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Networking protocols: Does open beat proprietary?

Bosch's Ethan Wetzell discusses this and whether there'll be a 'winner' in the battle of the networking protocols.

We pick the brain of Bosch’s Ethan Wetzell to find out whether open beats proprietary and if he thinks there’ll be a winner in the battle of the networking protocols.

How well do you think the capabilities (and limitations) of the current array of networking protocols are understood by the average AV integrator? (Do you have any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to back this up?)

While the environment is significantly better today than it was even a couple of years ago, I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding about media networking. One the one hand, some think that it is much more complex and limiting than it is while others think that it is simpler than it is. I think a lot of this confusion in the market comes from the fact that the general networking and IT ecosystem is much broader and more complex than the pro-audio world and there is a whole lot of new technology that people need to learn. At the same time, I find that people frequently get wrapped up in discussions about protocols and specific standard revisions and miss the forest for the trees. Ultimately, it’s all about whether a given solution is going to solve the problem that you are facing; the same logic that goes into deciding if a project needs a linearray or a 70V distributed system needs to be applied to the selection of a transport and control architecture. Just as a designer has needed to understand the different options and methods for analog distribution, that same rigour and nuance needs to be applied to networkable solutions. As an industry, we need to continue to provide this information to our customers – and make sure that we tell it like it is, good, bad, and otherwise.

Do you believe that open systems are always to be preferred over proprietary ones, or is there something to be said for proprietary solutions designed for specific needs?

From an ideal perspective, an open and standardised solution provides the broadest choice, lowest risk, and best ROI for designers, customers, and manufacturers alike. That said, standards take time to develop and make their way into the market and customers may find themselves in the situation where they need to choose between the ideal solution tomorrow and the one they can purchase and implement today. In the end, a standard itself doesn’t provide the value directly – it is the implementation of the standard and the resulting ecosystem that ultimately drive the benefit. Speaking for Bosch, we are huge proponents of open standards and this is reflected through our work with the AES, IEEE, Avnu Alliance, OCA Alliance, and other bodies that work on these standards. We really believe that these standards will drive long-term value for our industry. We believe in setting the foundations for the standardised solutions of tomorrow while providing the solutions for today by implementing standards-based solutions like OCA and Dante that are able to adapt and evolve as new standards come into, and are adopted by, the industry.

Do you think there will be an eventual ‘winner’ in the battle of networking protocols, or do you think that different approaches will always need to be taken in different vertical sectors?

This is a difficult question to answer simply because the target we are aiming at is constantly shifting. I always try to look at these problems through the eyes of the customers and the kinds of challenges that they face on a daily basis. The reality is that the complexity of projects and integration continues to expand at an ever-increasing pace. As we watch the increasing convergence of IT, audio, video, and control we are now beginning to see new verticals intertwining with “our world” of AV. Additional elements such as security, building control, the IoTS, and others are becoming increasingly integrated with installed systems. This ever-expanding integration results in the vertical silos eroding from a customer’s perspective – but not necessarily from a technical perspective. At least not yet. This is one more reason that standards become increasingly important – they provide our industry with tools and options to address these evolving needs and technologies.

How far away do you think we are from total multi-vendor plug-and-play interoperability?

This totally depends on what is actually meant by “plug-and-play”. If I want to plug several different manufacturers’ equipment together and move audio around then we have this today with solutions like Dante or AVB, albeit with some caveats and limitations, such as network topology and hardware. So what’s next? Plug and play to exchange audio over any kind of network, wired or wireless, LAN or WAN? What about control and discovery of devices? What about the software interfaces for controlling all of those devices? What kind of devices should talk to each other and why- will a air conditioning unit become aware of a large format digital mixer on the network? If so, to what end and what value does that provide to a customer in a given application? I think that while those questions may sound a bit negative, they actually reveal the power and possibilities that networked systems provide. I think to ultimately set a target of what we define today as a “plug-and-play” system is actually a disservice to the possibilities that can be explored when looking at integrated solutions. By setting that target, we are sort of saying “once we get to this point, we’re done” and I think that we need to be constantly looking to the future needs that our industry is going to face and our customers will find valuable. Different products and applications will arrive at the “plug-and-play” goal at different times, but that term is going to mean different things to different people.

Tell us about a recent installation that your company has been involved in that demonstrates its capabilities in audio transport/networking.

 I have seen our customers come up with many impressive and interesting projects that have utilised media networks, but one of my recent favourites was an installation of an RTS intercom system utilising our OMNEO media networking architecture at Microsoft Production Studios (pictured). This project incorporated products from many different manufacturers into a system used for public address, broadcast, recording, and intercom across multiple facilities and locations. There were two things that really struck me about this. First, the designer was able to focus on selecting the right product for a given role once the barrier of interoperability was removed. This meant that products were selected based on their features not what “language” they spoke. I think that’s a great thing for customers and manufacturers alike. The second thing that struck me was the incredible creativity that the designer, John Ball, was able to put into the system design and implementation. He came up with some very clever solutions and applications for products that were suddenly made possible through this new level of interoperability across products. This was a great example of the creativity and new solutions that people are able to realise with such highly integrated products and technologies.