Video servers: Technologys new team players

The chief priority for video-server manufacturers these days is interoperability. Broadcasters want the manufacturers to make it easier to integrate server products from different suppliers into a complete system.

Douglas I. Sheer, president of New York City-based DIS Consulting Corp., has done extensive research on the video server market, and his firm recently published a research report titled "Broadcast Servers USA." When interoperability surfaces in the context of video servers, Sheer makes a subtle distinction. He acknowledges that achieving interoperability across the board may appear to be at the very top of broadcasters' lists of priorities when they assess video servers, but the reality is somewhat different.

"Interoperability is an issue. But the overriding concern is automation, which calls for interoperability," Sheer says.

The industry's recognition of the need to achieve greater interoperability has generated a good deal of dialogue not only between vendors and customers but also among vendors themselves. An open environment in which cooperation and competition is routine is taking shape, perhaps far more quickly than many people thought possible even a year ago.

"Last year, everyone seemed happy to buy one solution. The greatest single demand coming out of NAB 2000 is for bit-stream interoperability with other machines," says John L. Pittas, vice president of broadcast products at SeaChange International Inc., Maynard, Mass.

"This is a totally customer-driven phenomenon. It is quite common in the computer market to find hardware vendors and applications providers working together and competing. But it is a little unusual to encounter it in the video market," says Pittas. "It is increasingly hard to provide a solution to every corner of the market."

An excellent example of this trend, according to Pittas, involves a facility in Japan where SeaChange is working with Bedford, Mass.-based Vibrint Technologies Inc., which was recently acquired by Nevada City, Calif.-based Grass Valley Group (GVG). Roland Boucher, Vibrint's vice president of marketing, says matchups like this are not automatic and the level of integration requires working together on standards.

"Customers are demanding a higher level of interoperability. They really want systems and products that interact with products from competing companies," says Boucher. "At NAB, Grass Valley demonstrated SDTI-CP interoperability between the Profile media platform and Sony MPEG IMX VTRs, as well as SDI interoperability between NewsEdit and Sony NewsBase. Adherence to standards made this possible."

"Broadcasters want a set of tools that work," says Nathan Simmons, acting director of marketing for servers at Leitch Technology Corp. in Burbank, Calif. "HD is not as important this year as an MPEG interoperability standard. DTV is here, but the standards are simply not in place yet. As a result, some people might be a bit reluctant to make major purchases."

In improving its line of VR Technology video servers, Leitch is focusing on Fibre Channel arbitrated loop-based architectures. Later this year, for example, the company will move to full OC-12 capability so that broadcasters will have the option of pushing MPEG-2 compressed data out to affiliates and O & O's as IP over ATM.

According to Al Kovalick, chief technical officer with the broadcast products group at Pinnacle Systems in Mountain View, Calif., "People do not question servers any more. We have people buying our servers with the selection being made on a recommendation-saying DirecTV bought it-and without even asking for a demo. A year ago, such a thing was unheard of."

Besides introducing the new 2RU MediaStream 300 video server, which offers 25 hours of internal storage and comes bundled with Crispin scheduling software, Pinnacle has acquired New York City-based Montage Group. Kovalick says that, as Pinnacle becomes a broader provider of broadcast products, Montage's VortexNews, an inexpensive cuts-only and simple-effects editor, fits ideally into Pinnacle's portfolio. Among other things, VortexNews lies at the core of the cooperative network news service that includes ABC, CBS and Fox.

How broad is the market?

"The definition of a server is changing rapidly, and it impacts what we sell. The video-server market has matured, and it is exploding," says Mike Cronk, Grass Valley's vice president of marketing, who says that 120 Profile XP Media Platforms were sold in the first three months of this year. Profile XP offers up to eight channels of either standard or high def at MPEG-2 4:2:2 from 4 Mb/s to 50 Mb/s.

