03.08.11

The rise of the media network

AUTHOR: Inavate

Chris Fitzsimmons attempts to keep pace with the rapid developments now taking place in digital audio networking.

This could well be the last time that InAVate includes an article entitled digital audio networks. It’s the firm belief of this writer that the next one will be called digital media networks, or something similar

So what’s my reasoning for this sudden conviction? It’s based on nothing more than an observation that very rapidly the audio companies are adopting the trappings and practices of other network product companies, and at the same time subtly changing the language they use to describe their systems.

Take QSC for example. When I asked Richard Zwiebel, the company’s VP of systems strategy, why the company had chosen to develop its own technology (Q-Sys) instead of adopting one of the other existing networking technologies he responded: “We felt that it was important to go with Gigabit Ethernet and to be able to run over IP networks (layer 3) as that is where the rest of the networking industry is.”

That final phrase is the one that particular catches the eye – “the rest of the networking industry”. It tells you everything you need to know about where the major audio players are heading.

For now though, we’re still talking about digital audio networks.

There is potential confusion about what exactly these networks are, and what they consist of. To clarify: Audio networking requires three separate components – network standards, interoperability and control architecture.

A network standard defines how devices will work on a network, what protocols are used to manage the flow of data and ensure that the right data gets to the right place at the right time and that the data is structured in a certain way.

Interoperability requires that networked devices can discover and recognise each other so that they can exchange the data. Control architecture defines how one device will respond to a parameter change transmitted from another device.

In the past the first component has been the headline area. Network standards such as Cobranet and Ethersound have been around a long time, and delivering audio signals and interoperability. Provided you had a Cobranet card in your device, you could expect it to share information and audio data with other Cobranet devices. However, the control element has historically been more problematic.

What has tended to happen is that on top of Cobranet or Ethersound the various vendors developed their own control protocols to handle their particular products. Whether it was Tannoy’s VNet, the  Harman group’s HiQNet or QSC’s Basis solution they all allowed you to control devices over the network.

However, in the meantime networks have moved on. With Gigabit Ethernet came more bandwidth and the potential for many more channels of audio and control down the wires. During this shake-up, which coincided with a general convergence of AV and IT, the landscape has changed significantly. Instead of looking for solutions that are good for audio networking, manufacturers are now seeking to offer products that fit in the context of a venues wider networking solution. Hence the adoption of Layer 3 networking technologies by QSC and Audinate (in Dante) and the moves by the AVB group towards Layer 3 in later releases.

So what exactly are the solutions that make up this so-called second generation of digital audio works.

The first out of the blocks was QSC-Audio, armed with a large amount of the brains behind Cobranet the company released Q-Sys, a home grown Gigabit Networking solution capable of being run over standard IP networks using standard hardware from the likes of HP and Cisco.

Taking the idea of standard hardware even further, the company eschewed the common practice of running its control and processing on DSP chips, and instead opted to use Intel server-class processors.

One of the chief advantages of this is pointed out by Richard Zwiebel: “With such high volume products, the processors keep becoming more powerful on the high end, and the costs drop for equal processing power. This allows our technology to become available in lower cost products over time. You can expect that this will result in both lower cost and more powerful products being introduced over time.”

Of course unless you’ve been completely ignoring pro audio for the last year or so, you will also have heard of AVB (Audio Video Bridging). This is the industry’s first real attempt for several years to bring an open, standards-based approach to the media networking conundrum. Instead of taking one of a number a proprietary transport mechanisms, a vendor specific control method and an interoperability solution based on your transport method, the aim is to create an IEEE-endorsed system for carrying audio and video signals over IP networks in real time.

When complete AVB will deliver both media transport, and interoperability via the suite of IEEE 802.1 group. Much of the work is done, with the remaining standard to be ratified being the device discovery element. This is covered in much more detail in June 2011’s edition of InAVate.

Despite the fact that the final standard is not yet ratified, 2011 has seen a flurry of activity from vendors around AVB.

Perhaps most significant thus far has been Biamp’s whole hearted adoption of the system in Tesira. Launched at InfoComm, Tesira is a fully scalable audio distribution and control platform based entirely on AVB technology.
To get around the missing device discovery and enumeration standards in AVB, Biamp has built its own mechanisms into Tesira, however VP of business development Matt Czyzewski was at pains to point out that Biamp remains committed to both AVNu and AVB.

“Part of being the in alliance, the reason we’re part of it, is that the Avnu Alliance is going to come out with interoperability and compatibility certification for AVB products. We’re committed to following those guidelines when they’re fully established and published so that we can test our products against them.”

It would be easy for vendors such as Biamp, Meyer Sound and the Harman group, who are all AVnu Alliance members to simply use AVB in their own systems, and never fully comply on interoperability but they all categorically state that this isn’t the route they want to go down.

Harman also came to InfoComm with its first AVB products. The BSS Audio / Netgear GS724T is one of the first Ethernet AVB switches available on the market, and the company also has AVB option cards for the dbx SC Digital Matrix Processors.

