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Can the AIMS Alliance bring clarity to the IP debate?

Find out why some of the audio companies joined

Less than six months after it was established, the AIMS Alliance for IP Media Solutions has already made a significant impact on the broadcast technology community. David Davies speaks to some of the audio member companies about their reasons for joining – and wonders if the Alliance can bring clarity to the oft-confusing IP debate

“I would say that we are an organisation that sits beneath other groups who are developing or promoting IP standards, and helps to encourage their adoption throughout the broadcast industry.” That’s AIMS Alliance for IP Solutions chairman Michael Cronk’s capsule summary of the primary objectives of a group which has made a substantial impact on the broadcast IP revolution since it was launched a mere six months ago.

Although attendance at broadcast industry conferences over the last 12 months has tended to point to a variety of viewpoints regarding how long the transition from legacy SDI to IP might actually take, the AIMS Alliance is taking a proactive approach by promoting the use of a number of existing standards. These include the Video Services Forum’ TR-03 (Transportation of Uncompressed Elementary Stream Media over IP) and TR-04, SMPTE 2022-6 (enabling SDI signals to be transported over IP using the Real-Time Transport Protocol and – most pertinently to the audio community – the AES67 interoperability standard for existing AoIP technologies.

Cronk – who is also vice-president core technology at Grass Valley – confirms that AES67 will be “integral” to audio’s future within broadcast IP workflows. “It is written in stone in our roadmap,” he says. “We see that the broadcast community is adopting [audio-over-IP interoperability standard] AES67, and one of the aspects we are working on is determining which are the operating points in the broadcast workflow within AES67.” Nonetheless, he readily acknowledges that several key aspects – notably discovery and registration, and connection management – “are important pieces of the puzzle that are not covered” by this standard and which will need to be addressed in the future.

AIMS personnel, including Cronk, are acutely aware that the general messaging around IP hasn’t always been coherent. Hence a simple communication of objectives has been a crucial plank of the organisation’s efforts to date – and the success of that approach has been borne out by rapid membership in recent months. At the time of writing, there are 21 full members listed on the AIMS website – ranging from leading vendors such as Grass Valley, Evertz, Lawo and Sony, to content producers including 21st Century Fox – as well as 11 associate members.

At present, there are three audio vendors in the group – Avid, Lawo and the Telos Alliance. PSNEurope spoke to two of them, along with Germany-based systems integrator Broadcast Solutions, about their reasons for joining the AIMS Alliance – and the problems that still lie ahead as we move into an IP-based future.

‘Convergence is essential’

For Avid VP market solutions Alan Hoff, the work of AIMS dovetails neatly with the continuing adoption of its MediaCentral Platform for file-based workflows. “We believe that converging on an industry-wide open standard for moving professional media streams across IP networks is essential to the future of the industry. We liked the approach that AIMS and the VSF have taken –¬ incorporating proven existing standards and promoting consistent interoperable implementations across the industry,” says Hoff.

In terms of audio specifically, AIMS’ support of AES67 is “fantastic in that it bridges multiple legacy audio-over-IP formats, so we can move forward as an industry in an open, interoperable fashion without losing the investments already made in legacy techniques.” But Hoff also acknowledges that there are plenty of challenges to be overcome, not least with regard to contrasting manufacturer implementations.

“It is encouraging that so many vendors have now aligned with AIMS and, therefore, VSF TR-03,” he says. “But now we face the challenge of converging on interoperability between implementations from literally dozens of vendors. This is a good challenge to face because it shows the traction AIMS and TR-03 have now in the industry, but it is going to take work for TR-03 implementations to be ‘plug and play’ compatible.

“The other challenge we are working on now is synchronisation. Because TR-03 carries audio and video in separate streams, which is the most efficient method, we must all approach timestamping and sync recovery in the same fashion or else we will have major A/V sync issues.

“This is all properly specified in TR-03 which leverages PTP timestamping in accordance with SMPTE 2059, but again the trick is going to be getting everyone in the ecosystem to implement timestamping and sync recovery in a consistent, interoperable way.”

‘Logical step’

Putting the decision to join AIMS in an historical context, Martin Dyster – business development, TV, vice-president at Telos Alliance company Linear Acoustic – describes it as “entirely logical step” given a track-record of IP product development that reaches back to 2003 and the release of AoIP protocol Livewire. He also points out that AIMS’ objectives “might be considered allied to the Media Networking Alliance, whose members seek to promote the adoption of AES67 as the most appropriate interoperability mechanism for AoIP in both pro-audio and broadcast.”

Notes Dyster: “We have a wealth of experience and expertise to offer within AIMS. Equally, there is a great deal that we can learn from our new partner companies within the organisation who focus on the video side of the market.”

But like Hoff, Dyster is aware that there is much work to be done in clearing “the confusion in the market regarding the different AoIP protocols and where AES67 fits into the picture. Manufacturers will always listen to their customers first, and rightly so, but it is incumbent upon all of us to promote the idea of interoperability so that the adoption of AoIP into broadcast workflows is not influenced by a specific protocol which in turn restricts the end-users’ choice of products.”

Then there is the support that will need to be given to broadcast engineers as they negotiate the increasingly pressing requirement to add IT capabilities to their skillsets. “As somebody who has previously spent over two decades designing and installing broadcast systems around the world without giving AoIP even a passing thought, my learning curve has been steep and I’m certainly nowhere near the summit, in fact I’m not sure I’m much further than base camp yet,” Dyster admits. “Fortunately, the incoming generation of engineers have grown up with IT as a second language and for them, configuring a Cisco switch is probably as close to second nature as configuring a mixing console is to me.”

‘Urgent need for standardisation’

Based in Bingen am Rhein, Germany, Broadcast Solutions is Europe’s largest OB van manufacturer and system integrator for broadcast facilities, DSNGs, fixed up- and downlink stations, and mobile satellite communications solutions. The decision to join AIMS, says CEO Stefan Breder, is in line with a belief that there is “an urgent need for standardisation in the migration process towards IP. With our AIMS membership we like to support and participate actively in this goal, and we are very much looking forward to our membership and to supporting the standardisation process in the shift from SDI to IP.”

As more vendors and service providers look to adopt IP-based infrastructures, latency and synchronisation issues will come increasingly to the fore. “Low latency networks or networks with constant time delays for lip-sync or monitoring are necessary. To achieve them we would need separate networks for audio over IP to secure clocking and to define network paths for separate packets, thereby achieving synchronicity and avoiding clock skew. But this in a way would contradict the basic idea of using IP infrastructure. On the other hand, using existing or shared IP infrastructures’ Quality of Service is paramount, but again this results in other problems.”

Then there are the expectations that are likely to result from “special audio services like immersive sound that the media experience of 4K/UHD or High Dynamic Range [HDR] promise, and which will require broadcasters to make further changes.”

The extent to which the emerging ‘next generation’ of broadcast audio will require unprecedented levels of upskilling and infrastructural renewal is only beginning to become clear. In this context, it is to be hoped that the AIMS Alliance will provide some welcome uniformity to a debate that has hitherto been worryingly diffuse at times.

Top pic: Michael Cronk, AIMS Alliance for IP solutions chairman. Second pic: Networking collaboration in action at NAB. Third pic: Alan Hoff, Avid. Fourth pic: Martin Dyster, vice-president at Telos Alliance. Last pic: Stefan Breder, CEO of Broadcast Solutions