SVG Europe Sit-Down: Dell EMC’s Thomas Burns discusses the evolution from SDI, inverted pyramids and economics

Thomas Burns, CTO Media & Entertainment, Dell EMC

Thomas Burns, CTO Media & Entertainment, Dell EMC

As a member of the Dell Technologies family of businesses, Dell EMC serves a key role in providing the essential infrastructure for organisations to build their digital future, transform IT, and protect that all-important asset – information. Of course, all that is very pertinent to sports broadcasters, for the content they store is an area of significant potential growth and monetisation. It was on that topic that our conversation with Thomas Burns, Dell EMC’s Chief Technical Officer, Media & Entertainment, got underway…

You have said that the ongoing changes in media consumption requires sports organisations to consider not only ways to expand their content libraries, but also ways to meet the dynamic growth in the number of subscribers. How are you helping achieve those goals?

There are a few key technologies enabling the evolution from the SDI-based media appliance infrastructures of today to the future of IP-based, software defined workflows on enterprise-grade IT hardware — these have profound effects on broadcast engineers and their workflows. These technologies include networking, virtualisation and storage.

Looking at Networking – 50 years ago Ethernet was one of several products vying for the title of ubiquitous transport. Fast forward to 2017, where Ethernet data transfer rates are estimated to reach 400 Gb/s by the end of this year. While SDI transport has also grown over the years, its reach and flexibility are no match for Ethernet. Despite SDI’s faithful service to the industry, the advantages that Ethernet/IP offer are too vast to ignore. Vendors offer ways to bypass the challenges of using high-resolution formats on standard networking, but nothing can replace uncompressed or “visually lossless” compressed video.

Enterprise IT has seen cost-savings and productivity benefits from virtualisation. However, virtualisation for media workflows is a relative newcomer. As broadcasters and service providers move from purpose-built appliances supporting traditional TV production to virtualised software defined production workflows, virtualisation enables production resources to be deployed only when needed. The move from “one appliance per channel” to virtualised production allows for reduced footprint and capex, and prepares the broadcaster to take a scalable and flexible path towards cloud delivery in the future.

On-premise storage and cloud have been portrayed by many as a zero-sum game in the media industry. However, hybrid cloud models, combining on-premise with cloud infrastructures have a strong future in media workflows. Due to high throughput and low latency requirements, on-prem storage will continue to be necessary for certain production workflows. Hybrid cloud based IP workflows enable content producers and broadcasters to add business agility through exploration of new business models.

Broadcasters are always looking to reduce costs. How do your solutions help in that regard?

Industry-led groups like the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS) are establishing an open dialogue among broadcasters, technology vendors and standards committees to develop a consistent, interoperable set of criteria for streaming media over the Ethernet/ IP stack. The availability of off-the-shelf hardware will be more cost effective for media and broadcast companies, replacing non-IT devices and legacy AV equipment.

What underlying technologies do you feel are required to future-proof workflows?

Software-defined networks and storage will serve as the foundation for the future of live production. IP has the potential to revolutionise several areas of production, especially remotes. Furthermore, the vision many media engineers have of the live production environment includes a fully virtualised, software-based, highly agile data center that runs on commercially available off-the-shelf servers, Ethernet switches and enterprise storage.

Where do you think we will be with regards HDR and WCG by this time next year?

The innovation pyramid is inverted with respect to HDR – in the past the technology would have been standardised before deploying it to the consumer. But the CE manufacturers who want to differentiate their products have been developing display features such as addressable LED backlighting and OLED panels with much wider colour gamuts. Directors, cinematographers and colourists at post facilities are excited to take advantage of these additions to their creative toolkit. I would hope to see the entire HDR ecosystem from acquisition to distribution defined by next year, not just for UHD and cinema usage, but for HD-HDR as well. HFR might take a little longer – it’s amazing how much of our perception that something is “filmlike” is actually an internal representation of the noise specific to cinema – scratches, projector loop chatter, 24 fps motion blur and interaction with shutter angles.

How does the increase in OTT applications affect your developments?

Everybody is trying to crack a business model with inverted economics. If you’re pumping out RF signals, it’s a huge capital investment up front, and it doesn’t cost you anything to add subscribers. You want to get as big as possible, which, in the history of broadcast networks in the United States, has meant appealing to the least common denominator.

But now you have the opposite economic condition. I can stream a baby monitor channel to my mom, and it costs me nothing. But the more subscribers I add, the more it costs. How do we come up with an appropriate financial model for a distributor when adding subscribers costs them money?  This question is impacting nearly everything we – and broadcasters – plan for in products and services.

What skills do you believe are needed by the broadcast engineer of tomorrow?

The interim period between SDI and IP is a pivotal one for broadcast, venue sports, news, post-production, enterprise video and government systems. As legacy and bespoke infrastructure begins to shows signs of wear and tear, this presents an opportunity for facilities to gradually update equipment as needs arise. Since a wholesale overhaul is generally impractical, the prudent solution is to procure the underlying infrastructure from IT vendors with the most inclusive products and support. By guaranteeing the ‘plumbing’ in your facility leverages the latest advances and efficiencies that the IT industry can deliver, the migration to IP will be much smoother.

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