Cronk estimates total sales for video servers in the broadcast TV market worldwide at about $400 million, with servers in the newsroom accounting for less than $40 million.

DIS Consulting's Sheer expects an even larger market. He believes that domestic video-server sales will reach $3.9 billion this year.

"The actual size of the market is debatable. But it is much larger than anyone anticipated. And there are so many places where there is need for the basic functionality of servers," says Sheer, who adds that the introduction of software-based servers is just getting under way. In many respects, he sees this next phase in the evolution of servers as akin to the introduction of non-linear editors (NLEs).

"The big anticipated surge in transmission-related expenditures, in fact, materialized more slowly than expected. The whole automation area, servers and IP-related products, is where the action is," says Sheer.

Mike Wolschon, director of marketing for broadcast and Internet delivery solutions at Philips Digital Networks in Salt Lake City, believes his company is in the right place at the right time.

"The video server market is still in its infancy, and it is growing at a healthy clip of 25% to 30% each year. Many video-server manufacturers are promoting their products as replacements for VTRs, not as servers," Wolschon says.

The Philips Media Pool is a fully 4:2:2 CCIR-601-capable device with RAID-3 storage. It continues to evolve with the addition of numerous integrated and external or remote applications, including the Philips EditStream, which is compatible with other video servers. Using the Media Pool DiskCart spot playback application, broadcasters have a turnkey solution for on-air playback preparation. DiskCart, which includes a direct traffic interface, eliminates the need for third-party automation systems, says Wolschon.

"On top of a four-channel server, which has a price tag of $100,000, an automation system even on the low-end of the scale can add $150,000 to $200,000," Wolschon says. "Our most expensive optional applications, such as our archive manager for StorageTek devices, and our DiskCart playout application, are $7,500 per channel usage."

Wolschon says that broadcasters have come full circle from the days when most large stations ran on nothing but VTRs and sneaker-net. Customers do not want their traffic departments having direct access to the disk drives in the play-out servers.

"Where other people are using caching servers to solve this problem, we offer an inexpensive firewall so that the administrative level remains divorced from the operations level," says Wolschon.

Storage is another area where dramatic changes are taking place with 36- GB drives available and 72-GB drives on the horizon. Having something in the range of a terabyte of storage at one's fingertips is no longer seen as a monumental accomplishment.

"Repurposing of material requires more storage for a longer period of time. Also, program-length material will be routinely stored," says Mike DeBlasio, senior product manager for server technology at Sony Electronics' Broadcast and Professional Co.

"Sony's MAV-70XGI is optimized for the distribution of long GOP [group of pictures] material in particular, increasing recording time, and providing terabytes of storage. In addition, in either storage area network [SAN] or library/cache models, MAVs can be linked to Sony's DTF near-line and archive data tape solution, providing access to petabytes of storage," he adds.

The dramatic strides in storage and automation are quite visible at wwor-tv, a United Paramount Network (UPN) station in Secaucus, N.J. According to Executive Director of Production and Engineering Rick Miner, both wwor-tv and wutb-tv in Baltimore access content simultaneously on the Celerra Media Server from EMC, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based company. The system, which is totally automated from satellite feed to on-air playback, includes FloriCal automation software and Avalon asset-management software for the near-line system. Lucent and Vela Research provide encoders and decoders. The Celerra Media Server holds 180 hours online for each station, integrated with 5,000 hours near-line.

Small start-ups are trying to establish themselves in the video-server market. The list includes Princeton, N.J.-based AgileVision, a joint venture founded in 1999 by Sarnoff Corp. and Mercury Computer Systems, with its new AGV-1000 "DTV Station-in-a-Box" concept. The unit sits right in front of the transmitter and outputs an ATSC stream.

"The AGV-1000 is a highly integrated platform, a video-file server with an integrated content cache, and a capacity for up to 11 drives," says Jerry Berger, AgileVision vice president of marketing. "It will be RAID 3. And it serves as an MPEG splicer, a data injector and a logo inserter for turnkey DTV operations."

