Why A Virtualized Air Chain Makes Sense

By Geoff Steadman on May 21, 2024 7:16:32 PM

Nearly everything can be virtual now. Why not radio airchains?

Virtualization is a hot topic, not just in the broadcast business, but in scores of industries. Years ago, Telos Alliance made the strategic decision to migrate our solutions to virtual models that leverage the IT industry, the Internet, ubiquitous computing, state-of-the-art cyber security mitigation, and open standards and practices. 

In a sense, this is a continuation of the revolution we started with the invention of Livewire AoIP over 20 years ago. As we have reworked our software tooling over time, we’ve realized a huge benefit: a common code base can be used to produce both virtual offerings and bespoke hardware. To suggest that virtualization forces a choice between offering products as hardware vs. software misses the point that underlying software tooling can be the common denominator to both. Our industry needs both. 

Borrowing a term from the civil engineering world, the broadcast industry can be described as “mid-transition”; with infrastructure moving from its single-function hardware past to an interconnected IT-based future. The service life of various equipment, hard costs for broadcasters, and shifts in skill sets associated with new tech naturally constrain the speed of this transition. The coexistence of old and new technologies is a necessity, as neither market forces nor regulatory shifts have an instant effect; Telos takes this adoption arc into account in our strategic product planning.

But if there is anything we learned in recent years from the pandemic and global supply chain disruptions, it is how fragile certain assumptions are, particularly with regard to the “just in time” parts availability we took for granted for so long. In dozens of cases, we have seen key components go end-of-life with no warning, or get assigned 52-week lead times. This forced many companies into expensive redesigns and shipping delays, leading to disappointed customers and stalled projects. With those realities in mind, virtual products don’t just look like a parallel development path, they become a lifeboat. 

When we say “virtualization”, we simply mean deploying familiar products on IT-based hardware rather than on proprietary, purpose-built hardware. This can be accomplished locally with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers, our newly introduced AP-3000 pre-configured platform for software services, products like Broadcast Bionics’ Virtual Rack, or by using cloud-based hosting services like AWS (Amazon Web Services). 

Compared to dedicated hardware, virtualization offers many benefits, including: 

Scalability. Customers can spool up more instances of our products in software, then throttle back if needs change. This freedom can be leveraged by clients “at will” to manage growth, special events, and new business models.

Integration flexibility. Incorporating virtual products isn’t an “all or nothing” prospect requiring a complete facilities overhaul; it can be done in stages and co-exist with a customer’s current facility and infrastructure, especially as AoIP building blocks are commonplace in so many facilities.

Remote management. Software updates can be performed remotely (including over the Internet) rather than requiring on-site visits to remote locations. System functions and health can be more efficiently monitored from a corporate NOC; technicians can securely remote into complex systems and troubleshoot problems from thousands of miles away.

OPEX vs. CAPEX. Virtual solutions are often available as subscription-based services, which means they typically fall under operational budgets, while hardware is usually a capital expense. This gives customers ultimate flexibility in choosing how to fund their projects. OPEX is very attractive for short-term projects, and prevents facilities from going unused due to overbuilding.

Reduced overhead. Cloud-based virtualization requires less maintenance, real estate, conditioned power, HVAC, and other costs associated with having hardware on-site.

Access to skilled labor. Virtualization leverages the skills of newcomers to the workforce with IT-centric experience and training. 

  1. Visualizing the virtual air chain

Telos Alliance has been, and continues to be, a pioneer in virtualization for broadcasters. While we pride ourselves on innovating, our partners are driving us. Key customers have propelled us forward with engineering challenges, economic commitments, and key insights that have aligned with our own experiences, and lessons from other industries. No one can predict the future, but we see the bets we’ve made on virtualizing our hardware products paying off amidst the general acceleration toward software and integrated, IP-based solutions. In summary, we see multiple factors driving virtualization in broadcast:

* Cost efficiency and the trend toward reducing capital investment and centralizing operations.

* The enduring social changes brought to us by the pandemic, (including remote work) and the acceptance that things will never go back to the way they were.

* The evolution of both producer and consumer and the broadening definition of what it means to “broadcast.”

* The graying of the traditional engineering workforce and increasing pressure on studio maintenance costs, contrasted with the shifting skillsets of younger, “digital native” workers with strong IT competencies.

* Continued supply chain pressures on component availability and lifespan, and shifts of silicon producers to more profitable and highly integrated SOC models. 

  1. Our portfolio of virtual products addresses key pieces of a virtual air chain, from audio acquisition and mixing to telephony, audio processing, watermarking, STL transmission, and more. For the record, our current lineup of virtual solutions (as of May, 2024) includes:

* Telos® VXs Virtual VoIP broadcast telephone system
* Omnia® Forza HDS & Forza FM audio processing
* Omnia® Enterprise 9s high-density audio processor
* Axia® Altus virtual mixing console
* Axia® Pathfinder Core PRO VM broadcast controller
* Telos Infinity® VIP Virtual Intercom Platform
* Telos Alliance® Z/IPStream X/20 Streaming Encoder and Processor
* 25-Seven PDMX Virtual Program Delay 

Telos VXs Virtual VoIP system
Omnia Forza HDS audio processing software for HD, DAB and streaming
Omnia Forza FM audio processing software for FM and HD-1
Axia Altus virtual mixing console
Axia Pathfinder Core PRO broadcast controller
Telos Infinity VIP virtual intercom platform
Z/IPStream X/20 streaming audio encoder/processor
25-Seven PDMX virtual program delay

These market-facing virtual products rest on common software tooling, ensuring interoperability with things like clocking, IO standardization, and security. This underlying tooling can best be described as internal facing products that our various product teams are all able to utilize to further push virtual initiatives.

As we expand our virtual offerings, we are mindful both of the pieces we still need to build, and of the areas of expertise that are better left to other practitioners. While our offerings at Telos Alliance are broad, no single company can do everything. A particularly gratifying collaboration is our recent effort with Digital Alert Systems and Nautel. Our EAS At The Edge℠ initiative is a first step to facilitate virtual workflows by bringing EAS into the connected AoIP age. EAS has long been seen as a missing puzzle piece in realizing a purely virtual airchain; given its special regulatory requirements, the hybrid solution we have helped introduce demonstrates what can happen when industry peers with a shared vision work together toward a common, “virtual” goal.

radioworld_400x400This article first appeared in Radio World Magazine's May, 2024 eBook entitled The Software-Based Air Chain. Reprinted with permission.

Topics: Radio, AoIP networking, virtualization, infrastructure

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