by Meridith Levinson

From Tapes to Bits: Digital Asset Management

Jun 15, 200513 mins
Enterprise Applications

When terrorists demolished the twin towers on September 11, 2001, producers of the PBS documentary program Frontline needed to quickly create shows about al-Qaida. They had footage of Osama bin Laden from previous broadcasts, but it was on videotapes and CDs stored in cardboard boxes on library shelves. As a result, archivists spent 625 hours over a period of two months fielding producers’ requests for material, finding it and then reshelving it.

The same problem can plague other organizations where marketing departments struggle to keep track of logos, product photos, PowerPoint presentations, webcasts and press releases. And the inability to track such assets efficiently often leads to wasted effort and higher costs. To solve the problem, some organizations are turning to digital asset management (DAM) systems, a combination of hardware and software that serves as a centralized catalog for audio, video, text and images.

For 11 years, WGBH, the public television station in Boston where Frontline is produced, had struggled to create a DAM system that integrated with the rest of the organization’s workflows and production technology. But when WGBH started the effort, standards for digitization were just emerging, according to David Yockelson, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner, who covers DAM. And hardware didn’t have enough power to deal with the 2 terabytes of new content that broadcasters such as WGBH generate daily. All of this made for a Herculean task for the small broadcaster, which didn’t have the IT staff or the funding for such an intensive undertaking. Even now, WGBH has just 22 IT workers and an IT budget of $4.2 million.

But WGBH is in a much different position today thanks to partnerships it forged in 2000 with companies such as Sun Microsystems, OpenText (a provider of collaboration and content management software that purchased DAM system provider Artesia in August 2004), and a variety of other vendors in the digital media and broadcasting space to create an open, standards-based reference architecture for DAM. The reference architecture serves as a manual not only for public broadcasters but for any organization with the need to manage rich media, including government and educational organizations, advertising agencies, Web and print publishers, retailers and manufacturers. The reference architecture is available for free to anyone who wants to view it, as long as he signs a nondisclosure agreement to protect Sun’s intellectual property. The first version of the reference architecture was published in April 2003, and a second version that features more vendor partners, more storage connectivity, more support for different file types, and the ability to monitor and track contracts and rights came exactly two years later.

Because of this partnership, the public broadcaster has a DAM system that integrates with its editing, production, trafficking and broadcast systems, and that gives WGBH employees Web-based access to millions of content files. The DAM system enables WGBH to share its content internally and with other public TV stations and educational institutions, and to deliver its content via more distribution channels and in more customized ways to viewers and station members. At WGBH, the DAM system is capable of distributing data at a rate of 20MBps to 30MBps to individual PBS stations. IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher) did an extensive study of the implementation and predicts that WGBH may be able to improve production efficiency by as much as 40 percent.

This small organization that relies on public generosity and government funding to sustain itself convinced a group of vendors to share proprietary information and devote staff and equipment on its behalf to create this system by catering to vendors’ bottom lines, playing them off their competition, getting buy-in from the vendor CEOs and by leveraging its expertise in broadcasting and its reputation as one of the most highly respected TV stations in the United States. Those are tactics most companies can exploit when negotiating with vendors, especially when, like WGBH, they want to be an early adopter of a leading-edge technology that will give them a competitive advantage. But the effort wasn’t completely one-sided. WGBH had to make some dubious concessions too—trade-offs that may not have caused the TV station much pain, but ones that a public company would be hard-pressed to duplicate. In the end, WGBH got the DAM system it had been trying to build for years and, in the process, helped create an architecture that has already been adopted by New York public TV station WNET, Milwaukee Public Television, Comcast and Major League Baseball.

