NAB Servers Preview, Part One: Options Abound

By John Rice

The video-server market for sports production continues to evolve, offering increased storage, smaller units, new codecs and features, lower prices, and opportunities for new users to upgrade from tape to file-based workflows.

New codecs, and the promise of future codecs, demonstrate suppliers’ commitment to new HD formats. Stereoscopic/3D is on the radar and inside a few boxes, as is 1080p production. Slow motion remains a core function, but there are new, lower-cost options.

By the very nature of evolving technology, today’s servers are offering more for less. But, in addition, manufacturers are cognizant of, and reacting to, customers’ budget constraints, desires to improve workflow, and fundamental goals to do more with less.

The key factors for servers, according to Jim Frantzreb, Avid Technology Senior Segment Manager for Broadcast, are “speed, quality, consistency, and reliability.”

Avid recently announced the new AirSpeed Multi Stream server, which accommodates up to four simultaneous XDCam HD channels in its HD/SD model. “Especially if you’re going many rendering generations, this is appropriate for a lot of sports applications,” he says. “AirSpeed was conceived from the start as a workflow-enabling extension to a shared-storage-media network or system. It’s really an I/O as a peripheral or adjunct to a shared-media workroom.” The AirSpeed Multi Stream records directly to an Avid Unity.

Sporting a small, 1.5RU profile, the production server is “not positioned predominantly for sports. It’s for sports, news, and live production,” Frantzreb says. “But we expect to see some pretty good uptake among sports broadcasters and production houses that concentrate on sports.”

He says the AirSpeed MultiStream is “uniquely conceived. It is about taking advantage of new technology. We’re packing as much into a small package as we can, making it even better at workflow and making it more agile in terms of codecs.” Besides XDCam HD, the newly released server handles codecs for SD DVCPro and IMX. Frantzreb hints at future codec implementations: “AirSpeed MultiStream is the new platform for the AirSpeed product line. It’s designed to have new functionality as we move forward, but we aren’t making any announcements at this time.”

One issue for the industry, says Frantzreb, is making sure the capabilities of video servers meet both the need for a quality viewing experience (especially as viewers move to larger screens, where flaws are magnified) without breaking the bank. The AirSpeed MultiStream server can help in that regard because its native support of 50 Mbps XDCAM HD content can reduce the need for transcoding steps that can often decrease picture quality.

From an economic point of view, he adds, “customers are looking to invest wisely. Even when budgets are down, what many [customers] do is to take a look at the total value equation. It’s the whole offer” all those attributes: speed, reliability, agility, and interoperability.”

He believes Avid is “helping customers understand and define value. We feel more of a responsibility than ever.”

Paul Eisner, Harris VP, Server and Editing, echoes those sentiments: “Customers are expecting more functionality and newer technology at lower prices. That hasn’t changed, and we are expecting that to continue.” From his perspective, “that means not just pricing of products but their ease of use, lowering operating costs and making [products] easier for people to use.”

At the same time, introduction of new formats and codecs ultimately leads to more capabilities and, by extension, better workflow economies. “A lot of people are just focused on features,” he says. “Customers are looking for significant cost reductions, not just capital efficiencies.”

Harris’s server offerings are based on its NEXIO line. Eisner calls it “a nice combination of forward and backward compatibility.” Supporting older formats allow users to easily access content, while, “as new codecs are introduced, our architecture allows us to adopt them faster.

“Harris has a hybrid approach,” he adds. “I might want to mix up my Avid and my Sony formats. The Harris products tend to handle a lot more formats.”

Eisner also sees strength in Harris’s integration of its servers with its Velocity editing application, as well as with other editors, such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere.

Harris plans to have news at NAB. For now, though, Eisner is keeping things close to the vest. “We are introducing features that lower the cost per channel and lower the entry cost to get into a baseline server platform,” he teases. Look for “improved channel density” how many HD channels can I get out of the same NEXIO product? We’ll see some improvements there, which will lower the costs for customers.”

One new entry was announced in January, the NEXIO Browse suite, which Eisner describes as a “low-rez and proxy environment for both browsing and editing, [providing] the utility to get at content easier and outside of the typical high-rez environment.”

On a broader level, Eisner says, Harris and other companies need to work with customers as their businesses change. “A lot of our customers are undergoing business transformations,” he explains. “They made their money one way five years ago, or even last year or last month. They have to find new revenue streams. Where is the new money coming from? What kinds of technologies are going to impact [their] businesses?

“It leads to challenges but also opportunities,” he continues. “We’ll shift our focus into a new area that happens to be a new business opportunity for our customers.”

At Omneon, Senior VP for Products and Markets Geoff Stedman sees one of those new opportunities in an increasing demand for content to be repurposed for multiple platforms.

“That often means slight changes to the content,” he says. “You want to be recording all the angles and all the different feeds from an event and very quickly cut those into highlights for both broadcast television and highlights that get packaged up and put on Websites and sent out to mobile devices.”

Stedman says Omneon systems have been called on to “allow multiple people to access files as they’re growing, making their decisions around which highlights they want to package and quickly posting them. This is where we’ve seen a lot of use of our technology.”

A common theme echoed by other server vendors is “the change in workflow to a much more collaborative file-based environment versus a tape-based linear environment,” Stedman says. “That’s certainly driving demand [not only] for open systems that allow multiple edit applications but also for transcoding applications to get to those files.”

MediaDeck is Omneon’s core offering for on-site, live sports production. A 2RU server that supports multiple codecs, it is “a good fit for trucks and venues,” says Stedman. “When you get into a highlights environment when you are back at headquarters, we have our Spectrum video server or our MediaGrid storage product.”

He sees a growing trend toward proxies, “to have low-resolution proxies of the high-resolution recorded material available almost instantly for many people to be able to start using for logging purposes and to make early decisions around how they want to put their packages together.”

A system originally designed for NBC’s use during the Olympics last summer is now available to the marketplace. During the Beijing Games, MediaDeck units were deployed at individual venues and created proxies that were sent to New York. Stedman says that technology was part of the company’s January product release.

At NAB, Omneon will unveil the MediaDeck GX. “It basically adds a full branding and some master-control capabilities into the [MediaDeck] platform,” says Stedman. “So, within a
single, 2RU device, you can have multiple channels of either ingest or playout, and those playout channels can be fully branded.”

The MediaDeck GX will be capable of “things like tickers, scroll bars, having logos placed on the screen, maybe doing some graphic overlays, and key and fill operations.”

Three new MediaPort modules for Spectrum and MediaDeck will be exhibited at NAB. The MediaPort 5600 series is an I/O device for real-time encoding and decoding of AVC-Intra material. According to Stedman, the company plans to show a complete end-to-end AVC-Intra workflow “from Panasonic cameras through edit, using our Spectrum server to record, store, and then play out the AVC-Intra material.”

Other enhancements include a new playout I/O for combining MPEG-2 or DV material on a single timeline and, he says, automatically up/downconverting it to either SD or HD output.