A NAP is essential in the move to IP

By Peter Schut | CTO Axon

Switching to IP is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges faced by today’s broadcast industry because it demands such revolutionary and radical changes in technology. After five years of debating this issue most people now agree that IP is a logical step forward and are willing to countenance a move towards a fully IP future. However, one burning issue remains – how will broadcasters overcome the problems that arise when trying to integrate and control increasingly complex technology layers, while still providing guaranteed bandwidth performance for new formats such as UHD?

When the IP debate started there were some differences in standards and, as an industry, we certainly underestimated the complexities this caused. The gap between new and old technologies was confusing and the issue of standardization was not at all clear. No wonder, then, that people were running in numerous directions as they tried to find a workable path through this maze. Thanks to the sterling work carried out by AIMS, final standards have been agreed and we do now have a way forward that ensures we are all moving in the same direction. This is a big help because it addresses the needs of broadcasters who are heading towards a pure native IP infrastructure as well as those who are want a hybrid environment that allows them to mix old technology with new.

We spent several years migrating Synapse, our existing glue equipment, into an IP infrastructure before we realized that moving to 25 Gig and 100 Gig environments needed an entirely different type of infrastructure, so we set about developing just that. The result of our R&D effort is an entirely new concept known as a Network Attached Processor, or NAP. Rather than building a broadcast infrastructure out of small, independent pieces of hardware that you would historically call ‘glue’, NAP allows you to adopt a larger, more centralized (or decentralized) processing unit that performs all the tasks undertaken by smaller ‘glue’ products and combines them into one larger and highly configurable design.

Axon’s first NAP product is Neuron, which was successfully launched at IBC 2018. Developed to address the needs of complex IP and hybrid environments, this next generation signal processing platform not only sets the standard for the industry but it also packs a powerful punch by supporting 200 Gb/s and 64 channels or 16 UHD channels in a single rack unit.

FPGA semiconductor devices have always been at the heart of Axon’s development – indeed you could call them our specialty. I’m confident that, for at least the next five years, the industry will be using them to reach the next level. Doing what we do on an FPGA is not very efficient for a CPU and I wouldn’t expect an off-the-shelve CPU based server to be capable of performing the task of a NAP. The FPGA we use in Neuron is the biggest we could find because that is what was needed to provide such impressive processing power and efficient connectivity to legacy SDI/IO. Don’t worry, we will fill it up – and once we do, it will do a lot!

As media production increasingly moves from a hardware-centric to an application-based approach and mixed CAPEX/OPEX business models are adopted, the scalability and performance offered by Neuron will enable the flexible delivery of different types of production, thus opening up further opportunities for broadcasters and delivering significant savings both in terms of space and budgets. This ability to do more with less space is really the main difference between a new generation processing platform like NAP and traditional glue systems. For broadcasters heading to a pure native IP infrastructure, Neuron is extremely efficient ‘modular glue’ in a centralised and virtual environment, with no requirement to physically cascade products. All processing tasks needed in a live and baseband video domain are virtualized inside the box, giving customers the option of interconnecting processors in any order they want without running different cables. 90% of the processing – for example up and down conversion, frame syncs, logo inserters etc – is the same as before, and that all stays. The only difference is that it is now being carried out across multiple channels in one single device.

Another key reason why we developed NAP and Neuron is to assist those broadcasters who are not yet ready to commit fully to IP and want to get there via a hybrid path.  It is clear that deployment of COTS switches and CPU-based hardware has failed to provide the functionality present in SDI routers such as embedding, de-embedding, up, down, cross frame synchronization and multi-viewers. Neuron seamlessly bridges that gap by providing impressive processing power with efficient connection to legacy SDI I/O. By bundling SDI technology into an IP platform, all audio and video processing tasks are managed with ultra-high bandwidth. Up to 80 SDI connectors can be added in that same 1RU, making it one of the most space-efficient, cost-effective and energy-efficient processing devices available today.

We envisage that Neuron will initially be used as a pure network processing device or as a bridging processing device, connecting the legacy SDI world to the new world. Looking to the future Axon’s next step is to add a multiviewer, audio processing in various standards such as DANTE, AES67 and MADI, compressed signals and analysis tools for the entire IP infrastructure. This gives us a grow path that allows us to meet all the processing needs of the new IP environment.

Since launching Neuron at IBC, we’ve been overwhelmed with support from clients, many of whom are pioneers in IP production. Euro Media Group (EMG), a leading provider of broadcasting and audio-visual services, announced at the show that it was adopting Neuron as part of its strategic move towards harmonized IP media production and immediately ordered 10 systems to manage IP signal processing and provide SDI to IP gateways in new OB trucks that are set for rollout in 2019. This supports EMG’s OBjective 2020 strategy: a program focused on the design and delivery of modular, scalable IP-based media production across its European group. Endorsements like this make us very confident that in Neuron we have found a solution to both ease and accelerate the move to IP – particularly in sports production where its guaranteed bandwidth performance will support the rollout of new formats including 8K.