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Inside Da Vinci

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 14:05 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009

This is Da Vinci.

Da Vinci - the test farm

No. You're right. This doesn't really look like a famous Italian polymath at all.

In fact this Da Vinci is a room in our office, commonly known internally by a slightly more down to earth name of "The Farm".

Da Vinci is our test farm, and contains about a hundred different set top boxes on which our services are tested - if you've ever built a website and felt the pain of having to test a website in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari AND Konqueror (okay, that last one is probably just me!), then you might want to spare a thought for our test team who have to test on lots of different boxes - all with their own odd quirks and behaviours!

The room is mostly occupied by Sky and Freeview boxes with some Virgin Media and Freesat boxes and some integrated digital TV thrown in for good measure.

What's in the farm?

Set top boxes in the test farm

The majority of the boxes are split between two racks - one for Sky and one for Freeview. Each rack holds up to 48 set top boxes, and next to it is a bank of 12 monitors. These are configured to display four the output of four set top boxes at once.

Monitors in the test farm

As well as the set top boxes, the rack contains a plethora of equipment:


These take the input of four set top boxes and combines it into one picture, for displaying on the monitor. There's also a button that allows a particular box to be displayed full screen.

One of the screens in the test farm

Audio Selector

The monitors in the farm have no speakers, and the sound of 48 set top boxes playing at once would probably drive our test team mad! So each rack has an audio switcher, which enables the tester to output the sound of a chosen box

Audio selector in test farm

Power setup for the set top boxes

This bank of big red switches enables individual boxes and multiplexers to be turned on and off, which is much easier than going round the back of the racking and pulling the power cords out! This might be done to reboot the boxes, to allow us to reconfigure them between our different playout environments, or just to save electricity overnight.

Power switches in the test farm

Telephone line selector

Sky boxes include a modem which enables the box to dial up and get information over the internet. At BBC Red Button, we use this functionality mainly to allow people to donate money to Children in Need, Comic Relief and Sport Relief.

Like the Audio Selector, we use the telephone line selector in order to save us having to install a telephone line for each box we have, or to have to plug and unplug each box when a telephone line is needed.

Hitting the right button

It's no good having a set top box if you've no way to control it. So naturally the farm also includes remote controls.

The Sky boxes all share standard remote controls - one for the standard set top boxes and one for the Sky+ boxes. This means you can perform the same test on a huge raft of boxes all at once.

Freeview is a different matter - every box has its own remote control and these are all slightly different. Sometimes one remote may work for several boxes made by the same manufacturer, however that's not always the case. This obviously makes testing on Freeview a slower process.

The box selection

One of our limiting factors in the farm is space. We have just enough room to contain the majority of Sky set top boxes on the market.

However Freeview also provides us with another problem due to the sheer range of set top boxes and integrated televisions available on the market, which number in the hundreds. There are far more out there than we have the space to fit in the farm, or time to test on. We try to have representative range of equipment.

Although there is a large amount of equipment, the majority use a small range of middleware providers which means that the boxes in the farm will show up the vast majority of problems.

Whilst the farm plays an important function, most of our product testing actually takes place at desks, using a smaller, representative range of set top boxes - although spot tests may be made throughout the build process, most of the testing in the farm tends to happen towards the end of a project as part of the preparation for launch.

Thanks to Niki Muttaluri from our test team for his help in writing this post


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