Quid Pro Back Scratch

When Dave MacCarn, WGBH’s chief technologist and asset management architect, began evaluating DAM technologies in the mid-1990s, he spoke with several vendors, including IBM, EMC and Silicon Graphics. They all offered solutions but with hefty price tags that the public broadcaster couldn’t afford. His colleague, WGBH Director of Information Technology and Asset Management Amy Rantanen, met with some Sun executives at a conference for broadcasters in 2000 and told them about the work WGBH had done speccing out a DAM system and about the challenges WGBH faced getting funding for such a system, and she asked Sun for help.

The timing of her request was fortuitous because Sun was looking to enter the digital media and broadcasting space. In 2000, DAM was receiving a lot of hype as a technology category on the brink of explosion. Back then, IDC predicted that spending on software for rich media asset management would grow from $117 million in 2000 to $1.8 billion in 2005. (It hasn’t yet, thanks largely to DAM’s continued complexity and high price tag. A 2004 IDC study revised the DAM market to top out at just under $435 million in 2005.) Meanwhile, Sun’s biggest competitor, IBM, had long offered digital media management products and devoted a division to it in 2001. To jump-start its own program, Sun agreed to pony up free professional services and equipment if WGBH would help the vendor build a reference architecture for DAM. “Developing a reference architecture is an opportunity for a vendor to figure out what is necessary to make the architecture replicable and affordable to a larger number of clients,” says Forrester principal analyst Robert Markham. “That’s why Sun was willing to do this.” (Indeed, IBM has its own reference architecture—or “open framework”—for digital media.)

Working with Sun to create a reference architecture fit the public broadcaster’s mission to share knowledge, but the effort would slow WGBH’s goal of getting a DAM installed because it would need to test a variety of products for interoperability, even if the station had no plans to use those products. In the end, Sun’s offer of free hardware and consulting (combined with Sun’s long-standing support for open standards and the station’s existing six-year relationship with the vendor) convinced WGBH to go along with the plan.

Even in the midst of Sun’s widely reported financial and market share difficulties, the vendor continued to support and devote resources to the project, says Rantanen, albeit fewer than when the effort began. She and MacCarn also say they felt that they knew enough about DAM to continue the effort with another vendor if they ever needed to port the system to another hardware platform. But with Sun quadrupling the number of sales, marketing and engineering staff working on the project between January and April 2005, it doesn’t look like WGBH should be concerned about Sun’s commitment to the project for the time being.

Center of Attention

Of course, WGBH had to make its own commitment. Sun handed over software and servers, but in return, it took ownership of some of WGBH’s intellectual property—including the detailed functional specifications and requirements document for the DAM system that Rantanen and MacCarn had spent years drawing up, and software tools they had developed to handle digital files. WGBH also had to share with Sun some of its trade secrets, including its processes for producing a TV show and its workflows—information, MacCarn says, WGBH certainly wouldn’t give out to, say, The Discovery Channel but which Sun would be allowed to work into solutions for the broadcast space.

And there was another string. WGBH had to let Sun set up a customer demo center—a Sun iForce Center—in one of the broadcaster’s conference rooms. This is the first iForce Center ever established at a customer’s site; the 70 other iForce Centers are located either on Sun’s property or in a technology partner’s facility. While Sun covers the cost of the center and arranges most of the meetings that take place there, WGBH staff such as Rantanen and MacCarn have to take time out of their day to show potential customers how the technology works. Rantanen and MacCarn say on average two prospects tour the center each month, with most visits taking about four hours. They say the iForce Center gives WGBH the opportunity to commiserate with, learn from and share best practices with the other organizations. “We don’t look at it from [the perspective of doing marketing for Sun],” says Rantanen. “As long as we can further our enterprise DAM initiative internally and benefit from discussions with other customers, from the professional services, from the lab equipment we’re using for testing, and don’t have to put huge amounts of resource time into [the iForce meetings], it’s definitely in our best interest to participate.”

Never would any of these trade-offs fly inside a for-profit company, according to Forrester’s Markham. After all, public companies rely on their intellectual property to compete, and they don’t like to get too chummy with their suppliers. “Businesses try to distance themselves from their vendors. When they’re renegotiating a contract, the further they are from a vendor, the easier it is negotiate lower prices and keep the competition open,” says Markham.

