Content Management: Getting It To The Right Place At The Right Time, Via Satellite
By James Careless
There is a new word in the TV lexicon: ‘centralcasting’. It is the cost-saving strategy of producing a whole range of TV channels in a central facility, then distributing them to their respective markets by satellite. Functionally, centralcasting is a form of networking. It is built upon the same one-to-many distribution structure used on the Web and corporate Intranets. As a result, satellite is the preferred transmission medium for centralcasters such as CNN and The Discovery Channel: with one geosynchronous satellite, these broadcasters can cover entire continents.
For the viewers, there is no difference; they still get their usual mix of channels and content. But for a broadcaster with many networks, centralcasting means that one technician can manage 20 stations, instead of using one technician for each. Not surprisingly, the savings in manpower and facilities are substantial.
The efficiencies of centralcasting are not limited to commercial television; this concept of aggregating content in a single location, then feeding it out to multiple sites is also being used to distribute data via satellite. One of the most notable users is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It relies on centralcasting to continually refresh the databases used by its offices and partners such as the CIA, FBI and the U.S. military via satellite.
Not surprisingly, the biggest obstacle to successful centralcasting is content management. In order to ensure that the right content gets to its intended destinations, broadcasters and datacasters alike must manage all aspects of the content chain diligently. "It’s not just an issue of setting up the transmission path," says Mark Krikorian, vice president and COO of ILC. "You also have to make sure that the right receiving and network management equipment is in place and operating. Moreover, you have to anticipate the unique characteristics of satellite content distribution and plan accordingly."
Vulnerable Links In The Content Chain
Effective content management begins and ends with organization. Inputs to the content database must use standardized identification and file structures so that they can be accurately stored and easily accessed. Overview software for managing the inputs must be robust, logical and easy to query. Management tools for scheduling content transmission and allocating uplink resources must be flexible and efficient, with the capability to handle last-minute changes as required.
In the past, conflicting data protocols were a major headache for content managers, as they tried to share resources across satellite networks. The adoption of Internet protocol (IP) as a de facto data standard has changed this situation for the better, but even IP has not proven to be a magic bullet. In fact, "one of the key content management issues being faced by satellite users is the move towards IP-based systems for all media," says Andrea Maleter, technical director of Futron Corporation. "This simplifies content management by providing a consistent platform at one level, but obligates content developers and owners to ensure content can be run and viewed effectively in media for which they might not have originally been designed."
Adapting content to the IP standard is just one hurdle that content managers have to clear. Another is the sheer scale of storing, accessing and then serving information from a centralized point to hundreds or even thousands of users. "As more enterprises find it effective to maintain all of their content at a centralized site, providing fast, effective connectivity to the content from remote locations becomes critical," says D. C. Palter, vice president of sales and marketing at Mentat. "Whether the data is Web-based, housed on an Oracle database, residing on a large file server or accessed through Citrix; fast, efficient access to the data becomes critical in order for people to accomplish their jobs effectively."
Fast access to data over a satellite network can present problems, specifically because the information has to travel 22,240 miles from the ground to the satellite and then another 22,240 miles down to the receive site. Even at the speed of light, this 44,480 mile ‘hop’ causes transmission delays known as ‘latency.’ For IP-based networks, latency can be a real problem because IP networks interpret delays as an indication of a broken transmission path. When this happens, the sending device will throttle down its transmission speed even though bandwidth is available; an action that wastes time, satellite bandwidth and money.
Beyond satellite latency, there is also the issue of ‘in-house latency’ to be considered. In-house latency refers to delays caused by convoluted network design, inefficient file transfers due to confusing labeling and incompatible file formats, and ‘bottlenecks’ (the result of too much data trying to squeeze down a too-small ‘pipe’).
The solution to in-house latency is to upgrade a company’s software and hardware; however, problems arise if companies install new systems first, then try to figure out what they are to be used for afterwards. "Organizations rush to implement new technologies because they seem to make sense and many times deciding how to optimize the use of this technology in their workflow and information flow is an afterthought," says Rick Richardson, director of marketing for ScheduALL. Among the questions they face once the afterglow of installation has passed are, "How are we going to use this technology in our current workflow How are we going to manage its channels of distribution? How many uses (opportunities for repurposing) are there for the content and how do we both identify and manage them? And what satellite and terrestrial bandwidth do we need for distribution?" says Richardson.
Two other vulnerable links in the content management chain are system monitoring and user mobility. "In the premium entertainment world, content providers want to be paid," says William Steele, chairman and CEO of KenCast. "They need to monitor where content has gone on their networks and manipulate that data so that the right people can be invoiced. Meanwhile, keeping up with mobile users is a real challenge for content providers. For instance, the Defense Department keeps in touch with its troops via satellite. When a platoon airlifts from one coverage footprint to another, their signals transmissions have to be transferred to this new footprint without delay."
