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Opinion piece - Broadcasting software meets off-the-shelf hardware – a trend that is driving savings, adding value

12 August 2014

By Paul Divall, Managing Director: Intelligent Technologies

Broadcasting solutions providers are shifting to use of commercial off-the-shelf hardware. This trend is driven by the commoditisation of hardware solutions. It is delivering more cost effective solutions to buyers and offering resellers more room for margin. However, users should be aware that not all servers and certainly not all storage platforms are created equal. The ideal software and hardware partnership should be tailored to the application.


Instead of tying users to one-off hardware solutions that are expensive to upgrade, software providers are leveraging advances in hardware to create flexible and scalable solutions. A number of vendors at NAB 2014 discussed the benefits of the latest off-the-shelf solutions. They also discussed how the ability to combine and match processor (CPUs, GPUs) and programmable chip (FPGAs or field-programmable gate arrays) strengths to deliver on the requirements of the application (e.g., station in a box solution), is opening doors. This allows vendors and users to step away from proprietary hardware, create more flexible and cost effective solutions, and extend the value of hardware investments. As these hardware and software solutions also often offer upgradable paths, they are able to ‘work harder for longer’.


Other trends highlighted at NAB relating to this topic include the shift of video and audio processing from hardware to software as new software architectures emerge that offer new ways of building and operating systems. Hardware virtualisation offers new ways of deploying and maintaining systems. Add an overarching software control layer to link disparate systems and real operational and technical benefits begin to emerge.


The importance of the trend toward use of commercial off-the-shelf hardware is up there with the focus on developing solutions to support higher resolutions (Ultra HD or 4K); cloud solutions to support remote collaboration; asset sharing and operational efficiencies; and the shift toward all-IP infrastructure. Compression and playout solution providers that have in the past made use of dedicated broadcast equipment and interfaces will be particularly challenged by the use of off-the-shelf hardware. The likely outcome will be the introduction of products with standard IP switching and routing capabilities that leverage Network Attached Storage (NAS).


A strong injunction is, however, to ensure the hardware solution matches the application. While vendors are careful to test and specify the hardware options they prefer used with their products, users are keen to leverage existing investments in hardware and explore their options.

Hardware commoditisation also brings other value-adds for users. Hardware vendors are bundling more services and offer better support options with hardware to differentiate their offerings. But while Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is an important consideration, so too is the assurance an integrator can provide. Integrators take responsibility for the solution working “as advertised”. Their skill and experience is vital to ensure solution is put together correctly, tested and supported after installation to ensure adequate performance.


While the shift to off-the-shelf hardware is a trend that is likely to stay, it would be wise to take into account the advice of vendors and integrators, and assess TCO when making decisions.