Daniel Robinson Blog: Been There, Done That…

As more media organisations examine the merits and challenges of migrating their broadcast playout operations to IP and virtualized deployments, we’ve seen an exponential growth in the sheer variety of POCs and RFPs, and in the scope of requirements they contain. Broadcasters are looking for clarity in this time of change, asking questions such as:

“Should we be uncompressed or compressed?”

“Can we use a public or private cloud?”

“We can’t just throw all this SDI equipment out! How do we expand and future proof our investment?”

“Can we have both SDI and IP?”

“How can we handle the needs of live broadcasts in this new IP World?”

“Which decision is the most fiscally responsible for our business while allowing us to evolve?”

“This IP stuff is expensive. Is it going to be worth it?”

There is, of course, no single right answer to any of these. Every broadcast playout workflow is unique, so properly supporting any broadcaster’s needs requires agile software development, a collaborative approach for the lifetime of the project and, crucially, an experienced engineering and deployment team.

Here at Pebble Beach Systems, we have that experience in spades. We’ve worked on some truly ground-breaking installations—each one different from the other—and each with a new set of requirements. So here’s a look at some of the challenges we’ve helped our customers resolve.

Virtualised Playout for a large European Service Provider

In 2015, this customer started a project to evaluate the feasibility of virtualisation. This was quite early on in the history of virtualised playout – most broadcasters weren’t even talking about it back then – but their customers were moving towards much shorter one or two-year playout contracts, and they needed a more agile playout infrastructure to cope with this level of churn. The lease on their building was coming to an end, so they made the decision to move out of their specialist broadcast facility into a standard office building and to host the playout of around 90 channels in a remote data centre. The challenge was to do away with SDI, dramatically scale back running costs, and find a partner willing and able to go on this journey with them. Having tested a number of compressed IP-based playout solutions, Pebble Beach Systems was selected, with a solution featuring Marina automation controlling our Orca integrated channel technology.

The system has now been on air since 2017 and comprises a total of 240 virtual machines, playing out 90 channels to air, all protected with 1+1 channel redundancy.  The 180 Orca channels in the data centre support transport streams for live input and output, and NDI for low latency monitoring. Operators in the office building which hosts the control room use a combination of our Lighthouse web clients and Marina clients for monitoring and control, and each of the Orca channels can be configured in software to meet the processing requirements of each channel.

This customer reduced their equipment foot print from 160 racks on premises to just 40 racks in the data centre, and in reducing the amount of hardware they were therefore able to reduce power consumption by 66% compared to their old playout system.

Hybrid SDI and IP Playout for a Major Worldwide Business and Finance News Network

This customer was moving to a new location in the heart of London, presenting an opportunity to refresh their broadcast technology and showcase the latest IP technologies. Their 7 financial news channels (including 2 web streaming channels) needed to support fast turnaround workflows and be remotely controlled from New York production facilities when the US markets were open.  Knowing that IP would be the future, the goal was to have as little SDI infrastructure as possible, even though the SMPTE ST-2022-6 standard was still in its infancy.

Following a rigorous evaluation process involving a detailed proof of concept, Pebble was awarded the contract to supply a playout solution featuring Marina automation controlling 14 Dolphin integrated playout channels (7+7) and 64 Dolphin ingest and review channels.

Each of the playout channels can select from one of four inputs for live pass through (this would be the local  feed for EMEA, USA or APAC, plus a spare, or they can playout pre-recorded content form either local or network storage.)  They support a hybrid mix of either 2022-6 or SDI for video input and output.

Building a bridge between SDI and IP is the kind of flexibility that truly sets Pebble apart. For instance, Pebble has recently announced support for the Vizrt engine running on our servers. At the time, our customer wanted to continue to use their existing Vizrt engine, so it was able to connect directly using SDI. They are making heavy use of our Lighthouse remote monitoring and management system in their MCR, with touch screens in the control rooms which render an HTML5 page from Lighthouse, including a Smart Panel customisable UI. We also enable the  control of automation systems across all their worldwide geographies to automate regional channels for their “follow the sun” operation.

Business Continuity Operation for fully synchronized Disaster Recovery in the Private Cloud

An existing Pebble customer came to us with a requirement to set up an IP-based Disaster Recovery system outside their base in the Middle East. Their playout centre has a traditional playout system using Marina automation, video servers, master control switchers and graphics, but this requirement was for a business continuity center, rather than a pure DR system, which functioned just as well as their main site.

