Optical Disc Archive

For many people outside the broadcast and professional industry, linear tape and optical disc media have long been seen as relics of the 1980’s and 1990’s, having been replaced in more recent times by hard-drives and solid-state media. History is a great testament to that fact – you only have to look at the evolution of the original Sony Walkman to a CD Walkman and then in the last decade to the Apple iPod. Oh, and somewhere in there is a very brief appearance by MiniDisc technology!

But things are different in the broadcast and professional industry. Where would we be today without linear tape and optical disc? Simple answer – archive hell!

Whilst camera and video tape recording systems have moved onwards and upwards from linear tape many years ago, many productions still prefer to stick with a tried and tested optical disc format – also known as XDCAM – for their large camera shooting formats. However, hard-drives and solid-state media have clearly become the de-facto media in smaller camcorders.

CD, MiniDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, Professional Disc and now Optical Disc Archive are all descendants of Sony’s optical disc family and clearly demonstrate that Sony has a long standing commitment to this core technology which over the years has been underpinned with significant funding in research and development by the company. On that basis, can we trust this new incarnation of the technology with our valuable digital assets moving forward? Hell yes!

So when Sony introduced the Optical Disc Archive technology earlier this year at the NAB 2012 exhibition in Las Vegas it gave us all a glimpse in to the technical direction the company was embarking on for mid to long-term archive storage solutions. More recently at the IBC 2012 exhibition in Amsterdam Sony revealed an interesting product line-up which will be unleashed on media professionals around the world before the end of 2012.

First off the Sony production line will be the ODS-D55U optical drive unit and its extensive family of “ODC” optical disc media, with capacities ranging from 300GB to 1.5TB. Also included in the box is the all-important Sony Content Manager software, designed to make the Sony archiving experience much more complete – certainly more so than competitor solutions which often require 3rd party software at an additional cost.

ODS-D55U optical drive unit

Built on the same tried and tested optical drive technology as the Sony PDW-U2 Professional Disc Drive, the ODS-D55U drive is only slightly thinner but is unfortunately almost double the height, length and weight. That said, power consumption is almost identical at 20W and the rear of the drive has the same familiar connections – a single 12V DC and USB-3 “SuperSpeed” connector.

Whilst not as compact and lightweight as the PDW-U2, the ODS-D55U can easily be accommodated into any location data wrangling kit especially given that USB-3 has started to become the de-facto data inter-face on the newer Mac and PC laptops. Powering such devices has always been an issue, but not one that can’t be overcome and since the ODS-D55U has a 12V DC connector like the PDW-U2 then all of its associated 3rd party powering solutions by default can therefore be used – ensuring that powering the ODS-D55U unit from a standard V-lock battery is easily achieved.

Optical Disc Media…

Looking like a cross between an old “Stereo 8-Track” cartridge and a very fat “MiniDisc” the new optical disc archive media comes in four different capacities with a choice of re-writeable or write-once media types. So whether you are on a fixed budget and looking for low-cost write-once media or have a more specific requirement for a flexible, rewritable and durable transportation media for ferrying camera rushes to and from location to the office – both scenarios are catered for with the new optical disc archive media line-up.

 

Here is the list of Sony optical disc archive media which will be available at product launch:

Why is the cartridge so big – what’s actually is in it?

The cartridge contains twelve optical discs, a simple loading mechanism and an RFID (Radio-frequency identification) chip. For example, the 300GB re-writeable cartridge is loaded with 12 x BD-RE “single layer” optical discs whereas the 1.5TB write-cartridge is loaded with 12 x BD-R “quad layer” optical discs. Like all of its previous optical disc family members the new optical disc media utilises the industry standard UDF (Universal Disc Format) file system and whilst each cartridge is made up of 12 individual optical discs when it is mounted on your PC or Mac computer it is presented as a single optical disc volume.

It’s worth noting that when the ODC cartridge is inserted in to the ODU-D55U drive the cartridge is opened and its internal loading mechanism loads each individual optical disc when requested by the host PC or Mac computer ensuring data read and write sessions across the 12 individual optical discs are transparent to the operator. This does however increase the seek times on large files spanned across multiple optical discs within a single cartridge – i.e. it may take longer to back them up and retrieve them!

