The world of IP-based video is defined at present by a couple of major technologies. David Davies examines their primary points of difference and wonders ‘what’s next’ for media connectivity and transportation.
If you wanted to put a date-stamp on the birth of modern media networking technology, then you would need to be looking closely at the last four months of 2015. In September that year, the Network Device Interface (NDI) software specification developed by NewTek was publicly revealed and demonstrated at the IBC Show. A few months later, the TR-03 and TR-04 technical recommendations were published by the Video Services Forum; these would go on to provide important foundations to the SMPTE ST 2110 standards suite, the first four parts of which were published to no little fanfare in November 2017.
The concentration of ST 2110 on uncompressed video arguably does much to explain its initial rise to prominence. Large broadcasters and service providers were always going to be in the vanguard of companies with the resources to adopt IP media at an earlier stage and were inevitably going to require the highest possible (uncompressed) video quality.
But as ST 2110 bedded-in marketwise, NDI increasingly came to the fore for a wider group of end-users – spanning everything from broadcasters to houses of worship and educational environments – due to its compressed video capabilities, greater ease of deployment, and lower cost implications. With an increasingly extensive product ecosystem surrounding it, NDI can now be perceived as a technology whose reach extends far beyond broadcast.
For this article, IBC365 spoke to a broad cross-section of vendors and experts to explore the differences between the two initiatives; the present state – and future prospects – of their adoption; and the longer-term outlook for IP-based media.
ST 2110 and NDI: Bandwidth and benefits
Anupama Anantharaman is Vice-President, Product Management at Interra Systems, whose products include the ORION-2110 Probe, which is designed to monitor ST 2110 streams and address the QoS and QoE needs of video service providers and operators. Her concise summary covers many of the main distinctions between NDI and ST 2110, starting with their approaches to data transmission.
“In the case of ST 2110, audio, video and data essences are individually conveyed; each occupies a distinct channel, as opposed to multiplexing all data into a single stream,” said Anantharaman. “This delivery mechanism eliminates the need for demultiplexing unwanted data, which results in latency reduction, diminished processing expenses, and reduced bandwidth demands. Also of note, NDI employs compressed data, while ST 2110 employs uncompressed data.”
Whilst NDI is royalty-free and therefore involves no cost to the end-user, Anantharaman asserted that ST 2110 “holds an edge over NDI as it’s a standardised suite of protocols, developed by SMPTE. It’s an open standard, meaning it is industry-wide and not tethered to a single company. This advantage fosters interoperability and compatibility across a spectrum of equipment from diverse manufacturers, ensuring seamless collaboration between devices and systems.”
Tricia Justice – Director of Playout and Storage Appliances at Harmonic – pinpointed the differing market trajectories of the two technologies. “We see NDI primarily used for smaller studio and production workflows, whereas ST 2110 is typically deployed in major broadcast centres,” she said. “NDI is easier to adopt due to its lower bandwidth requirements and the large number of products that support the specification, including cameras, monitors and graphics equipment. In contrast, ST 2110 requires more specialised equipment and expertise to successfully design and deploy a professional broadcast centre.”
While Interra’s focus is evidently on ST 2110, Anantharaman said that both technologies represent “good choices for a move towards IP infrastructure, each presenting distinct advantages and complexities. ST 2110 tends to be aligned with the needs of broadcasters and news organisations, whereas NDI is more suitable for smaller groups that value adaptability, fast deployment and cost-effectiveness.”
Pragmatically enough, many companies are now responding to this diverse market picture by incorporating support for both NDI and ST 2110. For example, Harmonic’s Spectrum X family of media servers has offered support for ST 2110 for many years – originally driven, noted Justice, “by large projects with major customers, as well as Harmonic being an early member of the AIMS Alliance. Whilst NDI has traditionally been more prevalent in the pro-AV world versus the high-end broadcasting environment where our Spectrum X media server is most commonly used, our customers recently started asking for NDI to support their workflows and we happily complied” – hence support for NDI being added to the Spectrum X family in 2022.
