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Integrating Video and Multimedia Into Your Services

To keep pace with the changing demographics of worshippers, worship facilities are increasingly incorporating video and other multimedia content into their services. In addition, to reach beyond the facility, a growing number of churches and other religious institutions have turned to television and Internet broadcasts as a way to distribute everything from regular services and special events to dramatic programming, talk shows, news, and documentaries.

The increasing use of rich media within worship services and the growing desire to “broadcast” their content to a wider audience means that religious institutions need to deploy new multimedia production and storage tools. Regardless of how media content will be used, these facilities need to use tools that allow them to cost-efficiently capture, modify, store and deliver their content. Many worship facilities are exploring new digital content workflows based on professional tools that allow for the production of the high-quality services and programming that their audiences demand.

The use of rich media, particularly high-quality video content, typically requires systems that are optimized for the ingest, storage and playout of media content. While this may sound straightforward given the growing ability to view video content on standard PCs, it becomes more complex when multiple sources need to be recorded, synchronized and played back as a continuous video signal such as would be the case for a local broadcast of a worship service or the integration of multiple video elements into a church service. It also becomes more complex when material that has been recorded needs to be accessed by various production tools (like video editors).

For an existing worship facility looking to deploy new multimedia platforms for the first time, the task of identifying the right production, storage and delivery technologies can be daunting. Fortunately, the platforms needed to store and deliver high quality audio and video content are readily available, having been used within the television and video production communities for several years. These systems are robust, reliable and because they are based on common information technologies (IT), they are becoming increasingly cost-effective. One such system being used by a growing number of worship facilities is the media server.

The media server has become the foundation for a wide range of production and broadcast operations today because of its ability to record and play back video content frame-accurately and in real-time. This means that in addition to the dramatic time and cost savings that users realize in moving from a tape-based system to a digital workflow, the media server system provides a new level of flexibility in capturing, storing and delivering video material.

The use of a media server not only can simplify the process of recording and playing back video content, it also can provide a single, shared repository for content, allowing multiple users and applications to all have access to the same material. This means that production tools needed to prepare content for worship services, Web sites or broadcast programming can all access material that has been recorded into the system. Having a server system that is connected to a standard network simplifies sharing of resources across a facility for faster, more efficient editing; enables easy insertion of dynamic promos and transitions; and serves as a reliable playout source for broadcast of church activities, whether live, pre-recorded, or a combination of the two.

The Basics: a Typical Media Server and Storage System
The basic demand of the media server is that it be able to take a video stream, encode it, store it and play it back out when demanded. A typical system consists of specialized hardware and software components connected by various networking technologies. Video inputs and outputs, central processing capability, and storage are the three key building blocks for a media server system. There are numerous aspects to look for when selecting the right server and storage platform for your facility.

Video Processing
Every media server needs to have encoding and decoding functionality that allows the system to record and play back video material. Essentially a space-saving technique, this process involves the conversion of a raw stream of video into a compressed file that takes up less storage space than would the collection of uncompressed bits that make up the original video stream. On the playback side, video files stored on the server’s storage disks are decompressed and played out as a baseband video signal.

Different encoding schemes are used to compress (encode) and decompress (decode) material as it moves in and out of the server. When selecting your server platform, it is important to ensure that the server is format-independent, which means it can simultaneously handle a range of formats including DV, DVCPRO, MPEG, IMX or ASI files. Be sure to look for a media server that does not store media files in a proprietary, closed format. Also, look for one that uses industry standard media wrapper technologies, like QuickTime or MXF, and that has the capacity to accept digital media in any format. This flexibility gives the ability to easily manage media from various sources.

A media server that is based on modular components will provide the most flexibility: at the time of initial installation the system can be configured exactly as needed, and over time it can be reconfigured as requirements change. Expanding the system should be as simple as plugging new components into the existing infrastructure, ideally without having to turn off or reboot the system.

