NEP Bolsters Mobile Support With IP-based Monitoring System

Mobile-production giant NEP Broadcasting says it is already reaping significant benefits from nsite, a new monitoring system that links trucks in the field back to the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters via broadband connection. The system has been successfully used in the field for months on NEP’s SS-32 and SS-16 trucks and is due to come online this month at the Los Angeles production facility NEP created for Conan O’Brien’s late-night show on TBS. NEP plans to deploy the technology on 10 more mobile units this year.

The nsite system was developed early last year as a way to offer a higher level of remote support for today’s IP-based mobile-production equipment than is afforded by remote-access programs like LogMeIn, says Jeff Joslin, VP of engineering for NEP Supershooters.

Nsite is also designed to be a far more secure option than linking every possible device aboard a truck directly to the Internet — which makes them more susceptible to viruses — and more reliable than a standard VPN (virtual private network) in a remote venue.

In developing nsite, NEP aimed to answer a very large question in mobile-truck support, says Joslin: “What would it take to talk to everything?” The company then set about buying off-the-shelf interfaces if they were available and developing its own interface programs if they weren’t.

“Basically, we wrote down every barrier to every piece of equipment and came up with a unified platform,” he says. “It’s not just a cobbled-together bunch of stuff.”

The IP-based system, designed in conjunction with NEP’s systems-integration arm, uses two servers (one Linux, one Windows) to connect to and log data from every piece of equipment in a truck as well as from various temperature sensors and power meters (temperature sensors are mounted in each equipment rack). It uses wireless broadband cards to create a communications “tunnel” back to monitoring systems and support staff in Pittsburgh.

Once a truck has parked and established a broadband connection, the nsite servers constantly log equipment performance data and transmit that data back to NEP headquarters. Through the nsite portal, support personnel stationed in Pittsburgh — or anywhere else with broadband connectivity — can access real-time data on how all equipment is functioning, diagnose problems, and directly access individual control systems.

Nsite allows NEP engineers to remotely update a graphics system, rid a production switcher of a virus, reconfigure an audio console, or program a virtual-monitor wall. It also offers direct access to a truck’s intercom system, and small point-of-view cameras mounted in the truck stream low-res video for a real-time look at hardware control panels or GUIs (graphical user interfaces). As part of nsite, NEP also installs a “headless” computer in the truck that is dedicated to nsite and can be controlled only remotely. That saves NEP from having to enlist laptops or PCs in the truck to help solve problems.

“That gives us the ability to run any thick client at the truck but remotely access it as we need to,” says Joslin. “We also have direct IP gateways to run thick clients back here.”

Although NEP can do a lot with nsite, it isn’t a bandwidth hog, an important consideration for clients. The applications that are run through nsite generally use less than 100 kbps of bandwidth, he says, and, while nsite will sometimes make use of standard broadband connections to a truck, it is designed to run on the dedicated cellular cards alone.

“It’s just a trickle,” says Joslin. “It’s the equivalent of a voice-over-IP channel or two at the most.” Nsite was directly integrated into the SS-32 and SS-16 trucks launched last year, at an additional cost of about $30,000 per truck. He adds that many clients are interested in getting the system installed on the trucks they use, viewing it as “a bigger safety net” for their productions. Nsite’s ability to closely measure and analyze power at different venues is particularly attractive, with power a high-priority concern for most sports broadcasters.

So NEP plans to integrate nsite into existing trucks during periods of downtime; full installation takes a week to 10 days.

Although nsite improves NEP’s centralized support scheme and makes it easy for engineers to lend their expertise without hopping on a plane, Joslin doesn’t see it as a way to cut down on traveling personnel. Instead, he says, it’s a way for headquarters to lend some extra manpower to truck engineers who already have their hands full with the numerous requirements of live production.

“They can go about their day, and, when a problem occurs, we’re virtually there,” he says. “It allows us to do an even better job of support.”