Software Defined Networking – Coming Soon to a Broadcaster Near You?

Posted by Joe Zaller
Jul 09 2013

In a recent article, titled As Software Takes Over, Network Gear Could Be in Jeopardy, Barron’s columnist Tiernan Ray describes how “software defined networking” (SDN) may enable software-based systems to cannibalize the market for traditional hardware-based network switches sold by companies like Cisco, Juniper, and Alcatel-Lucent.

Although the article focuses on how SDN might impact major IT networking vendors, Ray could have just as easily been writing about broadcast technology.

Take for example, the first two paragraphs:

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“A decade ago, I asked a venture capitalist in computer networking if dedicated network gear would ever be replaced by software running on a standard computer. My hypothesis was that as general-purpose computers became more powerful, they could absorb functions that previously required specialized computer hardware, the way many functions can be performed on PCs today that once required mainframes. The venture capitalist assured me it would never happen, for a variety of reasons, even if it became technologically possible.

“Fast forward 10 years, and the computer networking world is abuzz with talk of “software-defined networking”— software that can perform the same functions as dedicated hardware, but instead runs on an Intel-based server.”

 

Ten years ago much of the broadcast industry was dominated by bespoke hardware, and it would have been hard for many to imagine that these products could be replaced by software running on generic IT hardware.

But this is exactly what happened as the broadcast industry transitioned to file-based workflows. Video servers replaced tape machines, graphics & branding became increasingly software-based, software-based transcoding became ubiquitous, and traditional master control functionality slowly began to be replaced by integrated playout (channel-in-a-box) systems.

Although the broadcast market has undoubtedly seen tremendous change during this time, it’s likely that we are still in the early innings of the true “ITification” of the industry.  So what’s next?

To get an idea of what the future might hold for broadcast, one only has to look at the of the (significantly larger) IT industry, where investor Marc Andreessen famously wrote that “software is eating the world.”

The IT industry has gone through massive changes – with SDN being one of the latest – driven by new technology; the availability of on-demand cloud-based computing power; low power, high performance semiconductors; falling memory prices;  end-user mobility; and customer demand for greater efficiency, automated operations, and better analytics.

Sound familiar?

The same “external forces” that have changed the IT industry are also impacting the broadcast and media technology business.   If/when these changes take hold in the broadcast industry, there will be significant ramifications for both end-users (broadcasters and media companies) and technology vendors.

The TV business has changed dramatically over the past ten years, particularly on the distribution side. While it’s easy to focus on consumer-oriented statistic such as the amount of video being consumed on phones and tablets, and the consumer’s desire to have an anytime, anywhere media experience; these trends often don’t directly impact most broadcast technology vendors.  They do however impact the customers of technology vendors (broadcasters and media companies), who are making plans today that will let them take advantage of new technologies, and as a result radically change the landscape of the industry.

It remains to be seen how radical these changes will be.  However, another look at the IT industry again provides a glimpse of what might be in store.

Writing in Barron’s, Ray describes some of the implications for traditional IT switching hardware:

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“A more prosaic battle is playing out, as Cisco and others are already cannibalizing the network switches they have long sold, providing what are called “virtual” switches that are just software programs that run on a server.

“A network switch or router is a specialized computer with specially developed chips that perform calculations to determine how to direct bits of data between computers. As complex as they are, some of those calculations can now be efficiently performed in software running on Intel processors.

“The virtual switch movement is already having an impact on network equipment, shaking up the rankings of who’s top dog in individual categories of switching.”

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According to Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa, who follows the IT industry, this means “an entire class of switching equipment may go away.”

Could this also happen in broadcast?  Time will tell, but a number of vendors are already working on solutions to make this a reality.

Ray goes on to highlight another major force that has impacted the IT networking industry, Amazon’s Amazon Web Services (AWS), which delivers virtually unlimited computing powers that can be “elastically provisioned” on an as-needed basis.

According to Gartner’s Skorupa, AWS has major implications for makers of hardware-based networking gear.

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“Amazon Web Services can become a buyer of tremendous power, and one thing it may do is buy a lot more networking software than hardware, they opine.

“The immediate result, says Skorupa, is that switch software should cost less than hardware boxes, which means lower revenue for networking vendors.”

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Could the same thing happen in the broadcast technology space?

If so what are the implications for both end-users and technology vendors?

Major broadcaster and media companies realize they can gain tremendous efficiency advantages by leveraging advances in the IT industry. Therefore many of these organizations are taking a hard look at how to integrate some of these new IT technologies into their operations.

