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“Turnkey” systems vs DIY software and hardware combos – which is best?

Over the last few years, a growing number of systems used in broadcast and post production have migrated from being custom manufactured hardware, to software solutions running on relatively standard computer platforms. This has opened the door for broadcasters to construct their own hardware solutions on which to run that software, but what are the Pros and Cons compared to buying a complete “turnkey” system from a manufacturer?

MCR

We asked a number of experienced industry professionals for their views, who have backgrounds in engineering, management and systems integration. Martin Parsons is a veteran digital engineer formerly of The Mill and The Moving Picture Company, now CEO of Image Eyes Ltd. Adam Scott is General Manager of Spectrum Films in Australia, having previously worked with Foxtel and ABC in New York. Jurij Blazin is the Technical director of STN, (Satellite Telecommunications Network), a company that broadcasts hundreds of channels for its customer TV stations. Vladimir Stanic is the General Manager of manufacturer and global systems integration company PBT EU (PlayBox Technology Europe Ltd).

The Pros and Cons

One of the strongest points in favour of the DIY (“Do it yourself”) route is the ability to “cherry pick” exactly the right hardware for a particular application. Most solutions comprise of some form of “off the shelf” computer, running an operating system with the chosen software application, supported by additions such as video input/output boards, graphics accelerators and networking facilities. Media storage is then added as required.

Martin Parsons sees the advantages of being able to create a custom solution; “A turnkey solution might not be the “best of breed” solution that you get from a non-turnkey or open solution where you can choose each of the components to be the best available. You can choose each component to be exactly suitable for your needs and not be over-designed and over-priced accordingly.”

Vladimir Stanic, GM of PBT EU, EXEcutor™ Copyright PBT EU

Vladimir Stanic, General Manager of PBT EU (PlayBox Technology Europe Ltd)

Cost advantages with DIY builds are clearly an attraction, as each component can be purchased at the best price and operational costs can also be lower if the customer is able to take advantage of more flexible options, as Adam Scott points out; “The ability to turn on/off applications, work on a subscription or floating license model, allows your business to be more elastic with processing/expansion and makes it very attractive.”

However, as PBT EU’s Vladimir Stanic suggests, some of the perceived cost advantages of making a DIY platform aren’t quite as they seem. “It takes a great deal of time to research each of the components, check for compatibility, compare with others and so forth, and it is important to factor in these costs when making a comparison.”

Compatibility between components is a very big issue for the DIY builder to deal with. Individual components might simply not work together, or worse, generate seemingly random and sporadic faults and crashes that are notoriously hard to track down. Martin Parsons recognises the risk; “A problem with an open solution is that it might not be interoperable, in other words, all the component products might not work well with each other as they come from different manufacturers. The individual components in a turnkey product from a single manufacturer should be totally interoperable as they will have been designed to be so.” It is a concern to the DIY builder that if they do happen across compatibility issues – which manufacturer do they then go to for support? Each component is likely to be correctly functioning on its own – or at least, so its manufacturer will say and the blame-shifting will begin resulting in delays!

It is certainly true to say that a key advantage of a turnkey system is that it will have been subjected to a great deal of testing in real-world applications. These should have trapped and corrected any issues of component compatibility. PBT EU make a range of broadcast servers called “EXEcutor”. On the face of it, these can be perceived as computers that run server software, but Vladimir Stanic highlights the intense level of stringent research and testing that goes into the manufacturing process as a turnkey solution which means they are so much more than just a computer that can be easily self-built. “A broadcast server is more than a mere melting pot of hardware components with a bit of software thrown in, there is so much more involved. There is an immense amount of R&D work, integration adoption, countless hours of testing and compliance verification operations that takes place. A great number of different manufacturers and technological providers are also involved in the process, which result in a complete product designed to be the very heart of a TV station.”

EXEcutor™ Broadcast Servers, Copyright PBT EU July 2016

Vladmir further points out,” PBT EU’s EXEcutor production line is a result of stringent detailed research and testing for deployment including warranties with clear RMA procedures, reaction times with assurance that replacements required are always trackable. Included in the complete solution, is our dedicated 24-hour technical support accessibility for the final product covering both the software and hardware components – in summary, everything is taken care of by one company, in one place, making it so much easier for the customer.”

Ongoing support and training are also issues for the DIY builder to consider. A turnkey manufacturer will know exactly what the customer is aiming to achieve with their purchase, whereas the manufacturers of individual computer hardware are unlikely to have any specialist knowledge of the demands of the broadcast industry or have the broader picture in context. The commercial success of a new installation is not just related to its technical reliability. It is also related to how that system is encompassed into the general workflow of the customer’s company. Success in this area will have a lot to do with aftersales support and user training, both of which lend the advantage to the turnkey solution.

STN Facility antenna

STN Facilities

Satellite Telecommunications Network (STN) is a heavy user of broadcast servers, offering playout facilities for hundreds of global television broadcasters. As such, they are very well placed to weigh up the advantages of home-grown technology versus the offerings of many turnkey manufacturers. Technical Director Jurij Blazin explains, “STN’s teleport in Slovenia currently handles several hundred TV channels being received from and transmitted to, all parts of the globe. A significant number of customers have a need to use our playout services, where they can upload their content, add graphical detail and set a playlist schedule for transmission. We’ve seen significant growth for playout facilities in recent years. Finding the right equipment to meet their needs at a cost that works within their business case requirements is always a challenge.”

Jurij Blazin

Jurij Blazin, Technical director of STN, (Satellite Telecommunications Network)

STN chose PBT EU’s EXEcutor range of broadcast servers, after considering all available options. Jurij explains, “From a technical point of view, the PBT EU EXEcutor broadcast equipment is easy to install and operate for our clients and we already have quite a number co-located in our facility. Also, PBT EU provides our customers with a training course which serves to enable the customers to come to terms with the operation of the equipment in a very short space of time. This enables our customers to work much quicker with our service offering. For example, one of our customers uses more than 25 units for their SD and HD playout systems with virtually no interaction required from our operational team on a day to day basis. The system is fully operated remotely by the client with STN purely providing hands and eyes for support.”

Clearly, training and support were a major deciding factor for STN. But perhaps the overriding factor when deciding whether to go the DIY or turnkey route is about reliability, or more specifically, how “mission critical” is the application under consideration? Perhaps for non-critical applications, the DIY route, with its inherent bespoke tailoring and limited costs could be the way to go. But for applications upon which an enterprise relies, such as the broadcast servers employed by STN, the turnkey route is likely to be the preferred one.

If nothing else, the old maxim “No one got fired for buying IBM” could apply. No matter how good the intentions are of an engineer who comes up with a creative hardware/software solution in-house to save costs, the issue arises that if that system becomes the reason why a TV station goes off-air, the same engineer is in for a very difficult meeting with the boss!

PBT EU’s Vladimir Stanic concludes, “The difference in price between the original turnkey solution versus non-turnkey is insignificant compared to the risk of building your own broadcasting system equipment, and facing huge expensive risks when problems arise. My advice is that customers should honestly evaluate the risk of loss due to a system failure and factor that into the debate about choosing DIY compared to the more stable turnkey route.”

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