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Opinion: Beware the AV over IP hype

Amid the inevitable hype about how AVoIP is the next big thing for the industry, we should be cautious, says Cabletime CEO Shaun Oxenham.

Last autumn the industry stood to attention when research into AV over IP (AVoIP) indicated that sales of encoder/decoder ports had increased by 130% year on year.

There is no doubt that advances in this technology have brought about a sea change in how companies deliver broadcast-quality content. Sales have risen exponentially as the benefits of AVoIP – including interoperability with other devices and the use of high bandwidth to ensure low latency – have grown, but this is a long-term, not a short-term trend.

Manufacturers who have been instrumental in the conception, design, build and installation of content distribution systems that can maximise the benefits of IP networks have been honing these skills for over 10 years.

Amid the inevitable hype about how AVoIP is the next big thing for the industry, we should be cautious. AVoIP is complex, and without proper consideration for the requirements that are needed when considering a content delivery implementation, mistakes can be made at the very earliest stage, which will not easily be put right later on.

Bandwidth concerns
AVoIP solutions are often very bandwidth hungry. Without compression, they can use the vast majority of the available bandwidth on the network. If content is only being streamed to a theatre, for example, or to one presentation screen in a meeting room or a reception area, this will not be a problem. But if a customer has thousands of displays and needs multiple, simultaneous streams, the only way that the content will be successfully delivered is if it is compressed. The question, therefore, is whether the AVoIP solution that has been specified can support that?

We live in data-rich times and companies want to make the most of the information at their fingertips. They want to add news tickers, build in a schedule, run a window with web content, or decrypt and manage their content. This is a challenge without taking up even more bandwidth, and that’s before the AVoIP system even starts to interact with other bandwidth-hungry devices.

This type of AVoIP is point to point, not point to multipoint, and this is where the differences lie. Point to multipoint solutions use multicast as their underlying enabling technology. Multicast allows data to be sent to large numbers of users over an IP network as a single transmission. It is bandwidth-conserving, rather than bandwidth-hungry, and it can save customers a huge amount of money. Capital costs are reduced because fewer servers are needed and operating expenditure is lowered because there is less burden on the network.

No compromise
Some of the world’s biggest companies have been using AVoIP for many years, and because of multicast, they have not had to compromise on network availability, redundancy or encryption because all of those concerns have been taken care of by the sophistication and engineering within the content distribution system.

Installing a broadcast-style content delivery service or effective digital signage is a major undertaking and most deployments are not simple or easy to set up. Of course, point to point AVoIP solutions provide a start, particularly for smaller installations, but regardless of size, the first question must always be: can the IP network cope with what the customer wants to do?

AVoIP is a journey and it has to keep up with how companies develop. This might mean expanding the number of servers and displays on their networks, migrating their solution into new locations, even overseas, or integrating it with new software. If the AVoIP system can scale, it will grow with them.

The way that AVoIP has evolved means moving from the transport layer and building deeper into the application layer. What specifiers, and customers need to understand, is that not every purported AVoIP solution can actually move beyond the transport layer.

The message, particularly with HDCP now becoming more enforced by broadcasters and content delivery networks, is to select an AVoIP system with one eye on the future. Consultants and integrators must ensure that their customers’ networks can sustain bandwidth-intense, high availability transport streams carried in MPEG2 across multiple subnets, vLANs and WANS. If the networks can’t do this, questions will be asked from the start.

AVoIP is a serious, long-term consideration for companies, so pick the solution wisely.