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Networking convergence: next stop homogenisation?

While it heralds new commercial challenges, the convergence of transport and control protocols heralded by the efforts of groups including AVnu Alliance and Open Control Architecture (OCA) Alliance may free up manufacturers to focus anew on product features, writes David Davies.

While it heralds new commercial challenges, the convergence of transport and control protocols may free up manufacturers to focus more heavily on product features, writes David Davies.

Confusion reigns supreme – or, rather, it did until about 18 months ago. But now, thanks to ongoing standardisation efforts such as those spearheaded by the AVnu Alliance and the Open Control Architecture (OCA) Alliance, the fog that has habitually shrouded the pro-audio/media networking debate seems to be dissipating at last.

Given the existing technologies and approaches that underpin many of these developments – for example, OCA employs AES-24, originally standardised as far back as 1995 – it seems reasonable to ask whether the industry might not have reached this point a good deal earlier. But that would be to ignore simple, occasionally brutal commercial reality. As Aidan Williams (pictured above), CTO of Dante developer Audinate, observes, “it is just a fact of life that [manufacturing] companies in the industry use networking technology strategically (standards-based or otherwise) to encourage customers to purchase equipment from them rather than their competitors.”

Echoing the sentiment, industry consultant and keen observer of the networking debate, Roland Hemming, says that it is simply “the nature of capitalism that people try and develop different solutions to the same problem. [After all] we don’t complain that Apple and Android phones have been separately developed…”

But, ultimately, the market gets what the market wants – and, increasingly, that is an ease of networking and interoperability that allows products from multiple vendors to work together seamlessly and without the need for extensive specialist assistance. Hence the ongoing rash of activity around standards. As Lee Minich, president of Lab X Technologies and marketing work group chairperson for the Audio/Video Bridging (AVB) technologies-supporting AVnu Alliance, sees it: “Standardisation is the key to growing the market, and returning manufacturers to competing on their core competencies.”

Gaining industry traction with remarkable speed given historical resistance to this kind of unification, AVB will ultimately deliver media transport and interoperability through full ratification of the IEEE 802.1 standards. Publication of IEE 802.1AS, 1722 and 1733 in March – joining the already approved 802-1Qat and 802.1Qav – prompted AVB Task Group chair Michael Johas Teener to declare that the “core AVB standards are now complete”.

As regards specific implementation, Ethan Wetzell – product manager, Electro-Voice signal processing at OMNEO Media Networking Architecture developer and OCA Alliance/AVnu Alliance member Bosch – observes that recent efforts have focused on finessing a transport solution for smaller networks, entitled P1722 or AVBTP. A large network solution, he suggests, is “probably about a year away”.

The buzz around AVB is not to deny the continued development of other approaches towards transportation. For example, RAVENNA technology is based around OSI Layer 3, as compared to Layer 2-grounded AVB, and as such, Andreas Hildebrand from RAVENNA developer ALC NetworX dismisses the suggestion that it might constitute a European equivalent to the AVB project: “From a technology perspective, RAVENNA is in no way a [competitor] to AVB.” But while highlighting the technologies’ contrasting orientations – AVB towards live and installed applications, RAVENNA leaning towards broadcast – Hildebrand does not rule out the possibility of future convergence: “Further down the road there may be adopting or merging moves on a technological basis, but guessing as of when and to what extent would certainly require a crystal ball.”

Proprietary control protocols have historically provided “an important distinction” between rival companies’ products – as Stephan Lietz, administrator of the control standardisation group the OCA Alliance would be the first to admit. And while AVB or X192’s facility for easy exchange of media might be a boon, there is still the broader question of how you “control, configure, monitor, reconfigure, operate, adjust, modify, edit and generally manage these devices” in an era of networking as standard, says Lietz.

Accordingly, industry focus is increasingly shifting towards the control issue, with the OCA Alliance – whose nine founding members include Bosch, Yamaha Commercial Audio, TC Group and Duran Audio – pursuing the recognition of AES-24-based OCA as an open public communications standard for control and monitoring of devices in professional media networks (OCA does not provide signal transportation). In many ways regarded as a complement to the AVB protocol suite, the OCA specification is due for completion in early 2012 – at which point it will be handed over for public standardisation.

The issue of how you define individual functions has historically stalled talk of a unified control mechanism. Integral to the appeal of the OCA solution, says Lietz, is that it confines its attention to interaction with parameters and functions. So, for example, “OCA can set the Q parameter of an equalizer – but exactly what the equalizer does with that Q value is up to the equalizer, and is not standardised by OCA.”

Although the successful implementation of full, standards-based media networking as a default option would represent a dream fulfilled for many end-users, there are fears in some quarters that it will also result in competition-denting homogenisation of audio products. But as far as Minich is concerned, “standards-based connectivity is returning manufacturers to core competencies: better sound, additional features, better customer services, etc. Technology providers will differentiate each other by providing unique optimisations and capabilities while adhering to the standards.”

Control uniformity, says Lietz, “is in no way the same as standardising features or functionality. Elements of a product that are unique and exciting will remain that way, but the industry will now have a whole host of new options for how they interact with those features.” For the customer, continues Lietz, the advantages will include the ability to assess and specify individual products “on the merits of their performance, features and unique properties…”

This impression of passing over one set of hurdles to a more level playing field is further reinforced by Wetzell’s observation that “the goal of open public standards is not to make everything the same. Rather, the intention is to allow each device in a system to do what it does well, and to allow these unique features and benefits to be more easily integrated into systems.”

Harman Professional Systems Development and Integration Group market manager Adam Holladay implies that adoption of a single approach to transport could help to speed up R&D. In such a scenario, “we can focus on developing the solutions the market needs quicker, with more interoperability and at a reduced cost.”

So is a brave new world really in prospect? As Gez Kahan’s piece in PSNE October made clear, there are still plenty who harbour doubts about the feasibility of a fully standardised approach to control. Roland Hemming, too, has reservations about the post-standardisation life of networking protocols in general and, more specifically, “the question of ongoing development. The thing that killed MIDI is that it was invented, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief and it stayed as it was. We need structures in place to ensure and fund ongoing improvements to any unified systems that we create.”

The necessary skill-set to maintain – and, crucially, troubleshoot – networks also deserves to be another preoccupation: “If you have a network with 17 different manufacturers’ products sitting on it, and it fails, who comes into fix it?”

For all the understandable excitement about full media networking, Hemming has surely hit on a vital point – without a parallel focus on how it complements real-world applications, there is a risk that we only see one half of the equation. So beyond protocols, then, it may be people and their experiencing of working with networks on a day to day basis that constitutes pro-audio’s next great debate.