Sun Valley, Calif.-based Spencer Technologies offers the Clipper, a two-channel MPEG-2 news production video server, designed for DVCPRO, DVCAM and analog news production. Clipper comes with SDI and SDTI interfaces, a touch screen GUI (graphical user interface), and RS422-SMPTE protocol controls.

News is where the action is

When broadcasters shop for any newsroom solution, they are looking for speed in terms of rapid-turnaround capabilities, scalability, reliability and the right price. The availability of commercial off-the-shelf platforms is making these systems more affordable.

The newly combined Vibrint and Grass Valley-Vibrint is now known as the Vibrint Digital News Production Workgroup-is aimed squarely at the broadcast news market.

"We saw Vibrint as being very attractive from a work-flow perspective and because, with respect to DVCPRO and Betacam SX, Vibrint was able to offer prices in that compelling range," says Grass Valley's Cronk.

"Our products entail specialized applications in the realm of feed capture and ingesting, editing and playout. They are quite different from the Profile," says Vibrint's Boucher.

Boucher says that customers can now get a complete solution from Grass Valley, using either the Profile XP video server, which has a price tag of $55,000 for an SDTV model, or video servers from other manufacturers.

Larger-market broadcasters are able to integrate NewsEdit with a playback server already in place. For example, at whdh-tv in Boston a single Vibrint NewsEdit nonlinear editor (NLE) is now integrated with a Profile server. The goal is to establish a bi-directional link between the NewsEdit equipment and the Profile.

"For speed in NLE, NewsEdit cannot be beat," says Steve Harrington, operations manager at whdh-tv. "We use Avstar, and Vibrint allows you to edit right to the script in a Vibrint window."

News-in-a-Box is a turnkey newsroom system based on the Leitch VR Technology 300 video server and NewsFlash editing system from Leitch Technology Corp. along with ANN Systems' StarDrive Newsroom Automation system, and OpenMedia Newsroom server.

"This is a complete solution for $350,000. All you add are the tape machines and the incoming feeds," says Leitch's Simmons. "Our VR server technology uses a unique video storage area network architecture that is built on a Fibre Channel arbitrated loop."

Simmons says that the Los Angeles-based ABC West Coast NewsOne Affiliates News Service is using Leitch's VR375 NEWSFlash NLE's, time-line editors and other ancillary gear. CNN is upgrading from the current VR 300 M-JPEG system to a VR-400 MPEG-based 30-channel mirrored system, yielding a total of 60 channels. CBS NewsPath has also deployed a VR NEWSFlash system at its regional news hubs.

"Our VR systems revolve around really fast turnaround," Simmons says. "They allow for ingesting, editing and transmitting it out with no restrictions. This is not a small pool of drives. And the common SAN handles everything from 250 GB up to the full 3 TB, while the Fibre Channel arbitrated loop affords excellent protection.

"This is the wave of the future," he adds. "The flagship station will be able to reduce the production load while it brands the look." Leitch will add WAN capabilities involving Gigabit Ethernet, OC-3 and OC-12 for MPEG-2 compressed data networking, he says.

Tore Nordahl, vice president of product development and engineering at Panasonic Broadcast and Television Systems in Los Angeles, says that CBS is the latest to sign on to the Panasonic DVCPRO News Automation (DNA) lineup of editing and server systems. The installation of DNA at kcbs Los Angeles and wcbs New York is scheduled to be completed by midsummer.

"We have a very large lead in digital news acquisition," Nordahl says. "What we have done is develop a high-quality I-Frame compression server as part of our DNA solution."

Jason Danielson, director of marketing at Mountain View, Calif.-based SGI, says that the news market is very important this year, as broadcasters move rapidly to digital platforms and NLEs.

