New Content Operating Platforms Put Next-Gen OTT in Play

Andrew Rowe, vice president of software product management at Ericsson

Andrew Rowe, vice president of software product management at Ericsson

May 24, 2011 – Much of the legacy gridlock that has prevented content providers of all types from fully exploiting opportunities to deliver programming over-the-top is breaking up thanks to vendor responses to demand for simpler, cheaper ways to manage and distribute assets.
 
Without much fanfare program providers worldwide are moving beyond the old ways of operating in the digital Web space to mount aggressive multi-device distribution strategies across fixed and mobile networks, in some cases with complete overhaul of their encoding, asset management and storage systems. The moment is ripe because content suppliers have access to comprehensive solutions that have only recently emerged to take the hassles out of serving the multi-screen OTT market.

“In some cases (over-the-air and cable network) broadcasters who want to move into multi-device distribution are adding new components like our enhanced ProStream 4000 to the existing infrastructure,” says Ian Trow, director of broadcast solutions at Harmonic. “In other instances they’re taking a greenfield approach installing a completely new infrastructure, the philosophy being, we know we have to move into mobile and the Web and we don’t want to run two infrastructures.”

Harmonic is addressing both scenarios at the output end, starting with the ProStream 4000, a high-density multiscreen transcoder that’s been optimized for adaptive streaming in OTT and mobile TV services. At the same time, the company is quietly showing customers an unannounced enhanced version of its Electra encoding platform with the capabilities required to encode for broadcast, mobile and Web content from a single unit supporting the multiple resolution, streaming, DRM and other parameters essential to streamlining the distribution process. “We’re in a soft launch with some of our customers at this point,” Trow says.

In one of the more comprehensive product initiatives prompted by the multi-screen agendas of service and content providers, Ericsson has built from the ground up a multiscreen delivery management system as a successor to its popular OpenStream Digital Services Platform. The new highly scalable Media Delivery Management System is designed to leverage virtualization, cloud computing and other advances to support acquisition, processing and distribution of large volumes of content across multiple outlets, says Andrew Rowe, vice president of software product management at Ericsson.

“People see the craziness in trying to operate on separate silos,” Rowe says. “We’re seeing some very proactive forward-thinking companies starting to address this problem.”

That adds up to the need for an altogether different staging platform for content distribution. “We realized that we had to take a new next-generation approach that takes into account all the techniques and tools of virtualization and cloud computing to enable almost unlimited scalability and great speed and flexibility in creating and distributing new applications and services,” Rowe says.

Amberfin, supplier of file-based content workflow products for the TV sector, has also seen an intensifying need among program providers for repurposing content for multiple distribution channels, says CTO Bruce Devlin. “Our customers have been struggling with the large number of codecs, wrappers and deliverables in this new environment for a couple of years,” Devlin says. “Now it’s an order of magnitude worse.”

Broadcasters and post-production houses are evolving from video-centric to file-centric businesses, he notes. “We are beginning to see a tipping point – when the majority of content input or output becomes files opposed to video – with different organizations reaching this at different times,” he says. “They’re increasingly buying pure software products, running on generic IT hardware and evaluating Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) as a design philosophy.”

One example of how broadcasters are transforming their approaches is Discovery Communications, which has adopted a new high-efficiency workflow at its global headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, using AmberFin’s iCR Ingest, Transcoding and Review tools. The new workflow entails DNxHD ingest and review controlled by TMD’s Mediaflex asset management system, Devlin says. By deploying the extended toolset of iCR as the first step in the ingest process, rather than using an intermediate server solution, Discovery is looking to combine ingest and technical evaluation of files as a single task.

Such “new media factory” strategies are designed to handle massive volumes of content where ingest, transcoding, captioning, audio track management and anti-piracy watermarking, among other functions, are linked into a single processing environment on each master file. Not only does this streamline all the steps from ingest to output, it unifies quality control, Devlin notes.

“We’re showing a system whereby you do hardware quality control on the incoming feed, software QC on the file as you’re working on it and software QC on the file at the delivery,” he says. “It allows you to monitor the effect of each process on major material along a single timeline.”

In general, the automation of end-to-end workflow processes is essential to building a cost-effective approach to exploiting the new multiscreen business opportunities, Devlin adds. “Why should our customers have to understand DNx2 so that a file from Avid can land on an Omneon server?” he asks. “It should be as simple as magic, not complex.”