ST 2110 and NDI: Availability & applications
Invited to explain the recent rise in adoption of NDI, Roberto Musso – Technical Product Marketing Director at NDI, which became a standalone company after the 2019 acquisition of NewTek by Vizrt – suggested that there are two primary reasons: “One is product availability. There are now so many products out there that support NDI. Among others, I would highlight [live streaming and production software video mixer/switcher] vMix, because that has become so widely used. Secondly, the [pandemic led to an increased] need to move production out of the building and for broadcasters to embrace remote production. At which point, a lot of them realised that NDI – where you can run almost 100% of the production using just software applications – and the cloud made for a magic combination.”
It’s evident that the development team has also kept a close eye on emerging requirements – hence the recent introduction of NDI Audio Direct, which is a set of audio plugins allowing virtually any audio software application to take advantage of NDI plugins. The relatively rapid turnaround of this set “in response to a demand that really came to light during Covid” does suggest one benefit of not being subject to a multi-participant standards structure.
“It’s part of our daily job to listen to customer community requests and suggestions,” said Musso, adding: “The fact that NDI is owned by a private company does make it faster and allows us to change our roadmap [more easily].”
John Mailhot, meanwhile, is able to offer his thoughts from the dual vantage-point of being a senior figure at one of the industry’s most successful vendors – specifically, Systems Architect for IP Convergence at Imagine Communications – and the long-term document editor of ST 2110. Six years on from the publication of the first standards within the group, Mailhot said that he is “really happy with the adoption I see worldwide, [especially with the increased] ability to integrate it into software-based products, which is causing a great deal of innovation in the whole ecosystem. Because whilst it was maybe a little difficult to build 2110 into a software-based platform a few years ago, we tried very hard in the committee to look at the long scope of things and to consider what’s going to be possible in five or ten years’ time.”
Consequently, he added, “there’s now open-source projects and software available from vendors that allow you to do 2110 directly through [network interface cards from] the NVIDIA ConnectX or Intel 800 series. I am not saying it’s a trivial thing [to achieve], but it’s now within the scope of competent software developers to get that going.”
And whilst ST 2110 has undoubtedly excelled in the uncompressed, high-bandwidth world of broadcast video, Mailhot clearly has hopes for its future growth in enterprise video and other areas of pro-AV. “There’s already an incredible variety [of deployments],’ he said. “I’m very pleased that the spec itself has proven to be versatile and is also really gaining traction in the video-adjacent worlds, too.”
ST 2110 and NDI: Constantly evolving
This article’s focus on two specific initiatives is not to negate the considerable activity taking place more generally in the world of IP-based networking. Pro-AV is especially dynamic at the moment, as can be seen from the burgeoning interest in IPMX – a proposed set of standards for compressed and uncompressed video, audio and data over IP networks that also includes provisions for control, copy protection, connection management and security. IPMX in turn builds on foundational work from the Video Services Forum, SMPTE (IPMX uses ST 2110 for media transport) and AMWA, whose NMOS suite of specifications provide the ‘plug and play’ capabilities required to easily add and integrate devices in an IP media workflow.
“IPMX very much builds on 2110 and is targeted at the enterprise industry by extending it to handle, for example, different shapes and sizes of displays where there is a two-way negotiation with the computer that figures out the best resolution to be used,” explained Mailhot, who expects IPMX to resonate with customers devising large corporate and education applications, in particular.
Asked to consider what the next few years of IP-based media might look like, Anantharaman said that “the adoption of ST 2110 is expected to accelerate in the coming months, particularly as the video ecosystem transitions towards a comprehensive all-IP infrastructure. This trend will be particularly noticeable in sectors like broadcasting, live video streaming and professional production, where high bandwidth video is a prerequisite for seamless and high-quality operations.”
Justice looks to be on even safer ground by implying that the overall landscape will continue to change – possibly sometimes in unpredictable ways. “Technology is constantly evolving,” she confirms, “and so we will update our roadmap to account for any new developments that benefit our customers.”
Given the continued array of IP options, IBC365 asked Mailhot about the prospects for increased convergence down the road. “I think there’ll be some consolidation in the technologies, but it’ll be [more centred on] consolidation around application spaces,” he said. “High-quality productions will stay in this kind of uncompressed mode of 2110, while NDI is very targeted [for its applications] and will continue to gain share there. I don’t see a third thing coming into television, hopefully, other than SDI… and I think that will be with us always to some extent.”