In the Land of Terabytes

Managers Must Consider New Issues When Shopping for Audio Storage Systems
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Managers Must Consider New Issues When Shopping for Audio Storage Systems

The rapid march of technology sends echoes reverberating through the broadcast industry, including the area of digital audio storage systems.

Just a few years ago, the merits of different audio compression schemes were being debated hotly, and the storage capacity of hard drives was measured in megabytes.

Times have changed. Managers need to weigh entirely different issues when looking at replacements for these systems. We checked several industry experts to comment on those issues.

Storage capacity

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years is in the storage capacity and reliability of hard drives.

Once specified in megabytes, or million-byte units, systems now are measured in terabytes. A TB is a unit of information storage equal to 1 trillion bytes.

For audio storage applications, a RAID - Redundant Array of Independent Disks - typically is used. This is an arrangement of several hard drives in the same system that act as if they were a single drive. The result is increased protection against drive failure.

Older SCSI controllers have been replaced by IDE controllers, meaning hard disks in RAID arrays are hot-swappable, adding even more reliability.

Gavin Lawrence, manager of BSI operations in the United Kingdom, notes that drives themselves are more reliable and affordable.

"Older drives had a mean time between failures of 6 to 9 months, but current drives have a MTBF of 13 years. At the same time, prices continue to drop."

Increased capacity and falling prices mean users essentially can purchase as much storage capacity as they need.

Compression of files?

Meanwhile, the debate over audio compression standards seems to be over.

According Ron Paley, co-founder of OMT/Media Touch, the advent of IBOC digital radio, with its requisite for unsurpassed audio quality, and the expansion of available storage space has made linear PCM the choice for most broadcasters. Dolby AC3 is a recently popular contender, Paley said.

Uncompressed audio easily can be converted to other standards when transmission over limited bandwidth becomes necessary. However, there are still a few places where compression will be necessary or acceptable, Lawrence said.

"64K MP3 files will continue to offer satisfactory performance for shortwave broadcasters, and compression may be used for transfer of data from rural sites."

Big and small

The needs of clusters and network operations are specific.

Mark Kalman, who heads Sirius Satellite Radio's engineering department, said, "Our system supplies 250 to 300 users, including workstations, on-air playout and in-office machines, and feeds over 100 radio stations."

The Sirius system has 8 to 9 terabytes of storage and contains hundreds of thousands of files. Many of the daily operations are automated, including the remote recording and playback of audio feeds.

"Our architecture contains primary and backup audio servers, primary and backup database servers and a network automatic rerounte feature for port failures. There are 120 playout servers with hot standbys."

If a playout server fails, the system automatically will switch to a hot standby, which will take the identity of the server that failed and route data to the proper destination. The entire system has been designed so that there is no single point of failure.

Kalman noted that the Sirius system survived the recent New York blackout without a glitch.

A phrase heard more often now is "asset management." As consolidation continues and media companies merge, radio broadcasters will face a growing need to store and retrieve other types of files from the database, such as graphics, still pictures, text, animations and video.

Tracking these resources requires an asset management system, which will index media and create meaningful metadata, encapsulated information about data, which is vital for future repurposing and usability.

Features to look for include voice recognition searching and audio-to-text conversion. Asset management systems have been available for several years, making inroads in large network television and multimedia operations, but they remain largely neglected by radio broadcasters.

'Info Viz'

As the number of assets stations must manage continue to grow, the current Graphical User Interface or GUI will become strained, and a more visual, less text-based means of displaying search results will become necessary, industry experts say.

At present, there is little cross-pollination between the worlds of asset management software and information visualization, the latter remaining in university research labs and military applications. This situation should change as the science of "info viz" matures and demand for a better interface increases.

Strategic planning

As managers contemplate purchases of digital storage systems, they need to compare features and try to anticipate future applications.

Paley said efficiency is a hot issue.

"The 'do more with less' maxim is only going to continue, and customers need to ask what new systems can do to make operations more efficient."

This ease-of-use factor should be considered from perspective of both the operator and the engineer. A "plug and go" installation may be desirable.

Jim Hauptstueck , resale products manager for Harris Corp's Broadcast Communications Division, said that as bandwidth explodes and demand for content increases, radio managers need to recognize their content as a valuable asset.

"When planning for new systems, managers need to understand that the value of content can more than double over time. It may be important to make a comparatively low capital expenditure now in order to capitalize on the opportunity to generate revenue down the road."

This is an area where taking the 50,000-foot view is important.

"Most broadcasters aren't thinking outside the box as much as possible. Today we use the technology to share talent and commercials between stations, but when you think about repurposing content, there are a lot of untapped opportunities out there."

Hard drive vs. Flash

Hard drives have been the de facto standard for mass storage and retrieval of data, but will they be a few years from now?

The buzz in IT trade publications and Web chat is centered on Flash memory, a technology that stores data in silicon chips and has no moving parts. It has made great strides, but industry experts remain skeptical.

"Flash technology will continue to gain acceptance for field recording applications," Hauptstueck said, "but won't be a serious contender for mass storage of audio any time soon."

Paley of OMT said that with a half-gigabyte capacity (and growing), chip technology holds great promise, but the long-term stability of the medium is still unknown.

Kalman of Sirius also has a wait-and-see attitude.

"There is a danger in being too cutting-edge. What's important for us is staying on the air. Flash has no proven track record for broadcast audio applications."

Backup and recovery

One point on which industry experts agree is the need for a formal disaster recovery strategy.

Some stress that many stations and groups don't seem to take this issue seriously. While the failure of hard drives themselves may be less likely, broadcasters should be prepared for natural disasters, fires, hacker attacks, employee sabotage or terrorist threats. Stations also need to consider that in the case of larger facilities, the value of the media assets can exceed the cost of the storage system.

Paley recommends a three-tiered strategy for recovery. First, operate twin servers for instant backup. Second, copy all data to workstations. Third, keep copies of all information off- site. He also urges users to keep key applications and data available on a notebook computer, which can be used to run the station in a pinch.

Hauptstueck urges users to consider full storage greater than 50 miles from the main site, and to account for the amount of time it would take for a full recovery of data. Although not part of the audio storage system, a backup generator and UPS should be the first line of defense against power outages.

Where do you see the science of audio storage headed? Tell us at radioworld@imaspub.com

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