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UHD/4K Production: Video Infrastructure Challenges & Solutions

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Many analysts in the broadcast and video service provider industry are predicting that UHD/4K will take off on global scale this year, based on growing consumer demand, says Ian Trow, Senior Director Emerging Technology & Strategy at Harmonic.

In fact, market research firm IHS recently reported that by 2019, more than 50 percent of all households in the United States, Europe and Japan are expected to have smart TVs, with many of these sets being 4K or higher UHD models.

Obviously, before that can happen, a 4K production infrastructure needs to be put in place. Yet, many broadcasters are reluctant to invest much in infrastructure because they've come to the realization that proprietary hardware with bespoke broadcast interfaces will be short-lived in this new virtualized software world.

This article will examine the present state of production infrastructure in the broadcast environment, taking a look at the challenges that operators face when looking to deliver UHD/4K content. Solutions will be discussed, including the benefits of migrating to UHD/4K for ingest and playout.

Current State of Broadcast Production Infrastructure
Right now, the majority of broadcast infrastructure utilized to produce live links is based on 3G SDI. While there's an overall drive in the industry toward IP, it's essentially centered on bespoke broadcast hardware. For scalability to exist, the broadcast industry needs to migrate toward using infrastructure and post-production techniques that allow quick transmission of live events. The methods that are traditionally used for UHD/4K assets in cinema, in terms of color grading and offline editing, are simply not appropriate for live event coverage.

The industry is in a state of paralysis at the moment. Broadcasters are aware of the benefits of standard IT infrastructure, but they also have an eye on quickly addressing the demand for UHD/4K premium assets, in time to provide coverage of the European football championship in France later this year.

As broadcasters look to deploy UHD/4K services, one of the key challenges they face is whether or not to purchase new equipment that is likely to have a short lifespan. Soon enough there will be next-generation Ethernet interfacing on standardized COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) infrastructure with the capability to handle the functionality and performance of video production as software applications. Light video compression will undoubtedly be used during the production workflow to alleviate the obvious challenges presented by video, namely bandwidth. It’s really a question of balance with using bespoke ingest, playout and switching capabilities in the short term, with the ultimate strategy of transitioning to IP when ready.

What is the Solution?
Broadcasters' UHD/4K video production challenges can partially be resolved by standards and de facto profiles existing. The solution also involves switching over to COTS based infrastructure. There are proof of concepts; however, they don’t yet match the kind of density and performance requirements that are needed for dedicated video switchers in the production environment.

Ingest and playout will play an important role as well. Many broadcasters are looking to upgrade their facility to IP. The end goal is to use as much COTS based infrastructure as possible, creating separation between the underlying processing hardware and the video production specific applications running on it while using IP as the principle interconnect. From a practicality standpoint, most ingest and playout systems available today are not the real deal. They're mainly 3G SDI based, running on bespoke and often proprietary hardware, with an occasional IP interface. Broadcasters need standard COTS-based solutions, where the underlying hardware is standardized, limiting video-specific functionality to software applications. A continual challenge in the production environment is to reconcile the bandwidth needed to sustain video within the capability of the underlying infrastructure. While uncompressed is the ideal scenario from a quality standpoint, the use of compression and file-based workflows have a key role to play to enable the move toward a virtualized, all-IP workflow.

The limited functionality and legacy interfacing of today's ingest and playout systems means that 1080p infrastructure is often being considered as an intermediary while UHD/4K capability emerges on standardized COTS platforms. Ultimately, broadcasters want to migrate to true UHD/4K ingest and playout so that they can deliver superior video quality. Choosing an IP-based system will enable them to bring new levels of efficiency, simplicity and reliability to broadcast playout workflows. At the moment, we are seeing huge demand for these solutions.

Harmonic is expanding the capabilities of its existing products to address the UHD/4K production needs of the broadcast industry. At the 2016 NAB Show, booth SU1210, Harmonic will demonstrate its Spectrum™ X, now supporting UHD/4K, along with a wide range of encoding solutions available as appliances based on standardized hardware or software for vendor implementation.

Clearly, the industry needs true network storage for both 4K and UHD production. The latest capabilities for Spectrum X will go a long way to meet the immediate needs of those embracing quad 3G for UHD playout, with an eye to the future where flexibility to adopt both next-generation IP interfaces (40G/100G) and production appropriate compression will apply.


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