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Imagine Communications Steps Away from the Constraints of Proprietary Hardware

An interview with Huw Dymond and Jeff Snyder of Imagine Communications

jeffhuw2 At NAB, Imagine Communications rolled out news and announcements that covered a wide range of products and technologies. From the news about their collaboration to power UHD live production to the delivery of a cloud-based video infrastructure with HP all the way to Disney/ABC’s transition to an IP based “virtual master control” for linear broadcast operations, it was hard to keep with everything they rolled out.

That’s without even mentioning what the company had to showcase in their booth, where their experts demonstrated their offerings at several different stations with attendees. Laying all of that out would have been impossible to do on the show floor, so we followed up with Huw Dymond and Jeff Snyder from Imagine Communications to explore a few of those details. We discuss some of their use cases, why the move to non-proprietary technology is so important, how they help clients approach needed changes and plenty more.  

 

ProVideo Coalition: NAB 2015 was obviously a big deal for Imagine Communications that featured tons of announcements and a large presence on the show floor. What sort of info were you discussing with attendees?

Huw Dymond: From my side, the products and solutions that we were focused on were primarily application-led solutions. We had three primary use cases that we were demonstrating.

First up we had our Nexio® Ingest Suite application, which is a simplified ingest application for getting content into a facility from a common tool. So essentially, it’s a consolidation of traditional and legacy based workflows along with some file based upload mechanisms as well. The whole principle is that it’s an operationally easy application to use and it’s deployable on standard IT hardware with no reliance on proprietary technology. It’s another area where we as a vendor made a conscious effort to step away from the constraints of propriety hardware.

The kind of customer we were targeting were the large-scale feed ingest customers as well as production islands, so this could be feeding into fast turn around studio production or live environments. Coupled with that was another solution called Nexio Studio Suite, which is a stand-alone application that’s very simple from a customer’s standpoint in terms of purchase and install. The whole principle is that it’s a slightly more targeted application with one specific set of use cases. It’s where we supply our Nexio video server technology into a live production environment. It’s got a couple of benefits. Number one is the simplicity of operation, but it also allows you to share resources around the application. So one day you might have a studio production that requires two cameras, and you’re also running a newsroom output. But the next day you might want to do a four-camera operation. So you’ve got a fair bit of agility in the application, which makes it simple and flexible.

At our booth, we also had an area that we dubbed the content portal, which is essentially an internal name, but we were really testing the market for the viability of this solution. The whole idea behind it is that we see a real requirement to simplify some of the content management and upstream asset registration that’s needed for content distribution for both linear and non-linear assets. The idea is that we’re not necessarily selling it and marketing it as a MAM solution as such, but really providing an additional level of permissioning, an additional level of content statusing and awareness up at the user layer.

Also, it’s about the ability to monitor material movements. Essentially, the use case is driven by large-scale playout operators. These are people operating linear channel distribution as their primary service offering. The real use case for them is to try and provide their customers with the right level of tooling in order to understand what may go wrong when they start getting closer to the point of transmission. The whole ethos is that the last place you want to fix a piece of content is when you’re getting close to playout. So having a certain level of metadata and statusing ability with some smart dashboards and intelligent workflows to get the content to the various locations is the key to scaling correctly and ensuring that as a broadcaster, service provider or someone in the distribution environment, you’re not fixing something ten minutes to air. You’re fixing it two weeks until air.

The whole risk mitigation cycle is something we can see a real gap in the market for.        

Jeff Snyder: This year for the Nexio video server playout and storage, we announced our partnership and vision with HP. The equipment that HP provides is a fantastic fit for our current and future platforms.

We’re also beginning the migration from the classic video SAN, which is proprietary in nature, to a completely open NAS architecture. It may sound simple and trivial, but when you have lots of live-to-air workflow functions, where you have number of devices reading a file while its being utilized and being able to use that within your asset management applications, it’s really powerful. That means we’re giving users the ability to access and use that file in Premiere, Media Composer, FCP, etc. and then be able to immediately turn that around for playback. All of that is not nearly as simple as it might sound on the NAS, and that transition is nearly complete.

