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Middle East media broadcaster Aljazeera has come a long way since it was launched in November 1996 — so has its IT infrastructure. Colin Edwards looks at how IT is helping to give the station a leading edge in getting the news out first.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  April 23, 2006

|~|aljaz200.gif|~|Judia: A new data centre accommodates and manages most of the critical services under one roof.|~|Broadcasting is not about who delivers the information, but who is first to air and at the highest pace. To do this, TV and radio broadcasting channels need a robust high-speed infrastructure able to handle the vast volumes of data that stream across the network.

Not only that, such an infrastructure needs to be flexible and scalable enough to accommodate a sector where business growth and technology change is rapid and continuous, as the Aljazeera organisation has discovered.

“With the current high competition between broadcasting agencies striving to air the news first, it’s becoming extremely essential that the technology deployed to receive, share and air this information is able to handle the high volume high speed operations of the organisation today and into the future,” says Khaled Judia, the company’s IT manager.

The Doha-based satellite broadcaster has seen exponential growth in its operations over the past decade, transforming the station from a small, local broadcaster to a global news service provider to the Arab world with plans in the pipeline to start broadcasting in English in addition to its current Arabic-only services.

The growth has forced the company to totally replace its infrastructure and consolidate most of its IT operations at a single site, according to Khaled Judia, the company’s IT manager.

“The previous infrastructure was based on a flat network with critical systems scattered around different sites. We’ve now deployed a high speed network to support users and services and built a new data centre to accommodate and manage most of the critical services under one roof,” he says.

The infrastructure upgrade was done in conjunction with enhancement to its broadcast systems to accommodate the move from an analogue to digital environment.

“In the broadcast area, several changes were made to replace the technology that was previously implemented. The strategy we enforced lead to the introduction of a news automation system that streamlined the work of the journalists as well as controlled the broadcast of the content.

“These guaranteed the use of digital broadcasting yet still retained the ability to broadcast in both digital and analogue formats. The tape-based environment which was used previously was also replaced with a more interactive method of searching media archives,” he says.

The new broadcast system was launched along with a ‘new-look’ Aljazeera mid 2005 and enabled the broadcaster to cut the time-to-air for any report from hours to minutes. It also enabled the company to have a more feature-rich look on the screen

Such a system demanded a high-speed, flexible networking environment that broke away from the flat networking infrastructure previously deployed. Judia decided to take a phased approach to replacing the old systems and consolidating IT within one data centre. Focus was directed at areas felt to be the most important and that needed improvement and upgrading first.

The new broadcast system is based on an IP network using segregated subnets and storage. To support this entailed providing an integrated environment based on the latest technology, which included the implementation of multiple Virtual LANs (VLANS).

A VLAN, which is a network of computers configured to operate as if connected to the same cable though in fact they are physically connected to different segments of a LAN. As in the Aljazeera’s deployment, several VLANs can co-exist on a single physical switch. As they are software rather than hardware driven, VLANs provide a high degree of flexibility. For example, computers can be moved to another location, yet stay on the same VLAN without the need for any hardware reconfiguration.

“Introducing VLANs to our network infrastructure helped us in isolating the corporate traffic from the broadcast traffic. To support this, an ISS Proventia appliance allows us to provide controlled access between both networks,” says Judia.

The new network is based a structured cabling solution which is capable of providing an Ethernet network with a 10 Gigabit capacity. The infrastructure was based on a 10 Gigabit Ethernet non- blocking backbone and 1 Gigabit Ethernet to each computer.

“With such technology news room staff can rely on faster exposure to media and local resources — hence a noticeable decrease in the time it takes to air urgent information,” says Judia, who adds that the use of IT in broadcasting has become critical as news agencies strive to air the latest news in the shortest period.

Having implemented the new network infrastructure, attention was paid to consolidating IT within a single data centre. This is a Class A facility that will eventually house 15 racks for servers, Storage Area Network setup and network appliances, Integration includes the establishment of a single directory services environment, single sign-on services and platform independence.

“We’re in the process of consolidating our services into the data centre. Our plans include getting new the new SAN and servers. Our final phase will include the implementation of the Service Desk and Network Operations Centre (NOC),” he says.

Part of the network deployment includes wireless access enabling the company not only to reduce wiring and costs, but also enforces mobility and isolates the network.

“With the new infrastructure in place we felt that the introduction of wireless access will be of an asset to Aljazeera. The Wireless LAN (WLAN) was one of our concerns as we had to provide secure and controlled access. We have a unique WLAN implementation that relies on the whole traffic being encrypted from the client and up to the corporate network.

“We have went for WLAN in some areas to be able to provide access to mobile users like reporters and guests,” says Judia.

The company has adopted a strategy of deploying best-of-breed systems based on performance, scalability and product availability. Foundry Networks was selected for the LAN and WLAN switches while BlueSocket manages security on the WLAN. The broadcast network is protected by an ISS Proventia appliance, which provides multi levels of security measures.

“One of the main advantages of the best-of-breed technologies that we’ve chosen is that they are backward compatible. Critical services were upgraded from the ground up and general services were given high prioritisation when implementing our technology as they received the least upgrade.

Timing was all-important with the initial phases of the project as go-live had to coincide with the launch of the new broadcast system and the company’s new on-screen look.

“We had to implement the required set-up within 48 hours. The given time to deploy the system was very short. We had to talk to vendors and suppliers to have the equipment on site before the scheduled time mentioned in the project plans. Our goal was to use the new switches before we go on Air. We got the Edge switches two nights before going live. The team had to work for more than 36 hours continuously to move users to the new switches.

“Today we have a modern network capable of handing data, video and voice traffic. Journalists have a robust system that provides them with the ability to search archives of text media, prepare and deliver their reports. The information integration between the newsroom staff has increased significantly and the time to air is minimized,” says Judia.||**||

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