Strengthening The Chain
Fast, reliable connectivity between a database and its users is a must. For content managers, making sure this happens is Job One at the core of their business. A case in point is Mentat’s SkyX Gateway: it resolves the latency problems associated with TCP/IP over satellite by reformatting the data before transmission using its Xpress Transport Protocol (XTP). When combined with data compression and other enhancements, this XTP data is able to minimize latency problems during its 44,480 mile hop through space. At the receiving end, the XTP format is reformatted backed to TCP/IP so that the data can be extracted as easily is if it had been moved over a terrestrial LAN. All branches of the U.S. military, Boeing, ChevronTexaco, ClearChannel, Halliburton, Sony, HBO, and NBC among others are currently using SkyX.
Comtech EF Data focuses on improving TCP/IP performance. A case in point is its turboVR router, which basically accelerates TCP/IP data to minimize delays and session dropouts. "Transparent acceleration of TCP sessions is the best way to increase throughput over satellite links," says Daniel Enns, senior vice president of strategic marketing & business development for Comtech EF Data.
Sometimes a simple solution to content management can help, such as getting more performance from the bandwidth you have. For instance, Radyne ComStream has developed a DVB-S2 upgrade for its DM240 DVB-S satellite modulators. When installed, the S2 upgrade "can give you 30% more bandwidth efficiency," says Steve Eymann, CTO of Radyne ComStream. Content managers can use this efficiency to squeeze the same amount of data into less bandwidth, or increase the amount of data they are pushing through their existing ‘pipe.’
ILC’s MaxView Monitor & Control (M&C) software helps centralcasters manage their satellite uplink networks. One of MaxView’s key selling points is that it is ‘technology agnostic.’ This means that MaxView can connect to old legacy and new IP-based network systems and make them all talk to each other. For content managers, this means that they can rationalize and optimize their centralcasting operations and add new elements to it as needed.
To date, centralcasters such as DirecTV and CNBC have adopted MaxView. "Our continued growth and local channel initiative makes it imperative that we can integrate new broadcast or uplink facilities into the management and control system without disrupting service," explains Dave Baylor, executive vice president of DirecTV, in a news release at http://www.ilc.com. "MaxView will allow us to continue our expansion in a controlled and efficient manner."
"It is critical that we deliver breaking financial news and information to our viewers immediately," notes Steve Fastook, CNBC’s vice president of technical and commercial operations in a third ILC news release. "We cannot afford to wait while technicians get to control panels to make changes, route feeds and monitor."
ScheduALL tackles content management through an integrated software platform; one that handles all aspects of a centralcaster’s operations, including broadcast distribution management, resource allocation, event scheduling and staffing. This is why this product is being used in 1,100 media operations worldwide and was adopted by NBC to coordinate the "thousands of hours of content from the Athens Olympics," says Rick Richardson. ScheduALL’s client list includes NPR and Sirius Satellite Radio.
KenCast has been helping centralcasters manage content since 1994, when the company’s Fazzt Digital Delivery System was introduced. The best way to understand Fazzt is as an enterprise solution to content management and distribution: it is an open architecture system that can get content where it needs to go, with built-in error correction. Fazzt even monitors the progress of data downloads, automatically resending missing data bits without operator intervention. Fazzt is used by major data centralcasters as the U.S. military, the CIA and the DHS. KenCast has recently refined Fazzt so that it can be received on wireless PDAs and other mobile devices, for use by soldiers on the move.
Clearly, progress has been made in content management over satellite, but questions still remain about the products aimed at this market.
Scalability is one issue. As demands increase on centralcasters for more data, more sessions, and faster downloads, one has to wonder where is the ceiling? Granted, advances in data compression, forward error correction and receiver technology continue to occur, but surely there has to be a limit to how much data can be pushed through a certain amount of bandwidth. Where that limit is – or is not – will affect how products are devised and deployed.
A second issue is mobility. Serving content to users with shifting locations adds an extra layer of complexity to centralcasting. One solution is for mobile devices to signal their positions through periodic uplinks; unfortunately, it is an approach that forces centralcasters to track users on a real-time basis.
Maturity is the third issue that concerns content managers. Are today’s solutions sufficiently advanced to justify wholesale adoption? Or should content managers take an incremental approach to implementing solutions until they are sure that what is available commercially truly meets all of their needs?
There are no fast and quick answers to these questions because each business has unique dynamics and different needs.
As the demand for centralcast video and data increase, content management will grow in importance for content providers. How well they deal with this issue and how well suppliers devise solutions to help them in their tasks will have a definite impact on their bottom lines.
James Careless is senior contributing writer to Via Satellie magazine.