We also introduced the Nexio Media Server UHD, which allows us to encode and playback using Sony’s XAVC profiles. We’re quite happy with that, as the performance is fantastic and the video quality is amazing. Being able to work in the same ecosystem that we’ve always been able to work in, where it’s a SAN or a NAS, is great because you don’t have to have specific systems just for the UHD. It’s truly part of the ecosystem.

At NAB, we talked a little bit about some of our upcoming APIs. We’ve released a number of third party APIs to control and do some media streaming on and off the server for various user interfaces. In the history of Nexio products, it’s been somewhat difficult for third parties to use, but I’m happy to say that difficulty is gone. A number of our partners asked to be able to see things like our metadata and clips, and now that’s all available from a fairly generic API.

We have a few more additions to the platform for the rest of the year, and one of the most important is our full integration with what we call our Zenium® workflow system, or Zenium architecture. It’s not a product, per se, it’s a platform that provides a set of tools that a lot of our products now use. As we add capability into one of those products via integration of the components, then the other applications and platforms that use that same infrastructure gain the functions of that component. It’s a fantastic platform that gives us a lot of features.    

 

What sort of opportunities are opening up with the partnerships that you’ve formed?

Huw: There are multiple areas where that’s happening.

One is the item that Jeff mentioned, which is the pure video server environment. It’s a function of us building out publically available API’s. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve recognized that many of our customers had certain requirements, and therefore made particular user applications, or very specific integrations with various levels of solutions, needlessly complicated. Those things could have been as basic as connecting to a server and getting some data, or as complex as integration with a business system they’ve got to drive a workflow process. That needless complication is and will continue to be removed.

From a partner perspective, one of the things that’s gone slightly unnoticed is the fact that we have opened up our proprietary API’s so that they are now more publically available. Essentially, we’ve seen that grow and two of the products that I demonstrated at NAB specifically have some RESTful APIs which are in the process of becoming publically available.

Another aspect which I’m closer to is around some of the storage initiatives that move us away from proprietary technology for underlying storage. These initiatives also allow us to support a much more IT-centric environment where consumer off-the-shelf technology can be easily integrated into an existing workflow with other technology. For example, in our file based orchestration toolset, we’ve always relied on certain levels of IT storage, but we’ve been developing partnerships with other providers like EMC Isilon, NetApp and HP to build up bundled offering alongside their solution.      

Jeff: As Huw said, at NAB we were testing the waters with third-party storage vendors.

We’ve historically been a provider of Isilon and have entered into a very tight business relationship with HP, and the storage systems they offer are what we will offer as an alternative to a closed SAN. We’re also in a reseller relationship with NetApp and we work with them on a large number of media & entertainment customers and co-customers. Between the three of those, that dominates the open storage concept and open workflow capability that we did not have when we were continuously moving media back and forth to our SAN. We’re very happy to work with those three partners and a number of their customers who are using these systems and want to begin the process to move over to the common shared tool.

For me, the partnerships really revolve around how our platforms integrate with others not just in terms of functionality, but truly as part of an ecosystem. Having everything on a single interface really enables users.  

 

That step away from proprietary system sounds like it’s a game changer for you and for your customers. Is that something you’ve seen them embrace?

Jeff: The majority of our larger customers prefer to have their own relationship with their IT vendor. The mid-tier customers can go either way around – whether they want that direct relationship or prefer to work through us.

For the next many years, there certainly is going to be a cross-over of those customers who want to have full control and drive their organization to a particular solution. As long as the platforms are easily virtualized and the capabilities of those platforms meet our minimum specs, we’ll work with them around all of the possibilities, whether we’re the ones we providing a turnkey solution or they want to explore further options themselves.

Already, we’ve given quite a bit of help to customers in terms of guidance for models and performance. There’s always going to be questions around whether GPUs are needed, should we use all CPU’s, etc. There’s no one answer to those types of questions. There are lots of different solutions that line up with people’s needs and preferences, and the ability to specifically address those needs and preferences is what makes our solutions more powerful than ever. It’s all a matter of how each facility can migrate to that end goal.

 

And that ties into how easy it is to deploy these different systems, doesn’t it?

Huw: Absolutely. There’s many different ways you can take ease of deployment to its logical solution.