Some have gone as far as saying their ultimate goal is a “virtualized broadcast infrastructure with in-line processing.”  In other words, they foresee a future where the broadcast infrastructure is housed in an IT data center, and the operations done today primarily by hardware boxes are carried out by software that plugs in to the IT core.  And by the way, broadcasters probably won’t be building this facility.  Instead, they’ll rent computing power on an as-needed basis from AWS or some other cloud-based service provider.

Sound far-fetched? That’s what the venture capitalist told Barron’s Tiernan Ray ten years ago about the software replacing network switches IT industry.

Today there is evidence that the broadcast industry is already moving in this direction. For example, all 29 Hearst stations are using Signiant’s a cloud-based advertising spot delivery, Vizrt and NVidia are collaborating to virtualize broadcast graphics using Nvidia’s grid technology, and at NAB 2013 Fox announced that it intends to move master control to the cloud in collaboration with Snell.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that, like the rest of the world, the broadcast industry will also be “eaten by software.” When this happens, it will be important that software applications are both fit for purpose, and interoperable.  Fortunately, work is being done today that will hopefully ensure interoperability between next generation broadcast systems and applications.

The Video Services Forum (VSF), along with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and SMPTE, have brought together a group of leading broadcasters, media companies, and technology vendors and created a Joint Task Force on Networked Media.

The VSF Task Force — which is being led by Richard Friedel, EVP & GM, Fox NE&O and VSF President, VSF executive director Brad Gilmer, Hans Hoffman of the EBU, and Peter Symes of SMPTE — is not a standards setting body. Its vision is to enable new business opportunities through the exchange of professional media across networks, taking advantage of the benefits of IT-based technology at an affordable price.  The Task Force, working in an open participatory environment, will map out a strategy for developing a packet-based network infrastructure for the professional media industry by bringing together manufacturers, broadcasters and industry organizations (standards bodies and trade associations) with the objective to create, store, transfer and stream professional media.  Anyone who wants to join this important initiative should contact Bob Ruhl at the VSF.

The VSF Task Force is moving quickly in order to ensure that a common framework, focused on interoperability, is established before hundreds new products, which might otherwise be incompatible, are introduced in the coming months and years by both established vendors and newcomers.

These firms believe they have significant opportunities to leverage advanced IT technologies, including SDN, into their broadcast-oriented product lines. As a result, it’s likely we’ll see an entirely new category of products and services being introduced over the next few years.

A notable example of this is a Silicon Valley start-up called SDVI, led by Omneon co-founder Larry Kaplan, who said earlier this year that the focus of his new company is to bring SDN technology to the broadcast industry.

Details of SDVI (which is a member of the VSF Task Force) are opaque at this point, but Kaplan (who occasionally blogs about SDVI here), told TV Technology magazine that his new company will “take advantage of advances in IT technology and cloud-based services within the broadcast infrastructure to improve workflow and operational efficiencies,” and launch its first products at IBC 2013.

Although Kaplan new firm and others are already moving quickly to bring SDN technology to the broadcast industry, there is still confusion about the technology and what it means for both vendors and end-users.

Indeed there is even confusion in the IT networking world according to Juniper Networks, whose website says “SDN is the talk of the networking world. But as popular as it’s been lately, it’s still shrouded in misconception.”

In an attempt to demystify the topic, Juniper has created an SDN white paper, which can be downloaded here.

Documents such as this are worth reading since SDN may very well be coming soon to a broadcaster near you.

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Related Content:

Barron’s Article: As Software Takes Over, Network Gear Could Be in Jeopardy

VSF, EBU, and SMPTE Create Joint Task Force to Define Future of Networked Media for Professional Applications

The Video Services Forum

SDVI company blog

TV Technology: Larry Kaplan, Omneon Co-founder Launches Media Software Company

TV News Check: Hearst Goes To The Cloud For Ad Delivery

TV News Check: Fox TV Network Putting Master Control In The Cloud

Marc Andreessen: Why Software Is Eating The World (via WSJ)

Wikipedia: Software Defined Networking

Juniper Networks Whitepaper: Decoding Software Defined Networking – SDN Information and Strategy

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© Devoncroft Partners 2009 – 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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One Response

  1. Wonderful, Joe, and seemingly obvious. I think part of what plagues the broadcast business in this regard is that the end user you mention is such a moving target. Who can imagine the platforms necessary to reach 10 years from now? And you’re talking moving multilayered files in multiple formats around massive and geographically dispersed infrastructures. Do I mean to infer that it cannot be done? But we are all aware that some of the early efforts at large-scale “ITifying” in the broadcast space were less than optimal (PBS, BBC… others not often mentioned). I love this subject, though, and THANKS for this piece. There’s oh-so-many facets to this. – Regards, McAdams.

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