Virtualization changes everything

There are no doubt many who are looking back on 2016 as a disastrous year, and who predict continuing pestilence and tribulation. It is true that 2016 has had some very challenging moments, from the death of David Bowie to the (dependent upon your political affiliations) Brexit and the US election.

Maybe I am a glass half full sort of person, but I think this is actually a pretty good time to be around. 80 years ago the world was tumbling headlong into global war. 50 years ago Khrushchev planted his nuclear missiles on the USA’s doorstep. Even the worst predictions of the impacts of a Trump White House and a UK/EU come nowhere near mass extinction.

I think the same is true in our industry. Pundits keep trying to tell us we are in a state of chaos because of all the confusion around IP. But actually there is no confusion. IP is IP. No arguments, no conflict: we are moving to an all-IP world, in a more or less controlled fashion. This is not new, the transition has been happening for a decade.

We have certainly had confusion in the past. Remember the days when we went to NAB each year, confident someone would come up with a new and completely incompatible video format? Then, when the industry decided to move away from tape we had the same baffling variety of optical and magnetic disk formats, solid state memory cards and more.

Today we have two clear forward movements. The industry moved to HD because it was the right moment: broadcasters had the capability of producing and delivering it; and consumers were excited by the newly available flat-panel television screens and wanted good quality content to put on them.

Those same drivers are applying today as we consider Ultra HD in all its 4k, HDR, wide colour gamut and even high frame rate glory. We have the ability to create, deliver and enjoy bigger, brighter, more engaging television pictures.

But what of IP? It is not so purposeful, not perhaps so obviously an end to end gain.

It is an end to end benefit, though, because it allows us to deliver to any platform at any time over any reasonably competent network. Consumers are largely insulated from this: if they want 4k Ultra HD on their phones then they expect us to deliver it. That depends upon IP and the benefits it brings.

Yes, IP is a new technology to the traditional broadcaster. But vendors have come together through the efforts of standards bodies like SMPTE and other organisations like AIMS. There is general agreement that the VSF standard TR02 will be pretty good and that SMPTE 2110 will likely bring everything and everyone together. At IBC2016 there was a special zone in the exhibition with more than 30 different companies all demonstrating interoperability. There is no bar on implementing IP systems; there are few limitations on choosing best of breed solutions.

But IP is not the ultimate goal in itself. The enabling technology is software defined solutions, not IP connectivity which has been around for decades. The new thing about IP in broadcast is that it is carrying video instead of using a dedicated interface (SDI). The real game changer is that software defined solutions can replace hardware boxes with virtualizable software modules.

IP plus software-defined-solutions plus powerful commercial-off-the-shelf hardware enable workflows to combine processing from multiple applications, probably from multiple vendors, to achieve a specific goal. Then it releases all the processors used to accomplish that task, and allocates them to the next job. Each individual processor will probably be running different software applications in the next task. We have moved from a physical machine for each application to a virtual machine for each application.

It is virtualisation that is the real goal. Yes, virtualisation enables the cloud, and no doubt some tasks will gradually migrate to the cloud, although it is not necessarily the ultimate solution for everything nor is it right for everyone.

But virtualisation certainly is. Today you can bolt a Cisco blade into the same rack as your existing broadcast infrastructure and start running processes on virtual machines. Perceptually it is not the quantum leap that moving everything to the cloud would be – but it is a remarkable transformation all the same.

The expression “paradigm shift” risks becoming a cliché, but virtualisation – whether the processor farm is in your machine room, your data centre or at AWS – is a paradigm shift, with epic potential to transform the way we work. It is a more dramatic shift than anything that our industry has seen.

We have added colour to the pictures, and a few more lines of resolution, and a few more audio channels. But from the BBC’s first trial broadcasts in 1936 right up to today, we did it with a box per function. The move to clever applications virtualised on powerful COTS hardware is the paradigm shift.

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