RFID (Radio-frequency identification) tag – what is it? Well imagine not having to decrypt scribbled production notes, shuttle through a video-tape or mount a hard-drive to see what content is on it? Sound good? Well, you already have the first component – the RFID chip – which is embedded in the ODC cartridge. The data on the RFID chip is

populated and maintained by the ODU-D55U drive and its software. You will however need another component to complete the kit –this is an RFID reader – which is required in order to retrieve and read the data on the chip, for example this could be an Apple iPhone with a 3rd party accessory. Finally in order for the two components to communicate successfully you take your RFID reader and swipe the ODC optical media (ideally within 10cm) whilst it is happily sat on the shelf, once the pair have registered each other you’ll get an instant snapshot of the media’s identity and its contents! Voila, it’s that easy!

The ODC cartridge is clearly designed to be robust, durable and capable of withstanding a far wider range of environmental conditions than LTO tape or hard-drives. Whilst this all sounds impressive, please be warned – don’t go leaving these cartridges in direct sunlight! Like all Sony professional media there’s a place to accommodate a sticky label (i.e. QR or Barcode) as well as that very important “Record Inhibit” switch!

It’s important to stress that the ODS optical drive and its ODC optical media are really nothing more than another optical drive and media without its bundled software and that’s why Sony has clearly invested a considerably amount of engineering effort to ensure that its solution stands out amongst the crowd.

With that in mind, the final element of the new Sony Optical Disc archive package is content management.

Content Manager Software

It’s important that you don’t get this software confused with the Sony Content Browser software which is bundled with the Sony NXCAM and XDCAM products.

Let’s take a quick look at what makes this software so important…

If we breakdown the software interface in to three separate elements – Archive, Browse and Search it will help you better understand the flow of data and real benefits that can be achieved. But first of all, you’ll need to make sure you have the ODS drive attached via USB-3 and populated with a blank ODC cartridge. It’s worth saying that Sony does include an “Optical Disc Archive Utility” so that you can check the status of the drive and its media prior to an archive session. Additionally, this utility provides an advanced setting called “Write-verify” which is essentially a MD5 check sum verification option – however when this option is enabled it does considerably slow down the whole back-up process.

First question “Why am I loading the Sony Content Browser software from my Google Chrome web browser?” Well like most content management software being introduced in to the marketplace today they are all based on web-services. This type of approach to software design allows Sony to create a content management software application which can be run locally on the PC or Mac that has the ODS drive attached, or accessed via a web browser on a network client. Whilst the first product being introduced by Sony is the ODS-D55U which is clearly designed for locally attached device usage, future expansion of this product family will include more scalable networked solutions and therefore the foundations of the software must be designed accordingly.

So we have the Google Chrome web browser launched. Next we are asked to log into the Sony Content Manager web page using a user name and password, and from there we are presented with three further options – “Browse”, “Search” and “Archive”.

Archive

Starting with the “Archive” menu (shelf icon) you’ll find that you are presented with three additional options – “Full”, “Selective” and “Watched Folder”. The “Full” option allows you to select the physical drive letter of your Sony NXCAM/XDCAM solid-state card reader or the Sony XDCAM Professional Disc reader as your “Source Media”. You can then use the additional features of this option to name your “Archive Title”, create “Thumbnails & Proxy” and use “Speech to Text & Face Recognition” to automatically create metadata.

The final step is to select your “Target Media” which is the ODC optical disc media. Surprisingly that there is also an option to select a second destination which could ideally be a locally attached hard-drive or a network attached storage device. This is a great workflow for those wanting to archive file-based camera media on location to two separate locations – with the first copy going to the ODC optical disc media as your insurance/master archive copy and the second copy going on to your hard-drive for the post-production house to use as the ingest copy for the edit.

The “Selective” option has pretty much the same functionality as the “Full” option, except that you can select at folder level rather than being limited to just the physical drive letter. “Watched Folder” workflow is great for those productions that copy file-based camera rushes to hard-drives on location and then either want to mass archive hard-drives when they arrive back at the office, or want to mass archive media from a folder on a network attached storage device. This workflow is applicable and recommended for all those production companies that have been archiving file-based camera rushes on hard-drives (aka G-Safes) and storing them on book shelves for the last couple of years (you know who you are!)

Once you have started your archive session (whether it’s in “Full”, “Selective” or “Watched Folder” mode), if you go back to the “Archive” main menu you’ll find a full list of all the archive jobs that are in progress including the ones that have been successfully completed as well as any that may have failed.