"The team approach is where everyone is devoting their energies. And with that, you see an emphasis on much faster turnaround in terms of on-air delivery," adds Danielson, who notes that broadcasters like the fact that they can deploy a complete DVCPRO solution from camera to air with Panasonic's DNA platform, which connects NewsBytes to an SGI Media Server.

He describes SGI's new line of Media Servers-the MS400 and MS800-as out-of-the-box video servers that have a much broader range of outputs than a conventional video server.

At Pluto Technologies in Boulder, Colo., news is the largest and fastest-growing product category, says President and CEO Mark C. Gray, accounting for more than 40% of the company's current sales.

Acting as an ingest server, Pluto's AirSPACE can be used as a source for Avid NewsCutters and other NLEs. This allows for immediate, simultaneous availability, once the material has begun loading, with automatic notification of the news system.

"You do not have to digitize everything. You can edit right to the time line on the NLE. And when the story is finished, you can drag-and-drop the finished piece directly into the playout server," says Gray, explaining that the Avid NewsCutter can then blast the material out at greater than 2X real-time to the AirSPACE Newsplayer.

At Menlo Park, Calif.-based Accom Inc., VTR operators discover that the user interface on the MultiFlex DTV server is quite user-friendly. The ABEKAS 6000 is a DVCPRO/ DVCPRO50 system with two to eight channels in a very small chassis.

"A lot of broadcasters are still immersed in the composite analog domain, where talk of serial digital video and digital audio is considered very high tech," says Douglas Johnson, Accom's product development manager. "That's why we see the user interface, among other things, as a major issue." He describes the very small chassis of the ABEKAS 6000 as an ideal solution, especially for truck deployments. And where other video-server vendors have pursued Windows NT-based solutions, Accom uses the VxWorks operating system (O/S).

"The O/S is an issue, and this one is designed for real time. That's why we use it. A server is a real-time system. And video is a real-time process, whereas Windows NT is not," says Johnson.

Sony has spent considerable energy on the user interface side as well. When it comes to saving time, for example, an operator can edit directly on the MAV-2000 newsroom server without waiting for files to be transferred using the DNE-2000 digital news editing system, which comes as either a stand-alone system or as part of Sony's NewsBase System.

"We have different servers focused on different applications," says Sony's DeBlasio. "We offer a broadcaster the ability to split and shift audio, which is critical to news production-for example, using the VTR-like editing capability of the MAV-555 with the nonlinear capability of the DNE-2000."

DeBlasio sees the MAV-555 server as the core storage component for the DNE-2000. Broadcasters can use either SDTI-CP or Gigabit Ethernet to move the large MPEG-2 files-50 Mb/s GOP 1-easily between the MAV-555 and MAV-2000 newsroom servers.

Steve Owen, Quantel's head of product management, emphasizes both the advantages of Quantel's Clipnet, which provides fast-gigabit-background open networking, and the open compression standards approach a` la Clipbox involving MPEG and DVCPRO.

"Having up to 200 hours of storage and being able to re-create audio edits on the fly are just some of the things that Clipbox offers. This means that no re-recording of audio mixes is required prior to playout, a big timesaver," Owen says.

Simultaneous true random access across multiple ports, part of Quantel's embedded editing solution for Clipbox, allows for up to 14 edit seats to simultaneously edit material on the server-directly on the server.

Regardless of where a broadcaster is in terms of implementing DTV, as far as video servers are concerned, the emphasis is on much more than achieving interoperability. Besides offering a lower cost point-of-entry and maximum reliability, future-proofing for HDTV, SDTV and Web media is a major focus of video-server manufacturers. This goes far beyond any attempt to reach out to small to mid-sized stations, which may not have installed any video servers.

"Today, broadcasters will not buy a video server without HD functionality. You have to have it. They view it as protection," says Pinnacle's Kovalick.

However, no one can speak to the softening of the HD market better than Pluto's Gray, who says that about 50 facilities are operating with Pluto's HyperSpace HD play-to-air solution.