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Interview: Lee Ellison, Audinate

We talk to Lee Ellison, the Audinate CEO, about the origins of Audinate and what’s next for Dante networking technology.

Paddy Baker caught up with the Audinate CEO at the AV Networking World conference ahead of this year’s InfoComm show to discuss the origins of Audinate and what’s next for Dante networking technology.

Tell me about your career pre-Audinate.

My career really started back in 1980, and the days of the long-distance carriers when they first came in to compete against AT&T. I used to run the sales organisation for the mid-west for a company called Sprint. After that I went with a couple of other global carriers and then got into technology and into the voicemail processing business focused on the cellular market and infrastructure. I was then with a company called Glenayre, which was involved with processing voicemail systems as well as being the leading provider of radio paging infrastructure; I ran their global sales and international operations.

I left there and ran the worldwide sales and global operations for Tektronix, which is a leader in test and measurement equipment. There we did a lot with respect to IP systems for backbones and testing of equipment.

I then joined a company called Dilithium Networks, where I was their founding head of sales and marketing. One of the co-founders of Dilithium Networks is a gentleman named David Meyers, who is one of the co-founders of Audinate. I was with them for quite some time and then went back to Glenayre to be a general manager of one of their operations, probably after a six-year stint.

While I was doing that, David Meyers came down and said: “We’ve got this neat technology – it’s audio-over-IP for professional sound”. It had a lot of the characteristics that I felt we had at some past companies where we became a market leader. It had really bright people, they had a competitive market that they were involved in, yet the other companies in the field didn’t seem to have the market responsiveness, and it just seemed like all the ingredients were right to come back in, and take what was great technology and help productise it and get it to market.

It sounds like you saw the potential of Dante quite early on.

I saw the potential. Coming from the industries I came out of, they were primarily telecom. Parts of them were very much involved in the IT aspect of things. And we used to deal with telecom people; we then saw this evolution that the telecom groups became IT focused. So for a company with a vision to lead the convergence of AV to IT – and doing what’s happened in the telecom world, where there used to be standard telecom systems, and now they’re really just voice-over-IP – it was obvious that if someone did it right and simplified the way that it was done, it could transform the industry.

So how does the reality of where you are today match with your expectations then?

When I joined, there were about 10 manufacturers who were licensees. We would have anticipated, back then, that if we could get to 50 or 75 then that would be a pretty good job. Four years ago, it was just this eye-opening time when companies looked at different options for digital networking and we became the standard in many company’s products – and they were not trivial companies. Yamaha adopted Dante as standard inside their new lines of mixers, and it became evident that they had put a lot of due diligence into technologies, and they had been known in the past to be very open and neutral in terms of which networking technologies they used. The fact that they were now relying on one more than another was an indication to the market that it was a changing moment.

When I joined the company, I remember the very first strategic off-site meeting we had: we really mapped out the signal chain and asked what kinds of products we needed to focus on to make a difference when it comes to networking, so that you could build products.

What’s really exciting now is that you can get Dante in virtually any category of products. Does that mean that we have achieved the vision? No, we’re just scratching the surface, but we’re without question the market leader in this industry.

Newtek is exhibiting here at AVNW. Where is Dante and video currently?

Let me take a step back: our relationship with Newtek started when the major broadcasters were looking at when they distribute AV signals in their facilities, they also need to distribute high-quality audio into the system. Everybody knows that Microsoft Skype is becoming a part of many broadcasts, with either remote journalists, or call-in guests, and so it was very important for them to be able to take the feed that came in and distribute it throughout the facility. Since so many of these customers had been converting to Dante, they looked at our Dante virtual soundcard and asked how they could incorporate that into the Newtek product – so it was Newtek’s TalkShow Skype TX product that we were first integrated with.

In terms of video, that’s something we demonstrated five years ago at ISE using Dante. Our initial focus has been in the audio market to become the market leader, but video is becoming a hot topic: we see that the market is starting to accept video over Cat5 cabling and we see that in our future.

How much further do you have to go in the audio realm?

Our big competitor is the way people used to do things, so the convergence of going from telecom to VoIP or 15 years ago is where we are at today with the AV to IT industry; our competitor is analogue and other point-to-point digital connectivity methods. We think it’s really important that people start to communicate more about how this makes your job easier, how this makes changes to a design system easier. It’s not about this networking technology versus that networking technology. At the end of the day, the common message throughout this industry needs to shift from ‘Which protocol is the one to choose?’ to ‘What digital networking solution makes my job easier?’

AES67 has been mentioned today; how important do you see that being to Dante and the industry?

Dante is a complete solution that incorporates various transport technologies, but it incorporates a lot of value-added features on top of that. When we look at Dante, we don’t look at it as a protocol, we look at it as a solution that fits various form factors, including software that works on Macs and PCs. Dante Via is our latest innovation. AES67 is a kind of lowest common denominator, we look at it kind of like the plumbing in the building, if I can connect it all then I can get signals from point A to point B.

What we like about it is that it uses some similar time synchronisation standards that we use today with Dante, it uses a Layer 3 approach which is IP, and we believe that’s the future. When AES67 came about it didn’t take us long to say it was something we should incorporate underneath the hood as one of the transport vehicles for our technology.

We still feel that Dante has a much more encompassing solution, but it’s not Dante versus any other technology, those are just components that fit in the all-encompassing Dante solution. We think it opens up things. There are certain markets where people like the concept of a standard, and rally around that. And this allows us to have an open system where people can get the best solutions.

We think of it as looking at the world like Cisco does. The reason everybody standardises wherever they can on a single platform is really the tools and the management suite of information they get from it. Dante gives you that complete suite, there will be situations where you want to extend beyond that – and the more people making products in the space, the bigger the market will be.

You mentioned Dante Via, which you trailed at InfoComm last year. I think it’s fair to say it has slipped a bit in the development – is there any particular reason for that?

Dante Via is a solution that allows you to take any of your audio soundcards and a computer, and route them over a Dante network; so it could go to other Dante-enabled hardware, it could also go to another computer that has Dante Via on it.

A year ago at the show we demonstrated it and the user interface was Dante Controller; while that is the most widely adopted digital networking management controller, we also felt that as this opens up markets down to a broader horizontal market we wanted a different user interface. So we contracted with a firm that specialises in UX development, and really helped customise a brand new user interface – a drag-and-drop interface. We made the decision a year ago to really do this in a way that made it easy for a person in a day-to-day environment to utilise it, who may not have IT skills.

What can you tell me about the next steps for Audinate and Dante?

One of the things we always strive to do is get feedback from the market, in terms of what people want next. The feedback we get is that they want our products to go in a wide offering of cost-effective implementations. We released various versions of Ultimo over the last 12 months, we released a high-channel version with Dante HC, but now a lot of the end users are saying, ‘How can I improve some of the management capabilities that I have in it?’

One of the things we see as very important is the ability to distribute across wide area networks and multiple subnet domains. So we are working on things that allow you to build more scalable systems than you could do before, in an easier way.

For more on Audinate and Dante networking