When the Contracting Market Went Soft Part 2
May 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Brent Harshbarger
In the March issue, I said the systems contracting market went “soft,” as in software, almost two decades ago. I stressed the need to develop the in-house capability to meet the challenges of software-based technology that is increasingly critical to our businesses. That idea can be explored more closely by looking at a project in a school that must have a digital media center that can be accessed locally through a LAN and remotely using the Internet. The media center must put all current media into this system so that all media can be searched and accessed.
First, all types of legacy media must be determined so the hardware required to ingest the media into the system can be selected. The size of storage that will be needed to store the media and the quality level at which it is expected to be consumed must also be determined. (For example, is it okay for a film to be viewed at VHS quality?) From this information, you can determine the best method for digitization. One would assume that the storage has to be scalable. From that information, you'll know what is required for ingest stations. It also gives you insight about the storage requirements. In addition, you need to determine what information you need to capture during the ingest process that will ultimately assist with future searches.
Another system is now needed to organize the media being ingested. The logical choice is a database. This database will require that you store not only the media but also information about it so that as it grows, it can effectively and efficiently be searched and the system can be maintained properly. This database system requires an understanding of not only text-based data but also rich media that is consumed in real time, as well as an understanding of the demands this places on such a system.
Now you need a method of getting the data from the ingest station to the database system and from there to the viewing locations. That requires a digital distribution system called a network. It would be worth a visit to the school to check out the current network's status. Can the network support the additional bandwidth required for real-time audio and video? Does the hardware support technologies such as multicasting? Most IT people are not familiar with the requirements of real-time media. They are caught off guard when you start pumping multiple 1.5 MB/s or greater video streams continuously on the network. This is when having digital multimedia expertise starts to pay.
Next, you need several servers to support the real-time media. The database houses the information about the media and also where it is located for play out. The media has to be secure. The design must consider keeping unauthorized users out and the media safe from a disaster. Now that you can get media into the system, search it, and recall it, you need a way of consuming it. The media might be played on a projection system with a sound system in the auditorium or played on a PC at the students' homes using a media player. These elements need to be designed and considered, especially for those on campus.
Finally, you have all of the subsystems identified. The next trick is to get them to work together. Two technologies will become useful: Web technologies and an interface technology know as middleware. Web services are growing, and at the heart of them is eXtensible Markup Language (XML). XML is also becoming popular in database technology, which makes data sharing much easier. However, for those systems that are somewhat proprietary and do not use technologies such as XML but have application program interfaces, middleware technology was developed to manage several subsystems effectively.
Systems contractors must be able to design and develop highly soft systems, which include digitization of multimedia elements, storage, database, and distribution technologies. The system must provide some means to share data so the subsystems can efficiently be integrated and interoperable. Each subsystem is a highly specialized technology. Adding the knowledge required of multimedia to these disciplines calls for an even higher level of competency. The trend is to share data, distribution, and resources from subsystems that touch all of the systems that contractors find as part of their normal business. That is what businesses in the systems contracting and systems integration industry need to be prepared for.
Brent Harshbarger can be reached at email@example.com.