The solution we architected enables the operator at the broadcast centre in the Middle East to continue to play out their channels with Marina automation controlling traditional devices (SDI), whilst everything is synchronised across to the new European DR facility 24/7, where a virtualised deployment of Marina controls Orca devices running in a private cloud. Since the system implementation started in 2017 additional features have been rolled out which handle live sources, run 3D graphics with a best-of-breed graphics plugin, and add capacity to support all 23 of their channels. Monitoring is done through the Lighthouse application which enables the staff to have a view across both systems. They can move seamlessly between the main and backup site.

This Business Continuity deployment has replaced an expensive third-party DR service and brings that function ‘virtually’ in house, delivering highly significant ongoing cost savings.

Playout for the largest Uncompressed IP Project in Europe

Pebble was awarded the contract for this new greenfield site at the end of last year. Obviously, IP standards have moved on since earlier deployments, and this broadcaster is building an all-IP facility utilising SMPTE ST-2110 technology to its full potential. (Among other things, 2110 splits up video/audio/aux signals for much greater capacity and efficiency compared to 2022-6). The 4 channel playout solution which Pebble is providing features Marina and Dolphin, and one of the key requirements was to use as many open standards as possible, so the project makes heavy use of the new NMOS specs including IS-04, IS-05, IS-07 (Pebble chairs the IS-07 initiative) and IS-09. When complete, the facility will be all HD with the ability to upgrade to UHD when the outbound infrastructure supports it. The solution includes the new Viz Engine plugin which run directly in our Dolphin integrated channel device, reducing costs, complexity and rackspace for the end user.

Interestingly, the project includes a high level of audio processing. Whilst SDI is limited to 16 tracks of audio, 2110 manages multiple audio flows much more efficiently, with 1 to 64 tracks in a given audio flow. This user will be one of the first playout customers to use 2110 to its full potential, with multiple audios and multiple auxiliaries.

If you’ve read this far, I hope these examples were useful to you to illustrate the breadth and depth of installations Pebble has been part of. After all, we’re not just paying lip service, we’ve literally been there and done that! Give us a call so we can help you do it too!


Peter Mayhead: Post IBC Blog

Another year, another IBC. As we return from Amsterdam to ponder whether the months of planning, designing and messaging were worth the money, sweat and tears we poured into this event, I am happy to report another successful IBC for Pebble. Throughout the week, I was able to spend quality time with customers, prospects and partners, discussing their thoughts on the state of the industry, their plans for the future and where Pebble can support them.

At the Devoncroft Executive Summit, IP networking and content delivery was highlighted as the number one trend in 2019 and the most important commercial issue for media companies globally, and many customers were keen to discuss the pros and cons of virtualising their playout operations with us.

Whereas a couple of years ago you might have been tempted to believe that virtualisation offered a panacea to every broadcasting challenge, we are finding that many discussions are of a much more pragmatic nature these days, and that’s a good thing. Organisations are coming to the harsh realisation that adding a virtualised infrastructure into their broadcast workflow adds a significant layer of complexity and specific new requirements into the mix. They are realising that choosing to implement a full-scale virtualised platform will require much more than just a change in technology. Instead, it will require a fundamental change in their organisation’s business model as well as their relationship with application providers and integrators. For many broadcasters, virtualisation is not necessarily about being cheaper, or getting more out of the resources. It’s about flexibility, scalability and ease of maintenance, which can certainly result in savings over time, but only when correctly implemented.

It’s no secret that at Pebble, we are firm believers in the advantages of IP technology in the entire media production chain. Having said that, most station managers and broadcast facility CTOs I’ve spoken with recently are wondering how they can get from where they are today, with their current infrastructure, to the brave new world of IP, virtualisation and possibly cloud, in a managed, incremental way.

It’s clear to me that what most of these broadcasters are looking for is an honest and trusted partner. Not a box shifter with the best discount. While there are plenty of vendors out there offering brand-new platforms, ready to go, they require their customers to essentially forget everything they have today. At Pebble we don’t advocate for rip and replace strategies. In fact, we believe that the best strategy is often to focus on evolution rather than revolution and go through the process with a partner you can trust, someone who is flexible, agile, versatile and will work as a consultant with you throughout the process. End users are not simply buying a product, they are investing in the people: building a relationship with their suppliers and collaborating with them to maximise the ROI from this new technology landscape. Vendors should listen to the specific requirements of each deployment, adapt to their customers’ needs, offer expertise and a collaborative approach well beyond the on-air date, and deliver accountability for their offerings throughout the lifecycle of the deployment.

