Broadcasters come in many shapes and sizes, each with their own unique set of ambitions and their own preferred route to success. Some are happy to innovate, particularly if it increases staff efficiency or reduces operating costs. Others prefer to let their competitors do the innovating and then follow whatever path appears to work best. Thus the industry has advanced from dedicated hardware to more flexible and cost-efficient software running on \'enterprise-platform\' comput-ers, and more recently to virtual devices.
When we commenced operations nearly 20 years ago, computer platforms had achieved enough speed and reliability that they could perform impressively useful tasks without needing plug-in boards to deliver extra \'grunt\'. We built on that maturity, designing and delivering playout sys-tems which sold in their tens, their hundreds and later their thousands. Key to this success was the recognition that \'enterprise platforms\' ranged in customers\' minds from high-end no-compromise desktops to low-end laptops in which performance was sacrificed in favour of energy efficiency. The solution was obvious: we took care to integrate our products into a proven plat-form so that we and our customers really could speak the same technical language.
For PlayBox Technology, the introduction of \'virtual devices\' meant introducing a parallel offering rather than making a technical transition. Exactly 10 years ago, we introduced the EdgeBox re-mote playout system which gave broadcasters, content production organisations and content owners, the option of hosting their programme archives and playout servers at the distant end of an internet connection. All they needed in their own premises was a computer capable of running an ordinary web browser plus a reasonably fast internet link for uploading file-based audiovisual content to the host service-provider. The core EdgeBox installation sits at the broadcaster\'s choice of remote playout centre, typically a 24/7 service provider in whichever town, city, country or con-tinent the broadcaster prefers. Programme scheduling, ad sales, media management and moni-toring are all performed in the usual way on the broadcaster\'s premises, usually at its headquar-ters. EdgeBox was so far ahead of its time that even today we see competitors trying to reinvent it.
CloudAir, which we announced at IBC 2015 and continue to refine, carries the EdgeBox concept further and simplifies the entire business of putting a new television channel on air. It is a univer-sal television playout and streaming system capable of continuous unattended operation.
A key advantage of virtual playout is setup speed. An efficient broadcast playout service-provider using CloudAir can make a 24/7 channel live in far less time than is needed for traditional server-plus-software or dedicated hardware systems. The actual time to put a new channel on air is re-duced from months or weeks to a matter of hours. Once a broadcaster is settled into this mode of operation, a new channel can be activated within minutes. This level of flexibility also makes CloudAir an ideal basis for transient content streams such as \'red button\' channels created to pro-vide supplementary information during a specific programme series or outside broadcast event.
IP-based content uploading
Until just a few years ago, the majority of programmes and commercials were delivered to site on video tape. This was slow, expensive and required ingest staff to possess and maintain a varie-ty of playback decks able to handle the many competing tape formats. With the almost global rollout of optical-fibre networking, an increasing amount of content now travels as data files via an IP link from producer to broadcaster. Virtual delivery has thus become a core element of the virtual playout model. CloudAir accepts MPEG1/2/H.264, HDV and DV streams from practically every known production platform. These can be output in a variety of file formats including AVI, MPEG, WMV, Quick Time or MXF. Files from third-party servers are natively supported. CloudAir also delivers on-air graphics which can be controlled interactively.
Operational simplicity is a vital aspect of broadcast network management. A properly designed virtual playout system enables television channels to conduct their entire operation (from content acquisition, refining and archiving, right through to playout) via a single highly-reliable platform which can be accessed and managed from practically any location, any time. An essential element of this model is the provision of templates which customers can preconfigure to match their re-quirements, eliminating any need for subsequent manual interference. Flexibility is equally vital. Every clip in a playout schedule, except the one which is currently playing, needs to be accessible for trimming, editing or repositioning. Operators need the freedom to change playlist order on the fly using commands such as skip-to-next or jump. Changes must be achievable seamlessly without stopping the current playout session.
Most important of all is the need the accommodate live production. CloudAir facilitates this via a Live Show clipboard which allows insertion and/or execution of various events or live streams. Multichannel broadcasters gain the ability to schedule channels with local programming and ad-vertising for specific single or multiple regions rather than using multiple satellite feeds with ad-insertion.
When funded by the client as an operational-expense service, virtual playout with CloudAir frees a channel owner\'s investment capital to meet the overheads of originating, acquiring or refining content. It additionally offers broadcasters a basis for very cost-effective, space-efficient and reli-able disaster-recovery. When specified correctly, cloud-based playout, backup and disaster recov-ery to be achieved all-in-one.
Where does CloudAir leave our flagship AirBox Neo product range? That survives and thrives as the modular system which powers many existing and future CloudAir installations on the service-providers\' premises. Many existing AirBox and AirBox Neo users are also becoming very aware of the potential for running on-site and CloudAir as a rapidly scalable hybrid.