Anyone who viewed the convergence of IT and AV as a battle can stand down; IT won. Going forward, AV professionals would now do well to remember the lessons that the IT industry learned two decades ago and accept that AV-specific networking protocols should be able to work together, and by working together, they can provide a stronger foundation for the industry.
Most futures are complex and thus difficult to predict, admitted TJ Adams, director of installed DSP systems, product management for QSC Audio. But take a look at VoIP for an idea of AV-over-IP’s potential future, he said.
“You have different flavors of VoIP: Avaya, Cisco, Shoretel. But they’re using a baseline technology, which is a group of protocols,” said Adams.
It’s not unusual for an enterprise to be using, say, both Cisco and Avaya VoIP systems in the same building, he continued. “The products can do basic VoIP; they can all talk to each other. You won’t be able to speak the Cisco flavor of VoIP that gives you all their advanced features, but you can do call-to-call between the two systems in the same building, and you don’t know any different. That’s exactly what the future is likely to look like for us.”
The technology underlying Dante or QSC’s Q-LAN, to offer two examples, is identical, said Adams, but each developer offers a slightly different, custom implementation as its own branded protocol. Until recently, those various flavors of networking protocols have been engaged in a contest over which is better. But with the publication of the AES67 networked audio interoperability standard and AES70 media networking system control standard, these protocols can now work together.
“We would do well to look backwards at the IT evolution and, instead of reacting like we have so far as an industry, let’s start being more purposeful and learning the lessons of the past from that adjacent industry. We already are there in a lot of ways. Let’s all be happy that we have interoperability. But then let’s also add really good value inside our ecosystems,” said Adams.
Justin O’Connor, Biamp’s product manager, audio products, is also pleased that the AV industry appears to be evolving into an interoperable future. “It will be very good for the pro audio industry when we don’t have to talk to IT professionals about our little protocol wars,” he said.
Biamp started networking with its Audia series of products using CobraNet, said O’Connor, and while not the only company to deploy CobraNet, was one of its most prolific early adopters. “CobraNet was the first really viable way to network as opposed to bussing; those are not the same thing. It capitalized on existing ethernet methods of packetization and things like that. It was far superior to anything that analog could do.”
Now, he continued, “We run our Tesira platform on a backbone of AVB. As well as being able to network outside of the Tesira system on AVB, we also offer options for CobraNet and Dante. I’m pretty sure it’s still the case that we’re the only platform that allows you to run not just multiple protocols but also run them simultaneously. So Tesira functionally acts as a translation bridge; we can freely move audio between the protocols.”
Graham Hendry, VP, touch-point applications for MUSIC Group, has extensive experience with Tannoy speaker products in the transportation market—air terminals, train stations, and the like. “In certain transportation markets they’re still very much copper-based. Networks may be for control, but certainly not the audio side,” he reported.
The Lake and Lab.gruppen brands within the TC Group alongside Tannoy (the group was acquired by MUSIC Group in 2015) were very early adopters of Dante, said Hendry. “It’s the long distance and low latency capabilities that attracted us to Dante in the first place.”
Beyond Dante, he said, “We use standard ethernet, and the latest range of Lab.gruppen D Series amplifiers have a dedicated AVB version. That’s a strategic alliance we’ve struck with Biamp. And we have the Lake version of the D Series, which is an install amplifier.” The latter variant can interface with BSS, NION, Q-SYS, and other systems, he added.
In the IT world, evolution has largely winnowed out proprietary hardware, such as switches and endpoints, noted Adams. “AV is starting to learn and is weeding out protocols that require proprietary anything.”
He continued, “I don’t think IT cares too much about our way of defining protocols like Dante and AVB. What they want is to understand it from the get-go, and be able to manage it just like they do any other application on the network.”
Dante and Q-LAN play nice on a converged network, said Adams, but IT departments, who own the network decision-making, will push back against a single application network in environments such as the corporate space. AVB, because of its auto-provisioning feature, is effectively a single application network, he said.
“They have no control over running multiple applications on that switch layer, because [AVB] tells you how much bandwidth it’s taking. Maybe for AV people it’s perfect, because it’s plug-and-play, so it answers our need. But is that the right need?”
“Our prediction, and the gamble that we’ve made, is that at some point in the pro audio world, the word ‘protocol’ won’t apply to networking anymore,” said O’Connor. “Ethernet used to compete with other things, then it became the IEEE standard, and gone were proprietary solutions for devices talking to each other. We believe that low-latency, deterministic networking is where all networking is going, and someday we won’t talk about AVB/TSN because it’s all going to be AVB/TSN. It’s just going to be networked.”
One benefit of networking is the ability to move data over very long distances. “One of the reasons we like AVB—and we backed it several years ago—is that if you’ve got IEEE AVB/TSN switches, then you no longer care whether it’s running on twisted pair or fiber or who knows what is going to be next,” said O’Connor. “Jumping onto fiber with AVB/TSN really makes no difference to how the system works.”
AV media networking has an impact beyond integrators, as Hendry observed: “The use of networks opens up things like the ability to do telemetry and monitoring control, so networking is changing up the service industry as well.” Locally or remotely, service contractors can, for example, monitor the health of a PA system over the network, he said. “You can do an impedance sweep from the amplifier on the loudspeakers. It will tell you if a driver is down.”
Hendry continued, “You see the high-level applications using standard networking: Dante, AVB, or whatever. But I still think there’s a place for smaller, more localized situations, proprietary networking, and audio transmission—more cost effective options.”
Do AV integrators generally know enough to converse meaningfully with IT departments? “I think the big ones do, and in some cases, have invested in full-on IT departments, like AVI-SPL. They’re no longer a traditional AV integrator,” commented Adams.
The younger generation is already more network savvy than the AV industry’s incumbents, Adams suspects, but they could benefit from AV-specific education. “Let’s say we agree that AV really is a subset of IT now. If that’s true, then we need to start training people on the specific aspects. I think that’s where we can shine and show a lot of value.”
Integrators would benefit from learning the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each protocol, added O’Connor. “You may have an installation where the advantages of one protocol are being used in one element and the advantages of another protocol are more valuable for another element. It’s not just avoiding obstacles, but also taking advantage of the best of each.”
The IT knowledge required is barely above Networking 101, he continued. “Obviously there’s a certain amount of bare-bones knowledge required: how an IP address works, how subnets work. You probably want to understand the difference between using DHCP and static addresses.”
The integrator’s client—most likely the IT department—will have a decision-maker who will provide access to the network under defined conditions. “When integrators have that conversation with that key person who knows this stuff very deeply they need to be able to at least understand the ramifications of what’s being discussed,” said O’Connor. “Having multiple protocols does aid that because it allows them to be flexible.”
The key, said Adams, is to not hold the client hostage by locking them into a proprietary system that offers no interoperability with other brands or protocols. “You stand on your own product benefits intrinsically, rather than try to hold people within an ecosystem just because they happened to select you first. I think that’s a huge message that we’re finally starting to get, which I’m very pleased about.”
Steve Harvey (email@example.com) is editor-at-large for Pro Sound News and also contributes to TV Technology, MIX, and other NewBay titles. He has worked in the pro audio industry since November 1980.