At Pebble, we believe in the power of interoperability and collaboration. As an independent specialist playout automation vendor, it’s in our DNA. We have a long history of interfacing to our end users’ preferred devices to create an agnostic approach that enables them to specify the exact playout infrastructure to meet their specific channel and business requirements. From large multi-national vendors to specialist niche providers, we have built excellent relationships with multiple providers to ensure this is maintained. When we can ensure that these technologies communicate with one other using standardized, universally recognized protocols, the end user gains immense freedom to architect the solution that truly meets their needs.

The fact that we were able to engage in these deep thoughtful and almost philosophical questions with our customers about how to evolve, how to best embrace virtualisation, how to grow their revenue streams is testament to the trust they put in us and the confidence they have in our ability to help them solve their problems. It’s clear to me that following the successful restructuring we went through the last couple of years, we are now recognised as one of the very few remaining independent specialist vendors in playout. In a turbulent market that is plagued by consolidation, we are growing and generating significant profits which allows us to make substantial investments in our R&D. We are small and agile and uniquely placed to help define the future of this vital area of the broadcast industry.

Finally, I’d like to end this note with words of heartfelt gratitude for every one of our Pebbles who worked tirelessly to put together another great IBC show. I’m proud of our team.



Daniel Robinson Blog: To cloud or not to cloud

Virtualising Playout – More Pebble Straight-Talk to Help You Through the Decision-making Process

Pebble first launched Orca – the virtualised integrated channel solution which runs under the control of a virtualised Marina automation system – in 2015. Several years on there are now multiple Orca deployments in diverse applications, including a full cross-continent business continuity service, and a large-scale multi-channel deployment which broadcasts in multiple languages requiring precise synchronisation and comprehensive audio playout rules.

With more and more deployments being announced, the buzz around virtualised playout keeps growing. But questions remain about the economic, logistical and technical benefits to the end user, and judging by the high volume of on-premise playout solutions that we install and commission – whether IP or baseband – it’s clear that this path is not one that every broadcaster or media company is ready to follow.

We originally visited this topic in our article ‘’Virtualising Your Playout Operations: A Reality Check” cautioning the broadcaster to carefully examine the reasons why they want to virtualise, and highlighting the many factors they need to consider. These observations on infrastructure, monitoring, benchmarking, provisioning and more still hold true, and we’d encourage you to take a look here.

In the meantime, we’ve noticed that the conversation has shifted and amplified around certain areas, with the debate around the private/public cloud escalating and new cloud-native solutions entering the market. So, what do you need to consider today if you’re thinking about virtualising? What is actually relevant to playout, and how do you cut through the marketing noise to establish what really matters to your operation? This is a great opportunity to deploy modern technologies, but not without assessing the risks of the move.

To cloud or not to cloud?

If you’re contemplating shifting your playout to the cloud, migrating your operations to IP is the first step, and it’s not a trivial one. But this enabling technology will open up your options to move off premise and handle your playout from a co-location data centre, a privately-owned data centre, or the public cloud.

Cost is a key factor here. Whilst running your playout on premise in the traditional way will cause an initial spike in investment when the servers are purchased, over the following years your running costs are going to be lower (e.g. Maintenance and SLA), and they tend to be fixed and calculated as a known percentage of the initial price.

Provided that your entire operation – not just playout – can be lifted and shifted to the public cloud, then comparing the cost of this to managing a typical on premise broadcast facility may give you favourable results in the short term. You’ll make savings on rack space and power consumption, as well as on the costs of running your building including fire suppressant systems, security guards, and all the necessary infrastructure to support staff and equipment. The figures soon become quite compelling if you’re in a position to consider such a radical wholesale move.

Specific savings in playout are not so easy to identify, however. There are obviously benefits to only using the compute resources you need, when you need them. But if you’re a Tier One broadcaster managing a high value service which requires high levels of availability this may not be relevant. And you’ll want to maximise the efficiency of your virtual machines, but certain processes in channel playout require provisioning for the worst case and highest loads, so they’re expensive machines to deploy.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of ancillary services. It may seem inexpensive for you to deploy a virtual instance for an hour but multiply that up to establish the cost of keeping a channel on air for a month or a year and the picture is quite different. Also, your files may be free to upload, but can you really accurately predict the download volume (and associated cost)?

