NAB 2008: Broadcast Flash Attack

Video server and storage vendor SeaChange, which introduced a flash-memory-based server for video-on-demand (VOD) applications last year at the NCTA show, will come to the NAB show in Las Vegas with a similar product for broadcasters.

With the SeaChange Broadcast Flash Media Library FML200, the Acton, Mass.-based firm is seeking to capitalize on the appeal of solid-state storage technologies, such as flash memory, which consist entirely of electronic components with no moving mechanical parts.

Flash memory, which is more expensive than hard-disk storage but has greater reliability, lower power requirements and runs cooler, is already used in millions of consumer electronic devices such as iPods, cellphones and laptops. Flash has also made its way into broadcast production with tapeless camcorders like Panasonic's P2 and Sony's XDCAM EX, which use flash-based memory cards.

Now SeaChange thinks flash can play a day-to-day role in master control operations at TV stations, particularly as broadcasters evolve to high-definition content, says Sherry Zhu, director of SeaChange's server and storage solutions. The crux of SeaChange's pitch is reliability. Since HDTV requires three times the storage space and bandwidth of standard-definition, it requires three times the number of disk drives to store the same-length segment of video. More disk drives equate to more moving parts and an increased chance of failure.

“If you ask [engineers] about their pain points, the number-one complaint is disk failure,” says Zhu. “With play-to-air, the stakes are high. If a couple of drives fail and you go black to air, that's a big deal. They really want a super-reliable system, and only flash is going to deliver.”

A study by Carnegie Mellon University concluded flash memory is up to 100 times more reliable than hard-disk storage and consumes 10 times less power. But it is still far more expensive than disk. So when SeaChange introduced its flash-memory product for VOD, the MediaServer Flash Streamer for VOD, it didn't present the product as a direct one-for-one replacement for hard-disk. Instead it advocated a hybrid approach that would use the flash-memory system to store the most popular content, such as newly released movies. The rest remains on cheaper disk storage units.

The company is taking a similar approach to introducing flash-memory into broadcast plants with its Flash Assisted Storage Technology (FAST) architecture. A FAST system would use the flash-based FLM200 as an “online” server to store and play back the most critical content, such as primetime commercials or syndicated fare, while SeaChange's disk-based MediaLibrary would function as “nearline” storage for less-current content.

The two-rack-unit FML200 system can hold up to 24 flash-memory drives and SeaChange currently is using 32-gigabyte (GB) drives from SanDisk that give the system 0.7 terabytes of storage. That, according to Zhu, is enough to hold up to 70 hours of standard-def video at 15 Mbps and 23 hours of high-definition video at 50 Mbps. New 64 GB drives that will double the FML200's storage capacity should be available in the third quarter, and the flash server units themselves can be organized in three- to-six-server clusters with a maximum combined storage capacity of 6.6 TB.

SeaChange customers with existing Broadcast MediaLibrary hard-disk systems generally place 10 to 20 hours of online storage with each play-to-air channel, says Zhu, and then keep the rest of their content on a large MediaLibrary 1G nearline archive with 20 to 50 TB of storage. They might take the same approach with the FML200.

DIS Consulting analyst Doug Sheer thinks SeaChange's strategy makes sense for news and program playout applications where flash's extra cost—20% to 40% higher than a comparable hard-disk product—may be worth the investment. “Where flash really resonates with people is in critical non-failure requirements,” says Sheer.

SeaChange isn't the first to market flash-memory servers to U.S. broadcasters. Toshiba has sold flash-based commercial insertion servers in Japan for years and introduced its “On-Air Max” flash product at NAB 2005, though it has yet to find any U.S. customers.

That product, aimed at play-to-air and time-delay applications, may have been a bit ahead of its time, concedes Toshiba director of business development John Hall. But Toshiba is relaunching it this year, and is also pushing a flash-based production system in conjunction with camera manufacturer Ikegami.