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BBC R&D on saving the archive

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Ant Miller Ant Miller | 16:10 UK time, Monday, 29 June 2009

[Editor's note: This piece first appeared in Ariel last week.]

For 15 years a dedicated cadre of engineers and managers from R&D has been working to develop tools which will preserve the BBC's vast archive into the future.

The latest product of their efforts is the ASTOR demonstrator - (aka 'the world's heaviest laptop') which is currently being tested by the archive and network media research engineers.
Astor demonstrator
It's big, runs pretty hot, weighs close to half a ton, and can store dozens of hours of HD content, but perhaps most amazingly is that in its brief few months of existence, it's clocked up more than 10,000 miles. That's because in April, Rajitha Weerakkody and I took the prototype box along to NAB (the world's largest broadcast technology conference and exhibition) in Las Vegas.

The story began three years ago, when R&D started looking at the best ways to store large amounts of AV content in digital form. We produced a huge amount of data as well as recommendations and proposals, but it was clear that the digital storage industry couldn't match the needs of our archive, nor the needs of the thousands of other broadcasters who faced the same challenge.

Led by the technologist Richard Wright, R&D joined forces with academic researchers and industry experts to develop a new system which could manage the vast volumes of digital data. This became known as the 'Avatar-M' research project, and we revealed the first technical prototypes at the NAB. We're hoping to thoroughly test the kit at Kingswood over the summer, before enhancing the platform and possibly incorporating elements of the Dirac video codec (also produced in R&D).

In September the kit, plus its trusty band of demonstrators, will take to the road once more - this time to Amsterdam for the European forum for broadcast tech, IBC.

Ant Miller is Senior Research Manager, BBC Research and Development.


  • Comment number 1.

    Why the doubts about Dirac? I would have thought one of the essential requirements for archival of digital media is being able to retrieve the stuff 10/20/50 years in the future. Unless you have a free, open source codec, how can you guarantee this. It was my understanding that this was the main reason for the BBC spending money on developing yet another codec. The same applies to the Audio codec and to the container formats.

    What formats does ASTOR use at present?

  • Comment number 2.

    In response to halfamo, Astor doesn't tie you into any specific format - you choose whatever file format best matches your content. You're quite right about the benefits of using a free open source codec if you want to keep the same encoding for a long time, e.g. 20 years. The other option is to migrate between file formats as and when they become a risk, e.g. when they are no longer in common use or you can't get the decoders/players. Broadcast archives will often archive content in whatever format is currently used in the production process and then down the line they'll migrate this to something else, including uncompressed if budgets allow. The BBC D3 project is an example. Loads more info on the Astor approach is on the avatar-m site (www.avatar-m.org.uk) in the whitepapers section.

  • Comment number 3.

    "For 15 years a dedicated cadre of engineers and managers from R&D"


    "For 15 years a cadre of dedicated engineers and managers from R&D..."

    Spot the subtle difference.

    But what do you expect of engineers?

  • Comment number 4.

    Talking of archives.

    why isn't there an accessible, searchable archive of all news stories?

    It seems like news stories slip down a memory hole a few days after publication.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

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