However, the glaring omission so far is an AVB implementation in the company’s flagship networking system Soundweb. Iain Gregory, the company’s market manager for installed sound, commented: “The question came up several times at InfoComm and the natural next step for Soundweb is open-architecture products featuring Ethernet AVB. The fact that more and more AV companies are joining the AVNu Alliance, investing in Ethernet AVB and announcing products further validates our existing development direction.”

The switching issue is one that other vendors are currently using to argue against pure AVB at the moment. As was already noted, QSC’s Q-Sys can take advantage of existing standard Ethernet Switching, as can the third major contender in the next generation stable – Dante.

On the face of it, it’s a more natural successor to the likes of Cobranet and Ethersound in that it’s not restricted to a single vendor. Instead, audio equipment manufacturers are licensing the technology from originator Audinate, to create interface cards and services for their products.

“Dante is really a product name for Audinate’s high performance media networking system. Some confusion arises when people wrongly identify Dante as just a transport, but there really are many protocols, software and hardware components working together inside a Dante solution.” These are the words of Dante’s CTO, Aiden Williams.

Since it’s announcement over two years ago, Dante has amassed a not inconsiderable list of over 25 partners and licensees. Interestingly, Audinate claims that Dante is 100% compatible with AVB, and also that it does certain things better.

Firstly it can operate on existing switches, so implementing it requires no new silicon on the IP network. Secondly, Dante already has the automatic discoverability and interoperability functionality that AVB currently lacks meaning that multivendor networks are already possible.

But given that, aren’t some of current Dante adopters at risk of using it as a stop-gap standard until AVB is “finished”. Aiden Williams believes not:

“We intend Dante to remain the industry-leading media networking solution and that naturally includes support for AVB. People choosing Dante as a “future proof” solution are expressing confidence in Audinate’s ability to deliver an easy to use media networking system supporting AVB. That means Dante isn’t a “stepping stone” to something else – it is a media networking solution that’s evolving over time.

“I suspect people may also think of future proofing more broadly as a risk minimisation exercise.  Dante products can run on existing network infrastructure, but as we know, AVB requires new Ethernet switches.  As yet, it is still unclear when the majority of Ethernet switches will support AVB.  Our customers can “future proof” or de-risk their products and/or deployments by choosing a Dante solution, which they can be sure will run on whatever network equipment is specified, yet still take advantage of AVB support when it is available.”

Amongst the significant licensees of Dante is Peavey. MediaMatrix for a long time set the standard for a digital audio networking solution. It was built on Cobranet to start with, but it is now also capable of running audio over Dante as the system moves into the Gigabit Ethernet age. 

One of MediaMatrix’s strong points has always been its control and processing flexibility and Peavey’s Kevin Ivy, general manager for MediaMatrix emphasised that at InfoComm. It already possesses the flexibility to interface with other aspects of building systems thanks to its nWare software.

Peavey is also looking to introduce more cost effective versions of its processing units including the NionNE, which continues the trend of the falling cost of processing power being passed on to the user.

Perhaps most significant addition to the Dante stable is Bosch Communication Systems.

The group, which includes Bosch Security Systems, Electro-Voice, Dynacord and Telex, recently announced its next generation digital audio solution, Omneo.

“Omneo is a technology that is intended to address the complete issue of media network device interoperability. This is the topic of much discussion in the industry at this time; however, much of the discussion is focused on the topic of transport for media content. We believe that this is only half of the interoperability equation. Interoperability of control and device intelligibility is equally important for a complete solution,” said a spokes person for the company.

Firstly Bosch has announced, that it will be using Audinate’s Dante to provide standards-based routable IP media transport. The second element, the control element, will be addressed by an open development of the AES-24 protocol architecture. Named OCA, for open control architecture, it will be finalised by the OCA Alliance, of which Bosch Communications Systems is a member.

Bosch also gave four reasons for the selection of Dante:

“Firstly, Bosch use cases require IP-based, routable media transport that can run over both AVB and non-AVB networks, and Dante is an industry leader in fulfilling this requirement; secondly, Omneo is an open, standards-based solution, and Audinate is committed to the same for Dante. Thirdly, Audinate was willing to engage in custom interface engineering required for the Omneo implementation. Finally we were impressed with the company’s knowledge, skills and ability to execute,” continued the spokes person.

The first products incorporating Omneo technology will be available in 2012, but these may not include OCA functionality – the draft of that standard is expected to be submitted to a standards body no later than the end of Q2 2012.

We are currently in an incredibly exciting period for the audio industry at the moment. The potential for Dante and AVB eventually deliver a unified, open approach to audio networks is enormous, and the OCA Alliance has the chance to deliver the remaining missing link – a shared control specification. If the dream is realised, audio vendors could perhaps return to differentiating not on what kinds of network they run sound over, but how their speakers and amplifiers perform.