Combining open format support with easy expandability is especially important with the emergence of high definition formats. Although many facilities may not need HD initially, it is important that any investment in server or storage technology be easily upgradeable to HD, without any forklift upgrade. Additionally, always require that your media server and storage platform have the ability to support both SD and HD material in the same file system.

System Processing
While encoders and decoders perform the actual task of capturing and playing back video material, it is the central processing component that ensures that data is properly managed within the system. Integral to the operation of the server, this module directs the flow of data between all of the various interfaces of a server: to and from storage disk drives; to and from the codecs; and to and from the outside world via standard networking.

A media server, unlike a traditional file server, e-mail server, or any general-purpose IT server, has a unique ability to work with a stream of media data linked to time. For real-time applications, the media server ensures that data is always accepted or delivered as required for the flawless recording or playback of video. This consistency is what allows a church production facility to record media from tape or camera and then reassemble that media as part of a playlist or video stream to be played out. The integrity of timing, or the timecode, facilitates the use of software applications and/or hardware-based switcher panels for precise record, jog, and shuttle functions, as well as accurate mark-in and mark-out points. These capabilities in turn give church production staff the tools required for smoother, sophisticated and engaging video broadcasts or presentations.

In addition to real-time data services, a media server system should also have standard network connections to allow access to the content stored in the system by other applications, such as editors and archive applications. Integrating both real-time and non-real-time access in a single system is a key requirement for a cost-effective media server and gives a church production staff the ability to share a common platform for all recording, production and playout activities.

One way that many worship facilities can save money on their digital media infrastructure is to choose a platform that can support both production and playout instead of buying separate systems for each. To get the most of your investment in media server and storage technology, look for one that provides an open file system, easily accessible by a range of editing platforms. Being able to mount the file system using Samba and CIFS for Windows PCs and AFP (Apple File Protocol) for Macintosh PCs ensures that your investment in server storage will be easily and directly accessible to virtually any editing application. There’s no need to make separate investments in storage for playout and storage for production when you can have it all in one platform.

Open Storage
The third essential component of a media server system is disk-based storage. All media servers have some type of storage, either a small pool of direct attached storage or a more scalable and higher performing SAN (Storage Area Network). SAN-based media servers allow for easy scalability of the amount of storage capacity and provide the access bandwidth needed for large digital media files. In a production environment, having the ability to retrieve material from a central shared pool of storage is a must, and this is best served by a media server that has scalable storage. Likewise, the server must have an open file system that allows external applications to easily access stored material. Media servers that support both SAN and NAS (Network Attached Storage) easily satisfy all the requirements for capacity, bandwidth and access. Ensuring that your media server and storage system provides access via industry standard protocols such as CIFS or AFP will allow any application to access (mount) the file system over the network as if it were a local connection.

Easy access to a file-based media library simplifies tasks such as editing and archiving and thereby frees up time to focus on the creative elements of the service or broadcast. The server becomes a shared repository accessible by multiple applications, so more content can be created more quickly by fewer people. Any media stored on the server may be retrieved, assembled and presented or delivered in a more timely fashion.

As you evaluate server and storage platforms, make sure that the storage capacity is easily expandable. One thing is certain – once you start storing content as digital media files, you will eventually need to expand the storage of your media server. The advantages of a file-based workflow are significant and many facilities are finding it more efficient to keep their content online once it has been ingested, rather than delete and re-ingest if needed at a later date. To support the ever-growing pool of digital media files, look for a media server that allows for new capacity to be easily added, without disruption to the ongoing operations of the system. Also, look for a server that can support multiple sizes and generations of disk drives. As disk drive technology continually improves, you don’t want to get stuck with a system that doesn’t let you add the very latest drives to an existing system.

As the primary storage for recorded media, the media server is the backbone of a robust and flexible production and playout infrastructure. When a church or similar institution is using video elements in a live worship service or broadcasting a previously recorded program to a viewing audience, the flexibility and reliability of this infrastructure are as important as they would be for any television station. The best media server system for any given worship facility is the system that streamlines the production workflow, offers a redundant and highly interoperable architecture, and serves as an unshakable foundation for future growth.