Speaking of Omneon, media storage systems, too, have become crucial points of automation and increased functionalities in the new media marketplace. A case in point is BBC Sport’s integration of Omneon’s MediaGrid active storage system into a new file-based production system designed to facilitate creation of instant highlights and fast-turnaround edits.

The Omneon MediaGrid, which is being installed along with EVS live production systems at the broadcaster’s new facility in the U.K., will provide central storage for up to 1,500 hours of HD content while supporting a fast edit-in-place workflow for the facility’s Final Cut Pro editors, says Geoff Stedman, senior vice president for corporate marketing at Harmonic, which acquired Omneon last year. “BBC has relied on Omneon server systems for more than a decade, and now with its shift to a faster and more agile file-based live sports production system, the company also has chosen to implement an Omneon storage solution,” Stedman explains.

The scalable system will be capable of supporting 36 simultaneous ingests of BBC Sports events onto EVS servers for fast editing and streaming into the Omneon MediaGrid system. From there content can be accessed by producers using EVS Final Cut Pro for creation of features and highlights packages, news-based packages, documentary-style content and other edits in post-production.

Up to 200 journalists and producers will be able to search and view a proxy version of footage using the EVS IP-based browser. The entire production system is scheduled to go live by the end of 2011, Stedman says.

Harmonic has made it possible to add carrier-class transcoding for the multiscreen environment to complement these streamlined production operations at the distribution end of the process. “The real business issue for broadcasters is they’ve been trying out a number of services in the mobile and Web areas, and now they want to scale those services,” Trow says.

Initially the focus for most program suppliers has been on getting content to a single device like the iPad, which minimizes the streaming, DRM and other formatting hassles. “We’re also seeing major stations launching applications with a mild reworking of broadcast to support a catch-up element,” Trow says. Such strategies can use the Rosetta software transcoding and Omneon-type storage capabilities to meet initial goals, he adds, but now the need is for a massively scalable distribution platform that accommodates the format needs of all major device categories.
To manage this Harmonic has enhanced the ProStream 4000 high-density configuration to support simultaneous processing of up to 48 video inputs and 48 legacy mobile phone, 18 iPhone, 12 SD, or four transcoded HD video outputs per single rack unit. The new built-in multi-encapsulation feature enables operators to encode once and encapsulate to a variety of target video formats, such as Apple HTTP Live Streaming, Microsoft Smooth Streaming, and Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming, as well as multi-bitrate transport streams for NDS and Widevine Adaptive Streaming.
Harmonic has also added variable-bit-rate encoding enhancements specifically engineered for adaptive streaming and has taken steps to support streaming distribution over various CDN platforms, Trow says. A new open key management system interface allows operators to connect to multiple DRM systems. And new multi-machine synchronization capabilities have been implemented to improve the HD multiscreen viewing experience.
As for Ericsson’s new Media Delivery Management System, the platform will be available for commercial deployments by late in the third quarter, Rowe says. “We’re in a couple of customers labs doing proofs of concept as we work on various stages of development,” he says.

Modularity and flexibility to work with legacy systems are essential, as is the scalability that comes with use of the cloud and virtualization capabilities, he notes. “We’re applying Agile development techniques that allow us to build solutions for different service providers,” he says.

In all cases the goal is not only to accommodate the formatting and DRM requirements of myriad device profiles; there’s also a need to create and launch services and applications much faster than ever before. “Today, just to make some design changes in your programming guides might take six weeks or more,” Rowe says. “It can take nine months or more to roll out a new service. Now people will be able to do these things literally in seconds.”

This includes articulating policies tied to specific locations, subscription levels, user demographics, time of day and other parameters. “Say I’ve got a service that serves many European countries on a single conditional access platform,” he says. “I can dynamically set up rules on multiple parameters for each of those countries. I can implement them and turn them off in a matter of minutes.”

Such flexibility alters the business prospects for content providers who want to exploit Web distribution, he adds.”When you go to over-the-top, you can mix techniques,” he says. “You’re not tied to a specific device DRM, client or middleware. You identify the device and say that customer gets this DRM. The system makes that decision in milliseconds whether the user is coming in on an Android mobile, an iPad or a Motorola set-top.

“We will see a transformation in how companies do business,” Rowe concludes. “Today these organizations have different staff groups for video, data, mobile. That’s not the future.”