Step number one might be that it’s easier for us to sell, ship and commission if we’re just installing software modules. Take that a few steps further, and when we see our customers are looking for more agility in the market, they might be able to gain business agility by being able to run a software module on a blade server. I think that’s a message the market is exploring.

That’s where we see the market heading. Customers wanting more and faster in a easier and more controllable manner.

 

Huw, you talked about the risk mitigation cycle, but can you talk about the difference it can mean to an organization when they’re correcting a problem with two weeks before airtime versus ten minutes before airtime?

Huw: Anyone who’s been around a live transmission environment can attest to the fact that if something isn’t quite correct at the point of transmission, and that could be as basic as a video encode error, you’re suddenly facing yourself and your own ability to disseminate all the available information. And that available information could take weeks to actually sort through. It’s the most risky situation you can be in.

We tend to think of, for example, material corruption or video errors being specific to one corruption or one file, but if you’re dealing with engineering or operations it could be a much more complicated issue. On top of that, it you’re forced to restart applications, the problem can escalate quickly.

Our customers can attest to the fact that if you can have foresight around what may go wrong, it reduces the number of variables at the point when time is the critical element behind your business. There’s a lot of money that goes into the creation of content, so it represents a business risk. Anything that’s at airtime is risk, and the more you can move away from that airtime the better. Customers are seeing the ripple of a chain effect that comes from minor issues that could be fixed in alternative ways up front.

 

Jeff, you mentioned the upcoming Zenium release…what excites you the most about it?

Jeff: The product gives me the ability to do a lot more audio manipulation, provides a lot more video processing features along with expanded metadata capability. It allows you to insert triggers of any kind, to be able to listen for triggers, and to listen to in-band metadata that might be proprietary to a specific network or customer. All of it is enabled by that framework. As one product has a customer requirement for a feature, we can then offer that in the next release, which is great.

It’s unprecedented in the media server world and for that matter in the transcode world. They gain the same features we develop for our framework and make them available to these platforms. It’s very exciting, and because it can be almost whatever technology you need it to be and deployed via these simple software mechanisms, I can spin up a number of instances of something using this framework to accomplish that particular job. And that framework can extend across multiple pieces of hardware, so I might want to use a function that isn’t on my hardware. As the year goes on, you’ll start to see more software releases that have a whole bunch of new features that you never would have expected from a media server.

 

Process change can be the biggest issue for an organization. By stepping away from proprietary solutions, it seems such changes might be easier to undertake than ever, but what do you tell customers and potential customers about what the change will mean to and for them?        

Huw: One of the things that’s been laid out for all of our products is that we can work with people around a gradual transition, rather than a single event. That eases the process for someone moving from legacy to a forward-looking infrastructure or application. Taking an existing technology stack and gradually moving it in a seamless manner to where a customer needs it to be is one of the major design mandates that we have. There always has to be a clear transition path to avoid a single event, which would upset operations and the technologist.

For example, the move from the IP-enabled version to the cloud-enabled version from an operation standpoint is a seamless transition, and the products are designed to move with the times rather than reshape an organization. That can be a painless process, and organizations will see and feel the difference in countless manners.

Jeff: We designed our products and solutions to support people who have existing infrastructures, whether they’re ours or some other vendors’, and help transition where they ultimately want to go. That can be to an all IP setup or a hybrid of existing hardware or whatever they want to set up for themselves.

With a handful of customers, we’ve done a complete hardware recycle of everything that’s onsite. They’ll dump everything that was involved in a particular workflow and completely replace it. It’s a little unprecedented, but in the case of some of our large network projects, they just realized it was time to get rid of what they had. Although a hybrid was possible, it was not desirable; they wanted to get to the end ASAP. It means a little bit more legwork up front, but it also allows them to quickly move to a solution that’s new, forward thinking and efficient.

With our solutions and technology we can work with anyone no matter their ultimate goal, and that’s the place you need to be when it comes to helping a customer through a process transition of any magnitude.            


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Jeremiah Karpowicz moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter but quickly realized making a film was about much more than the script. He worked at a post house where films like Watchmen (2009), Gamer…

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