Once you have flushed those solid-state cards, professional discs, hard-drives and/or networked folders on to the ODC optical disc media you are not only ready to eject it and put it on the shelf but you can start browsing the metadata you have created during the archive process!

Tape lovers are certainly not forgotten. Whilst the tape media in itself is an archive medium, the introduction of the Sony ODS product for tape camera owners and operators is more about preservation and the migration of archive assets from a tape to a file based workflow. Therefore if you have a Sony DVCAM/HDV camcorder or deck with an IEEE 1394 interface (also known as i.Link by Sony and FireWire by Apple) then you will have noticed that there is an “Ingester” option when using the “Watched Folder” archive workflow. If you click on this option you will then find it launches the Sony “DV/HDV Capture for Content Manager” application. This useful tool can then be used for either automatic live or batch capture of DVCAM/HDV footage to a chosen “watched folder” which can then be automatically archived to the ODC optical disc media.

Moving on to the two remaining elements of the Sony Content Manager – “Browse” and “Search” – you’ll find that these tools are only really usable once the media has been archived and the metadata along with the Proxy audio video files have been processed.

Browse

If we start with the “Browse” menu (disc icon) you will find that this can be further broken down to search media at a specific “Cartridge” level. However if you don’t have that level of information at this stage you can opt to browse “All Files”. If you have selected the “Cartridge” browse level then you will find that you have a wide selection of information at your disposal to aid in the search of your media. Not only can you perform the simplest of tasks from this menu – for example, creating ODC labels with a file index and a QR code – it’s also possible to take it one step further and by clicking on a media clip you can watch the proxy audio and video for that clip and add additional metadata. And should you decide that’s the clip you need for your project (and providing you have access to the ODC cartridge that the original clip is archived on) it will “Retrieve” the clip in its entirety.
A couple of points are worth noting at this stage: version 1.0 of the Sony Content Manager will not allow for time-code values to be added in to the proxy media which is generated (only a basic time track) and it is not possible to do a partial retrieval of media clips (only the whole media file). Also missing is something which is a must-have for most file based workflows – the ability to export an AAF (Advanced Authoring Format) file with or without its associated media. This feature would allow a user to take only the media required to the edit.

Search

The final element “Search” is exactly that, a basic search engine. There are only three sub-menu options to help in the search of media and they are “Text” (inc. speech to text), “Date” and “Person” (inc. face recognition).

Worthy of a more detailed explanation is the “Proxy” audio video format used by the Sony Content Manager software. Whilst many content management vendors have elected to go with the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC video compression system, Sony have chosen to go with the “royalty free” video compression system sponsored and developed by Google – which is based on technology acquired from On2 Technologies. Built using the VP8 video and Vorbis audio codecs the WebM audio video format is specifically designed for web based applications, more specifically HTML5 video based applications. The file extension used is “.webm” and the files generated in this format can easily be played using a free of charge desktop PC and Mac media player from Apple (QuickTime) and/or VideoLAN (VLC). The specification used by Sony to create “Proxy” audio video media in Content Manager is:

· Video
o Resolution – 320 x 180
o Frame-rate – 15FPS
o Colour Sampling – 4:2:0
· Audio
o Channel – Mono
o Sampling – 48kHz
o Bit-rate – 60Kb/s

Competition? Well to be honest it’s a mixture of similar technologies – Consumer Blu-ray, Professional Disc formats and of course the industry standard LTO-5 tape format. Whilst the Sony optical disc archive solution is not quite as fast or as cost-effective as the LTO-5 solution – it clearly beats it hands down for simplicity, robustness, durability and overall total cost of ownership.

In summary, Sony clearly has a winner on its hands with the new Optical Disc Archive products. Specifically targeted at Sony DVCAM, HDV, NXCAM and XDCAM owner operators and production companies, it unfortunately means if you are using the Panasonic P2 format then you’ll have to hope and pray Sony add this support in the future (but personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath!). With additional native codec support and expanded workflows being planned for the next version of the Content Manager software, I would hope to see the introduction of Sony F65 RAW and HDCAM SR file format support as well as the more popular Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD formats…

The hardware package, the overall price and undoubtedly the Sony brand heritage in optical disc media will be enough for many to take the leap in to archive euphoria with the Sony Optical Disc Archive solution!

 

 

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