platform from Imagine Communications is a good example of this new approach. It provides all the playout functionality you need, in software. It can run on dedicated hardware in your machine room, as a virtual infrastructure in your data centre, or in the cloud.

This next-generation playout solution achieves this agility through microservices — compact packages of software that each perform very specific operations. Using the Imagine Zenium microservices environment, these discrete software components — from third parties, as well as from Imagine — can be combined and recombined to deliver precisely the workflows you need from moment to moment and adapt to meet the challenges of today’s continually changing market demands.

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