Accelerating the move to remote and virtualised workflows
Over the last three decades, we’ve seen a shift from specialised units for various video and audio functions, to high performance hardware platforms which can be repurposed on-the-fly to support any AV processing, and now to virtualised media applications and microservices which can be spun up and deployed (and paid for) only when you need them (Figure 1). Rob Green, Senior Manager, Pro AV, Broadcast & Consumer, Xilinx, explains.
Broadcasters have applied constant pressure to suppliers to enable them to move their capital expenses to operating expenses which can be more flexibly managed, as well as improve agility and scalability by providing services just for specific events or productions.
Two major technology advances have enabled this shift to occur: AV-over-IP and compression. Moving from point-to-point SDI connections to IP transport using open and interoperable standards such as SMPTE ST 2110, has meant that equipment can become addressable on the network, and that packets of audio, video and data can be transported over larger distances and to multiple places at once.
Above: The industry shift from specialised to virtualised
This has many benefits, not least that the hardware can effectively be anywhere in the world, either on-premise or deployed in cloud data centres. Additionally, the emergence of lightweight, low-latency mezzanine compression schemes such as JPEG-XS are helping to move media around the network more easily, using existing Ethernet installations for AV-over-IP at 4K and beyond, and enabling efficient streaming in and out of the cloud. H.264 and H.265 encoding has also been more widely deployed for contribution and for live streaming.
The impact of a global pandemic
This move from on-premise, specialised platforms to distributed workflows was happening anyway, but the global COVID-19 pandemic has vastly accelerated the move from technology proof-of-concepts to technically and commercially viable deployments for live TV and production. Unsurprisingly, the IABM Special Report (Sep 2020) listed the three most important priorities in technology roadmaps as Cloud and Virtualisation, OTT and Streaming Platforms and At-Home/Remote Production, and with proven deployments are likely to become the norm.
We’ve seen many parts of the industry suffer greatly with lockdowns forcing abandonment of major sports and live events, but some have thrived.
The demand for remote operations has increased significantly because of travel restrictions and social distancing. On the contribution side, technology has enabled live streaming content from broadcaster staff working from home (WFH) using low-cost production equipment - often a decent quality SLR camera with HDMI output, and a live H.264 encoder box or mini-switcher connected to the Internet is all that’s needed. This is one of the major reasons we saw a big increase in adoption of the Xilinx Zynq UltraScale+ MPSoC which integrates AV connectivity and H.264/H.265 codec into a low-cost, single-chip multimedia processor.
On the acquisition side, ensuring social distancing on-set has been made possible with the same devices, offering compressed video through wireless camera transmitters to remote field monitors, or the use of remotely controlled PTZ (point, tilt and zoom) cameras. KVM (keyboard, video and mouse extenders) have also seen growing use for remote control and display, safely separating the operators from the source.
Travel restrictions can be somewhat overcome with the use of virtual sets, with exciting developments in the use of fine-pitch LED walls in place of traditional green screens and real-time CG with in-camera VFX offering a way to create virtually any location, real or imaginary. Driving such walls, particularly with large formats such as 8K, needs high-performance software processing and hardware acceleration, and the creativity that it unleashes is incredible.
In production, the emergence of ST 2110, cloud-based workflows, and reliable streaming with Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) for example, has also allowed distributed production teams to work on major live events from the comfort of their homes.
All these use cases were not driven by the pandemic itself, but rather accelerated their adoption. They showed that the technology works, and that new ways of working can be achieved much sooner than planned and likely to become more permanent in many cases.
One of the major technology shifts in remote production and distributed workflows is abstraction away from hardware, or virtualisation. Understandably, we hear many broadcast equipment companies stating that they are now ‘software-only’, but software still needs something to run on. What they really mean is that they no longer care what hardware their systems run on, be it CPU, GPU or FPGA, or where it resides. They just need it to be easy to deploy and use, easy to integrate and provide the required performance for handling low latency, multichannel HD, 4K or more.
Deploying hardware such as the Xilinx Alveo PCIe accelerator cards either on-premise or in data centres has meant that production teams can benefit from high-density and high-quality encoding and transcoding for OTT streaming, or accelerated multi-channel video processing in production. Abstraction means that the software environment just needs a well-defined API.
The key to agility in either data centre or on-premise embedded media systems is the use of complete software stacks that enable abstraction and portability using common, open frameworks and libraries such as FFmpeg and GStreamer. The addition of microservices deployment to distributed hardware using Docker containers and Kubernetes orchestration gives even greater flexibility, management and control. This all means that broadcasters can effectively fire up services only when needed, or where needed, and still benefit from the performance required to handle 4K video processing.
The new normal
As the world hopefully returns to normal, it is clear that attitudes will change. The pandemic forced innovation to speed up, with social distancing and travel restrictions requiring fast deployment of streaming-enabled technologies. And remote working has shown itself to be a viable option for productivity.
The technologies that have been used by remarkably innovative companies in the creation and distribution of media content and collaboration have proved that decentralised workflows can not only work successfully, but can be more efficient, more scalable and more agile. Enabled by AV-over-IP and compression, with abstraction using multimedia software frameworks, media companies can more effectively work with distributed content creation to keep consumers connected and entertained.
Image top: Xilinx Zynq UltraScale+ MPSoCs