Case Studies TV Channels

Ahmed Al Menhali of Abu Dhabi Media on new deployments

Ahmed Al Menhali, Director of Projects at Abu Dhabi Media.

After ten years, Abu Dhabi Media finds itself at the crossroads with legacy infrastructure that needs to be replaced. For this exclusive Broadcast Pro Middle East interview, Ahmed Al Menhali, Director of Projects at Abu Dhabi Media talks about new deployments at the facility that are software-defined and geared towards a future that has all the right buzzwords including IP and cloud.

Abu Dhabi Media burst on to the scene 10 years ago, building a complete broadcast centre in the capital, as part of the emirate’s programme to develop its media industry. Today the campus, as well as multiple studios and extensive post production facilities, is responsible for the delivery of 15 HD channels.

Anas Hantash (l) from Imagine with Ahmed Al Menhali (r) from Abu Dhabi Media.

Ten years down the road, Abu Dhabi Media is now confronted by a hardware-based technical infrastructure which is moving towards the end of its life. Sensibly, it has taken a managed, long-term approach to the process.

“Imagine Communications has been a trusted partner for playout systems from the beginning,” said Ahmed Al-Menhali, Director of Projects at Abu Dhabi Media. “And now it is time to refurbish and upgrade.”

Abu Dhabi Media, therefore, studied some of the emerging technologies in the market and made decisions on the capabilities of new concepts. At the extreme, it meant throwing out broadcast infrastructures and moving everything to the cloud. Is the time right for such a bold move?

“Today, the technology is looking ahead to software-defined solutions, and away from hardware,” Al Menhali says.

“What makes it interesting is that we are taking what works today and protecting it for the future – and whatever challenges that may bring – by moving to a modern, software-defined platform” Ahmed Al Menhali, Director of Broadcast Technology, Abu Dhabi Media

“The concept of software-defined technology is helping everybody. We can rely on major IT manufacturers like HP and others to deliver the hardware, and use the expertise of specialist vendors in achieving the targets in the application layer.

“Imagine, alongside other big names, are also following that direction. This serves the roadmap that we have planned to roll out.”

The first-generation systems installed at Abu Dhabi Media came from Imagine Communications, so it was natural that they were on the list when the broadcaster was reviewing its options.

Anas Hantash, who heads Imagine’s MENA operations says that although the company has been been working closely with ADM for over a decade, “that relationship has intensified over the past 18 months as have our discussions about how we can help them to migrate to IP”.

“We know they have been attending NAB and IBC and looking at all the major players. We have been extremely impressed with the initiatives ADM has undertaken to transition their business towards IP, software-defined solutions and virtualised environments. They wanted to be sure that IP was a coherent route for the future and with Imagine, they feel that this is being delivered.”

The conclusion was that software-defined technology was the way to go, if it could be achieved without throwing out existing, non-life-expired hardware and without changing the established workflows and working practices on which the broadcaster relies.

Cloud

The transition towards IP connectivity is seen as an important part of this future roadmap. The other element is to create applications in a way in which they can readily be virtualised, and eventually moved to the cloud. Abu Dhabi Media has already completed a full POC for its disaster recovery service with du Media Cloud.

The use of its cloud services is set to expand. One element of the current refurbishment project sees the implementation of an Imagine Broadcast Master and xG Schedule system for traffic and programme scheduling. xG software is built using microservices, and is likely to be the first part of the operation to see primary software migrated to the cloud in the coming years.

In general, though, the Abu Dhabi Media approach to the cloud is positive but cautious.

“We might consider moving everything to cloud,” is Al Menhali’s view.

“Cloud is the new world interest and is being talked about everywhere. However, practically speaking, I think they are still far from having their services populated in cloud. It is important to work with a partner who shares a similar vision and is following a similar roadmap,” he continues.

“At the moment, we trust only some big names who share our thoughts. Maybe after three years, it will be different. We are currently faced with a big challenge as everyone is claiming to have cloud solutions. But when it comes to practicality and testing their platforms, we see that there is still room for development and they still have some distance to cover before becoming a complete software-defined solution. Imagine, however, has been different in this regard.”

