May 20, 2016
By Rémi Beaudouin
Digital television became a practical proposition around 20 years ago but at that time the only way to encode and multiplex it involved dedicated hardware. Standard processors simply did not have sufficient power.
Since then we have moved from digital broadcasting to video delivery to multiple platforms. Systems architects had started to build headends using hardware-based encoders, and the tendency was to continue in this way. The result was most networks involve a large variety of proprietary hardware appliances, each of which has its own rack requirements, power supplies and so on.
As standard processors have gained power, so it has become practical to use them inside our dedicated encoding appliances. But the temptation remains, as existing devices reach their end of life, to simply replace one dedicated, proprietary box with a newer version of the same thing. Now is the time to break out of this circle.
The solution lies in virtualisation: implementing the functions of an encoder in software, which in turn can run, when necessary, on a virtual machine in a data centre. This is now entirely practical, and it allows us to define systems by functionality, rather than by what dedicated boxes do. In turn, that gives us must greater flexibility to define and vary our workflows and processes to reflect consumer demand and commercial opportunities.
We can call this design philosophy network function virtualisation (NFV). This method of linking software to achieve what we need to do at any moment is also now extended to storage, giving us complete flexibility to scale our operations up and down as we need to.
First, this delivers real commercial benefits. Capex is reduced, because we are simply building, or extending, a server farm based on standardised IT hardware and simple ethernet connectivity. We are not building racks of dedicated hardware with complex SDI cabling. The hardware is lower cost, because we can take advantage of the commoditisation of the IT industry. And building high levels of redundancy means much less investment than duplication of dedicated hardware.
The opex view also changes. For many applications, software will be licensed by use, so there is a direct link between operating costs and revenues. A virtualised environment will have a much smaller physical footprint than one using dedicated appliances, and consequently power and air conditioning costs will be reduced. And support costs can be shared across the whole data centre, not just that part of it which has to deal with dedicated broadcast and delivery technology.
The result is a new elasticity for all operations, and which can be accurately costed per service. Proposed new services can be precisely checked for commercial viability, and brought to market very quickly, perhaps gaining an edge over a competitor.