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The ins and outs of automation
Flexibility is the one word that comes to mind when thinking of today's automation systems. Today more than ever broadcasters need automation systems to adapt to their ever-changing needs. We are all accustomed to the needs of streaming, multicasting and remote access, but with bandwidth and storage prices continuing to fall, we need to start thinking about new needs. Now thoughts of content delivery, off-site backups and disaster recovery are becoming common. All of these items are becoming mission critical for today's broadcaster.
It doesn't seem that long ago that ripping a CD into an automation system was the cool new way to get content. Currently, however, companies such as Google and Ebay are delivering advertising and programming directly into automation systems. This is different than the method used with much success by companies such as DG Fastchannel, where a broadcaster could access a website and download an MP3 or WAV copy of the commercial he needed. These new systems monitor a station's unsold inventory and then insert it directly into a station commercial log. This is all, of course, done with some type of revenue-sharing agreement with the broadcaster. While these companies have met with some resistance from broadcasters, the concept appears to be here to stay.
In addition to advertising, programming elements are now starting to be delivered in an automated fashion as well. Several companies, such as Play MPE, are set up to automate delivery of music to stations. These companies are making available massive song libraries that can be accessed by stations and automation systems manually or in an automated fashion.
Not only is music content being delivered this way, but so is long-form programming. Data streams are replacing audio streams in the satellite world, and in some cases, Internet delivery is now being used instead of satellite delivery. It is becoming even more important to make sure a system has the ability to accept direct digital delivery of elements.
Now that you have all your audio, be it from local sources or remote ones it is important to store it safely and efficiently. One of the more popular storage options used in the IT world today, network-attached storage (NAS) is becoming very practical to use for radio automation. This method differs from traditional server-based storage in that an NAS can utilize many servers dedicated solely for storage, and it can share the load between these machines. This allows for incredibly quick access time, and because data is spread across more than one server, it provides an added level of safety. Most automation companies seem to be leaning toward a NAS system for audio and data storage. These systems, which were once only used by large IT infrastructures, are now widely available for use in other applications. The cost of these systems has come down greatly, as has the cost of storage in general, and as the IT and the broadcast worlds continue to blur, more advanced systems are becoming available to broadcasters.
NAS systems provide several benefits compared with traditional server storage. Availability of data can be increased with NAS because data access is not dependent on a single server. This also increases reliability. Transfer speed can also be increased because the NAS is delivering the data rather than server that is being called on for other functions. The performance of NAS systems does, however, depend on the speed of and traffic on the network. Scalability of an NAS is also greater than that of traditional server-based storage because it is not limited by the number of internal or external ports of a server's data bus, as a NAS device can be connected to any available network jack. If the server fails, there is unlikely to be file system corruption, although partially-created files may linger.
The boundaries between NAS and storage area networks (SAN) systems are also starting to overlap, with some products making the obvious next evolution and offering both protocols on the same system. Many new SAN systems allow duplication functionality, which allows for real-time duplication for the purposes of backup, disaster recovery or system duplication. With database systems, this can occur without downtime, and is geographically independent, primarily being limited by available bandwidth and storage.
Off-site backup and disaster recovery
Another benefit of ever-decreasing storage and data pipe costs is the ability to keep off-site backups of your library, logs and entire automation systems. Just about every system today includes its own or a third-party method of moving data between sites. When looking at this capability, it is important to find out if this happens in real time or at scheduled times throughout the day. This will help to determine the required bandwidth needs. It is becoming more important, however, to make sure that a system provides a real-time backup of all system files to another location. Not only is it important to back up music and commercials, but it is also important to back up daily logs, aired logs and configuration files.
While this may seem like an expensive undertaking, it doesn't have to be. With high-speed connectivity being offered in many forms today, both wired and wireless, and more broadcasters needing IP connectivity at the transmitter site, already it can be cost-effective. It is often possible to use an existing STL/TSL to provide this connectivity. There are widely available IP options for most modern STL systems that allow a broadcaster to not only transport audio but also data. This data pipe may already be in place for HD Radio services, RBDS or a host of other uses. With the proper allocation of this bandwidth, it is almost always possible to use some of it for a data backup path. If this is not realistic or practical, however, there are other options available. These range from low-cost DSL and cable modems to slightly more expensive T-1s or even bigger pipes if the budget allows.
Now that all the critical automation system data is being stored at an off-site location, it is important the station and the automation system do something useful with it. Broadcasters have always been charged with serving the community interest. One of the most important things a broadcaster can do to achieve this is stay on the air during an emergency. The public looks to the broadcaster to provide information updates and even a diversion at times during emergencies. This is when a station must have a disaster recovery plan in place. If you rely fully on a computer automation system to play all the audio and the main studios are inoperable, what do you do? This is where that off-site back up comes into play. Take the time to work with your automation maker to create a way to backup all the system-critical data and files to an off-site location, perhaps to a transmitter site, so the station has a place to relocate to and easily stay on the air.
Let's even take this one step further. If all the audio and data is at an off-site location and you have built a way to maintain IP connectivity, you can locally or remotely control everything and get information and audio on the air — even from another facility miles away, if necessary.
New technology that had been exclusive to the enterprise IT environment is now becoming a reality for broadcasters. These systems have been used for years with great success in other areas, and it is time for broadcasters to look seriously consider them. These new content delivery technologies can help improve workflow, and the storage technologies can help with reliability and disaster recovery. It is more important than ever to make sure the automation vendor you go choose can utilize the new IT technologies that broadcasters need to embrace.
Smith is president of JRS Broadcast Engineering, Monroe Twp., NJ.
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