Interoperability

The other important consideration is interoperability. The Abu Dhabi Media campus provides a onestop shop for production and post as well as delivery. It makes sense to minimise the movement and handling of content.

As part of the refurbishment programme, Imagine is installing an ingest and asset management system. This uses Versio server networks, which are actually software instances running on Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) workstations. This will talk to other systems including the EMC Isilon central storage, and the post production section.

“It was very important to us that the new hardware be supplied by HPE,” Al Menhali says.

“We are not restricted to a single technology supplier. All the big names are doing the same.

“It makes the system open to multiple vendors, and that was an essential requirement for us. We need to be able to connect any popular editing platform – like Avid Media Composer, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X – seamlessly, to minimise the movement of content for finishing.

“We are still in the process of identifying whether we will have a single choice of editing system, or we will provide multiple systems and allow editors and producers to choose. What is important is that the storage solution will support any edit workstation, allowing it to connect, call up material and store finished content.

“We also need the asset management and playout systems to talk to each other, and to other key systems like Interra Baton automated QC, Aspera for file transfer, and Vizrt for production graphics.”

IP – The future

This brings us to the obvious central question: Does this major overhaul of the key technology platforms, including central storage, asset management and a completely software-driven playout architecture, mean that Abu Dhabi will be moving wholesale to IP connectivity?

The answer is not yet.

“We have to be realistic about upgrades,” says Al Menhali.

“We have invested in the SDI domain, and we need to give it some more time before starting up again. It is a massive investment; moreover, our SDI infrastructure and routers are working perfectly for us and for our workflows.

“Our approach is slightly altered in this regard. We are looking forward to the next maybe four years. In that time, we may need to address new technical formats like 4K or a higher definition. We will align ourselves to the industry and consumer demand as we go along.

“Our technology roadmap is linked to that. The evolution from SDI to IP will be driven by the move from HD to 4K or beyond. Especially now that the SMPTE 2110 standards are ready, we will move to an IP infrastructure when we need to. “Currently, we do not feel the need to invest in replacing existing infrastructure,” explains Al Menhali. “We have the HD-SDI infrastructure in place, and we intend to continue with this infrastructure for routing until we decide to move on – maybe in four years – to the 4K platform. When the time is right, we will evaluate whether that will be for playout, for production or post production.

“Within the next three or four years, we will remain with HD, until the ‘new UHD’ is fully developed, the industry is fully grown and the prices have gone down. That is when we will consider the switch, which will, of course, comply with the industry and audience’s preference to go for UHD or beyond. For the next four to five years, we have to wait and see.

“The important thing is that what we are building now will survive the coming four or five years, but capable of shifting the underlying routing from SDI to IP without changing anything else.”

Transition

As a busy production and playout centre, delivering popular premium content, stability is key for Abu Dhabi Media. While this project is changing out some mission critical systems, extending functionality and providing transparency between SDI and IP sources, the day-to-day work has to continue uninterrupted.

At the same time, these are major upgrades for the entire broadcast chain from Traffic & Scheduling System (Broadcast Master/xG Schedule with all its Modules) to more than 22 video servers with 132 HD ports. Three independent full automation systems (Main/ Backup) provide redundancy as well as preview services, in addition to channel branding, master control switching, and ingest/asset management functionality. All of this has to be implemented in a compact timeline starting at the beginning of 2018 and going live in May.

Talking of the decision to go back to Imagine Communications for the next-generation systems, Al Menhali says: “The workflows that are currently set alongside the fluency of operations made it very easy for us to make the decision. It would be difficult to change given these factors.

“We have been running these systems for the last 10 years and we have found them to be reliable,” he says, pointing also to the ready availability of local support.

“We feel we are moving in the right direction; we are moving towards a software-defined solution. And through this all, our currently set optimised workflows and work processes stay exactly the same. We are using the latest technology and are ready for the future; therefore, we do not see the need for us to invest more for the time being, given the existing infrastructures are serving their purpose well.

“We are refreshing and upgrading our systems, so this is inevitably a large project,” he concludes. “What makes it interesting is that we are taking what works today and protecting it for the future – and whatever challenges that may bring – by moving to a modern, software-defined platform.”