Nevertheless, Markham notes a valuable lesson that for-profit companies can learn from WGBH’s effort. “If you have a strategic vision that’s important to your business, and if you can find companies that are on the leading edge of a technology and that can help you fulfill your business strategy, it pays to be an early adopter,” he says. “There are pains involved in it, but in many cases, what you learn through that adoption, and the fact that you’re working with a company that is pouring a lot of resources into it and willing to negotiate very fair pricing for the technology, can really give you a leg up on your competition.”

One benefit WGBH has seen from this effort that it didn’t anticipate was increased support from station management for the creation and implementation of the DAM system. MacCarn says the partnerships WGBH struck with technology companies and the fact that the reference architecture is gaining momentum have given the IT department’s credibility a substantial boost inside the station—and have helped with the change management effort necessary to make DAM implementations successful. Says MacCarn, “If other companies adopt what we’re doing, our IT projects are seen in a better light inside our organization.”

All Aboard the Gravy Train

Getting vendors to see the value of participating in building the reference architecture was not hard, says Rantanen, especially since WGBH was already a customer of many of these vendors.

Artesia, which was already one of Sun’s partners in 2000, got involved when the public broadcaster invited the DAM vendor to its office late in 2000 to discuss its plans. Artesia saw that WGBH had put considerable thought into the system and the workflows and that, like Sun, Artesia had much to learn from WGBH about broadcasters’ needs for DAM. As a result, Artesia offered WGBH generous discounts on its products.

Grass Valley, Telestream and Virage were also eager to participate because they saw WGBH as a potential avenue for getting products installed at other PBS stations. But to be part of this reference architecture, vendors had to commit to ensuring that all current and future products and versions of products would interoperate with the other technologies in the architecture, plus they also had to donate products to the iForce Center and occasionally send technical staff there to test and tweak the products.

For companies whose products were open and integrated easily with other technologies, this wasn’t an issue. But many broadcasting technologies don’t interoperate well, whether deliberately or not, says Ken Devine, CTO of New York’s WNET. Getting the vendors of those products to devote development staff and products to the iForce Center for testing and integration has proven more challenging. Production system maker Avid Technology, for instance, has yet to devote hardware, software or developers to the effort, forcing WGBH to integrate Avid products on its own through stopgaps such as file wrappers and transcoders that convert from Avid’s proprietary file formats to standard ones.

According to Avid, the fact that WGBH was able to integrate its products into the reference architecture on its own is evidence that Avid’s products are easy to integrate. But Rantanen and MacCarn would prefer that companies adopting the reference architecture and Avid products need not go through the extra steps currently required to make Avid a part of the system.

In response, Rantanen says she and MacCarn have been trying to “wrestle Avid to the ground.” They meet with Avid CEO David Krall every six months or so in a practice that WNET’s Devine (who also attends the meetings but who wouldn’t name vendors) refers to as “applying torque from the top.” In the meetings, they try to convince the company that it will sell more products if it interoperates. They cite conversations they’ve had with other Avid customers in which those customers have said they wished Avid supported more open formats. And they mention the smaller vendors trying to make it in Avid’s space that would fall over themselves to be cited as fully integrated in the reference architecture.

Rantanen and MacCarn say they’re seeing some progress. “We’ve just now seen this past year some third parties like Telestream being able to support Avid formats so that there’s somebody other than Avid that can do some of this converting,” says MacCarn. “That’s a good sign.”

They also add that Avid has become more cooperative since WGBH got one of its competitors, Apple, to join the effort.

And as the reference architecture picks up steam, Rantanen says it’s becoming easier to get more vendors involved. “We have this illustrative group of referenced vendors, and now people don’t want to be left out.”

Senior Writer Meridith Levinson can be reached at