What is clear is that there is a compelling case to handle Disaster Recovery operations in the cloud. But don’t forget that if you need to spin up a channel quickly you also need to repoint your distribution end points, so you’ll need to consider which technology is required to handle this in order to create the full environment. A full Business Continuity system which runs in the public cloud, fully synchronised with your main operations may be the preferable approach, giving you the functionality you need, without disrupting your viewers’ watching experience.

So, is it really useful to have an infinitely elastic ecosystem for playout, when playout is usually static? How important is it to be able to scale within seconds? Once a channel is established it will generally run for at least months, with no great variation around its processing requirements. It’s definitely worth considering whether, for fixed channels with pre-loaded content and static schedules, you really need that agility. It may be that the benefit you gain from shifting to the public cloud lies more in the 3rd party networking expertise and enhanced redundancy that the large cloud services offer with, for example, Amazon having three data centres in any one region, and your choice of configurable redundancy across those.

In Conclusion

As a specialist playout solution provider, we have the technology and the expertise to deploy solutions on premise, in the cloud, utilizing baseband, compressed or uncompressed IP. We pride ourselves in remaining agnostic, giving impartial, practical advice, and offering solutions which are architected specifically to meet your requirements now and in the future. We would be happy to share our experience so that you are aware of the facts before deciding which approach will give you the results your business needs.

Nevertheless, we believe in the evolutionary approach. We provide an architecture that can grow and change with your needs, perhaps allowing you to change the core while all your infrastructure is still SDI and then to migrate to a full IP solution with minimal disruption. Throughout this journey we remain focussed on the importance of custom system design, collaborative project delivery, and a flexible approach to working with you to deliver your solution.


Miroslav Jeras Blog: NMOS IS-07 – The Swiss Army Knife for IP Workflows

Whilst Team Pebble is hard at work making the final tweaks in preparation for the IP Showcase and for demos on our booth at NAB, I thought it be useful to share some detail on IS-07, the NMOS Event & Tally specification, and what it aims to bring to IP video interoperability between vendors and their systems. For those not familiar, this specification is being developed by AMWA and is a recently adopted extension to the NMOS Networked Media Open Specifications suite of specifications. The formal definition would be that IS-07 defines a mechanism for emitting and consuming states and state changes in the IP environment.

Simply put, it replaces the need for wired GPI connections in modern broadcast facilities as they migrate to IP infrastructures. But it goes much farther than traditional GPI, because the true power of IS-07 lies its ability to transport string and numeric values, plus timing metadata and type metadata like range or unit of measurement. So this means that IP-based equipment from multiple vendors can be connected, and pass control information, better than ever before, and all that using open standards. Also, those connections can be easily and simply remapped as required using IS-05 – the same protocols used for routing RTP media streams.

Of course, there are existing protocols that cover simple data transport over the network, but those tend to be proprietary protocols that are often implemented on a per project basis. IS-07 solves the problem in a standardized way that ensures interoperability between vendors. It’s like a Swiss Army knife for system integration. It allows connectivity between a wide range of equipment, from hardware panels or multiviewers up to pure software only devices, all of that orchestrated by control systems.

It’s exciting to be at the forefront of this initiative which has ramifications for all vendors and users who are architecting and maintaining IP infrastructures. On the Pebble booth at NAB this year, we will be presenting a targeted demo showing just a subset of the vast functionality this protocol will enable, featuring Pebble equipment alongside technology from Riedel and Atos.

We will also be participating in the IP Showcase in NAB’s Central Hall again, and I’ll be presenting a paper there on IS-07 on Wednesday 10th April at 11:30. This year, the Future Zone of the IP Showcase will feature a dedicated IS-07 area where attendees can see devices from different vendors seamlessly integrated in an interactive demo workflow. Devices in the demo include hardware and software panels, playout systems, multiviewers and measurement equipment. Please come and see the possibilities and ask questions at either the Pebble booth or at the IP showcase. I hope to see you there!

As the entire industry moves towards the adoption of open standards like IS-07, Pebble invites broadcasters to witness the clear benefits that these latest open IP control standards will bring.