If you’re reading this article, you’ve almost certainly heard about AV-over-IP, but may be wondering how it differs from other media we send over networks and the internet. We have Netflix and Spotify, so how is this any different? Isn’t it all audio and video streaming?
It’s an excellent question. Yes, we do have streaming services and technologies galore, but they all share a common theme: they are not delivered synchronously to endpoint clients at all. Latency is simply as large as it needs to be to accommodate the networks and the endpoints. These are not “real-time” systems, because they don’t need to be.
Secondarily, streaming technologies use codecs to reduce data volume, which compromises the content to some degree in order to ensure delivery under uncertain conditions. Streaming services are terrific as consumer products, delivering movies and music at “good enough” quality levels to all sorts of devices.
Brad Price is Senior Product Marketing Manager at Audinate
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AV-over-IP is the real-time transport of professional audio and video over a standard IP network
In live events, conferences and meetings, broadcast studios and lecture halls, time matters. Any system that is used to distribute live content - and especially systems that allow communication between users - must do so in real-time. In many cases involving multiple endpoints (e.g., loudspeakers and microphones), “real-time” must be defined down to the microsecond level to ensure proper perception by humans. Legacy analog systems behaved this way naturally, but with well-known limitations in performance, cost and scalability.
The technology supporting AV-over-IP is a result of advances in networking. The introduction of cost-effective gigabit networking combined with useful standards such as IEEE1588 Precision Time Protocol (PTP) has allowed for the creation of high-performance AV systems that run over standard, off-the-shelf networking gear.
As of today, it is usually less expensive to deploy completely networked AV than to use legacy systems, which use dedicated hardware and bulky, single-purpose, point-to-point connections that must be run through installations at no small expense.
If you’ve attended any large music event in the past few years, the chances are very good that you were listening to audio carried over a network. Networks allow AV systems to easily scale, making AV-over-IP an obvious choice for stadiums, concert halls, and event spaces.
But how does AV-over-IP compare to “earlier” technologies we see in the business world?
AV-over-IP vs. legacy systems
Most IT professionals don’t come from an AV background and can find themselves disadvantaged when it comes to designing and choosing AV gear - even when it lives on the network. How is AV-over-IP different from legacy solutions, and how might that affect the businesses you support?
In all legacy AV, devices are connected point-to-point - that is, a cable connects one device to another, carries one kind of data, and defines the flow of signal between those devices. That means lots of cables, and lots of physical reconnecting of cables when the system must be reconfigured. Such a system is rigid and inflexible, and failures are frequently mechanical in nature.
AV-over-IP eliminates all point-to-point connections in favor of standard network topology. All devices are connected to a common network fabric via Ethernet, and all possible connections between devices are rendered using software. Compared to legacy systems, AV-over-IP is far easier and less time-consuming to set up, expand or modify. You use one cable type (Ethernet) and one connector type (RJ45). What was once labor-intensive work is now literally “point and click.”
Scale and distance
As you might imagine, a large analog system is very hard to create and maintain, with performance problems and hardware expenditures that expand along with the rest of the system. AV-over-IP is just networking; all you need are spare switch ports and devices may freely be added, changed or moved. Hundreds of devices can easily share the network fabric, making expansion into new spaces far easier and less costly.
In addition to supporting large numbers of devices easily, AV-over-IP also supports multi-channel devices with ease. A single AV-over-IP audio device can ingest and output up to 512 channels of uncompressed audio on a gigabit network as required. This means a single multi-channel product such as a DSP can now easily handle audio processing for multiple conference spaces, even if they are physically far apart.
Analog and even USB products are severely limited with respect to signal distance, but not so with networking. Regular fiber can be used to connect real-time AV-over-IP systems that are miles apart with no degradation in performance.
Security and mangement
Like any professional networking product, AV-over-IP devices abide by well-known standards and security precautions. Many products are now manageable with features such as user authentication, alerts and audits, and encryption. From a single desktop, an IT manager can overview all AV-over-IP devices and configurations across an organization.
Legacy AV in business today
Many businesses today are struggling with communications problems. Many issues are pre-existing, and many have been exacerbated by the 2020 global pandemic.
For all the importance we assign to video conferencing, the technology in most conference spaces is woefully inadequate to the task - and is often a source of constant headaches for IT departments.
Prior to network solutions, most companies opted for a combination of USB and analog connected systems. While these work at a very small scale, the problems engendered by these systems are well known:
USB is only useful over a short length, restricting the useful placement of microphones. The result is people unsafely crowding around one end of a room, hoping to be heard.
Endpoint limited - microphones
Larger spaces are far better addressed using multiple microphones, and most USB systems do not accommodate this at all. This restricts the useful number of employees who can participate at any given time at reasonable distances apart.
Endpoint limited - loudspeakers
People can hear what is being said much better when loudspeakers are nearby. A single USB speaker at one end of a room fails to allow for safe social distancing and reduces overall intelligibility.
If you need to extend spaces into additional rooms to accommodate social distancing, USB systems offer very little to help. Audio and video would have to be broken out from the USB devices and transmitted to remote spaces.
For IT departments, USB-based conference rooms are “black boxes” they cannot see over the network, which results in frequent physical trips to conference rooms to address problems.
AV-over-IP in business today
The problems and limitations outlined above are driving businesses, schools and broadcasters towards AV-over-IP. Using IP technology solves existing problems and opens the door to new and innovative solutions.
- AV-over-IP conferencing systems are not limited by distance. Place devices where they do the most good, allow everyone to hear, and ensure everyone can be heard.
- AV-over-IP systems can scale endlessly. Use as many microphones and loudspeakers as required, placed wherever they need to be, to ensure safe and clear communication.
Easier to use
- AV-over-IP technology integrates deeply into computers, making setup and configuration of conference room devices easy and intuitive. Dedicated software allows for automatic configuration for many brands of products, eliminating headaches encounters by users who want it to “just work.”
- AV-over-IP puts the IT department in charge of who is allowed to use the system, and who may make changes to any part of it. Complete reports and audit logs let IT managers understand both user and system behavior for better security and higher reliability.
Where AV-over-IP is heading
AV-over-IP long ago became the de facto standard for live events. It is now rapidly assuming that importance across the AV spectrum.
In the corporate space it is already helping businesses to communicate better at a critical time. With AV-over-IP you can quickly expand a meeting to more physical locations - ensuring social distancing remains in effect without omitting anyone who should have access to a meeting.
It is instrumental in allowing colleges and universities to offer robust content - even when changes must be made on short notice. Students can be spread out effectively across multiple rooms - and via online platforms - and still receive high quality presentations, lectures and instruction. All it takes is connecting them to the network.
AV-over-IP has found its way into broadcast, now forming the backbone of production studios. Countless miles of legacy cabling and special hardware devices are eliminated, and directors and producers can now view content and make decisions more easily and with less labor than ever before. Even broadcasters stuck at home during the pandemic can take advantage of this increased flexibility, reducing the difficulty of moving high-quality content from home to broadcast truck for editing.
The proof of these claims lies in the products themselves: an overview of the AV marketplace now reveals thousands of completely interoperable AV-over-IP devices of all stripes. AV-over-IP is changing how we capture, edit, distribute, and take in audio and video right now.
IP networks are the best neutral data transportation scheme yet devised, enabling much of the modern world to run at top speed. AV is no exception, and the benefits of IP based solutions are only beginning to be felt.
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