Your Digital Chariot

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Digital signage systems depend on the underlying network to support basic connectivity but also the needs of the data to be distributed and the purpose of the signage system. They must also provide security, reliability and flexibility for future applications.

by Mark Stross, ANC Sports Enterprises

Over the past several years, ANC has deployed some of the highest profile digital signage systems in the world, including the largest arena center-hung scoreboard at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena, the highest resolution and largest display in MLB with the Seattle Mariners and the largest signage network in a New York City transportation hub at Fulton Center.

These signage systems feature different technologies, at times, different display types within the same installation. However, the one constant which ANC has encountered, is the need to build a comprehensive digital signage network to maximize the quickly evolving display technologies based on a solid but adaptable underlying network infrastructure.

While their time is centuries apart, a digital network can be likened to a chariot wheel, with all traffic moving along individual spokes connected to a center hub.  Break one spoke of one wheel and you can potentially derail your entire chariot. Each hub, or chariot wheel, is not only connected internally through spokes, but can connect to other hubs through spokes, similar to a chariot’s axel connecting two wheels.

While the chariot wheels can embody your network, a network is only as strong as its data. Data is no different than water, flowing freely through the spokes from one hub to the next.  A damaged spoke blocks the water, preventing it from flowing throughout the network.  Data, which is prevented from moving doesn’t appear on its final destination or appears incorrectly with stuttering, content breaks and other irregularities.

Building Your Chariot

There are many different security models for CMS and Extranet applications (not Internet).  Many of these models work for different applications, so it is important to be able to select and implement a security, which works for your individual network.

Usually, a vendor will receive a request for proposal or scope of work document to start forming a roadmap to build a network.  The first order of business upon receiving the scope is to determine if the vendor can actually do the project. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of the process since its subjective and relies completely upon vendors to be honest with themselves.

Once confident your expertise meets the scope of work, the first step towards responding to the request for proposal is to determine what kind of network is required. A closed network with no outside data entanglements, a partial closed network with ports open to the outside, or a completely open network.

A secure network requires firewalls, intelligent routers and secure software access.  In some projects, agreeing to this infrastructure can be difficult and if done incorrectly can negatively impact the final network. Vendors and clients should figure out security and network first as it is the backbone of every integrated project.

One popular method is to use virtual private network (VPN) tunnels into the network.  This method opens up the content players GUI and can enable repairs and programming without limitations since the whole network lives within the security of VPN.   Unfortunately, VPN tunnels do not always work, especially if your system is spread out over a large geographic location.  Therefore, every vendor should examine each project to identify which of the many different successful models will enable them to build their infrastructure. This one choice is huge and should be carefully vetted out to maximize the project’s success.

Once a network has been selected and the vendor and client have agreed to a security vision, the project can proceed.  The scoped products working within the network now need to be addressed.  Since your network has been established, you now know how your data will flow. Knowing how your data will flow will enable you to select and place your hardware to light up the deployment.   An interesting fact is that by doing the security and network plans upfront, you create a blueprint for the next steps (Figure 1).  Placing infrastructure within your network will always follow your data plan if it needs to be connected.

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Figure 2: Control Center for a large digital signage operation.

One of the interesting hardware scope issues is addressing the machines on your network. You will need to address questions such as should you use DHCP or static IP addresses to find items on your network.  We have discovered that we usually prefer setting up static IP addresses.  Using machine names over a network can trip you up if you are not careful.  It is critical to understand that you must test your hardware on your network layout and make sure you watch it for any issues.  You might be a machine name lover at heart but discover that your network prefers static IP addresses.  You will not know unless you have truly tested your configuration.  Too many smart hardware designs are derailed by the loss of player connectivity.  One hard lesson is that it’s easy to throw hardware towards resolving issues.  Frankly, that’s the lazy way to do it.  Each additional hardware widget is another point of failure, another aspect of the deployment that needs to be learned, and finally new hardware can have “quirks” that have to be understood.

Now that you have tested your hardware design on the planned network you are able to create a scope package for the client including the ever important cost, as well as its functionality based on your testing and knowledge of your system.

Here’s where the fun begins. Essentially, we always try to include backup systems (the spare chariot wheel) for every network so that we have a fall back system in place.  You have to know up front where your failure points could be in your design.  You have to have spares and the ability to quickly switch gear out or switch to redundancy on the fly.  Like a submarine, know the danger points for leaking water and batten down the hatches.

The network design usually integrates a control room (Figure 1).  The control room is the hub, the center of the chariot wheel, to which all spokes somehow connect.  From the hub you have fiber or cable networks extending to players and content to screens.  Sometimes you have redundancy where you have two control points feeding a central network hub which typically have redundant intelligent routers that switch from each other if any transmission packets go dark.  We don’t see this type of setup often, but if the client needs total uptime, this is a means to make it happen.

One of the most frequently used utilities in our testing is software that checks out our network for packet losses and other issues.  Believe it or not; the same motherboard manufacturer might change out the Ethernet—on-board Ethernet—chips on their motherboard.  Just because one machine is working great does not mean every machine is working great.  While this seems simplistic, items such as this have tripped up the best technology teams in the world.   Ethernet ports and fiber communication modems are the cartilage that holds your network together. While holding everything together, these items are actually also the weakest link. Testing your network after you deploy your hardware will save you time and identify the issues which might prevent your system from functioning properly in the future.

When you are dealing with long runs, getting fiber modems working can be a chore.  At times, we can find ourselves working in new building constructions zones, which don’t have cell phone reception and need ultra-high power two-way radios.  Essentially, when you are estimating how to design as well as how to deploy your network, keep in mind that your location is also a challenge. You will either need extra communications technology, extra bodies so that you can do an effective sneaker net, or extra time. Unfortunately, technology deployments are often completed under demanding deadlines where more often than not, extra time is not an option. Trying to bring a network online under brutal conditions only works if you are prepared, which takes us back to planning.  Know the environment you are going to deploy in and solve for the environment as part of your design.

As we all know, the time honored truth about technology is that it will change.  Change is occurring so fast that none of us will be master of any technology for long and if we wish to remain viable will have to learn many technologies.

We all should be asking ourselves; “What could I be doing with my technology to make it better?” “What do my clients want that I am not delivering?” Whatever the answers are, one thing is for certain; you should be thinking about future-proofing your clients’ deployments.  This is challenging, as clients often don’t want to think down the road. However, your network infrastructure needs to be built to withstand more data, the demand for faster delivery of that data and the requirement to deliver data to more final destinations (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Control Center for a large digital signage operation.

So how do you future-proof, while ensuring you deploy a system at your client’s budget today?  The answer is so deceptively simple, it’s irritating: testing.  Testing means do everything you possibly can to break your setup.  Unplug technology, break wires, do the ugliest torture tests you can think up.  Always think worst-case deployment issues.  Testing is not just about matching up standards found on the web.  Specs that come with equipment cannot be relied upon. Try out the gear.  See the spec being delivered with your own eyes and push its limits.

Be brave and explore different technologies, then test, test again and test some more.   To stay viable create a plan, test the plan, design hardware around the plan, test the hardware within the planned configuration, debug the test results, plan for the future, test the future, implement and retest. Then, finally, at some point in between repairing your wheel spokes to ensure your chariot continues to ride smoothly, take the time to celebrate your success and enjoy the ride.

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Figure 3: ANC Sports Mariners Safeco Field, the largest/highest resolution display in Major League Baseball. Also note that the signs around the outfield walls are part of the system as well.

Author Mark Stross will be co-presenting Seminar 18 entitled, “Using Technology to Manage Network Growth & Multiple Display Types,” at Digital Signage Expo 2015 on Thursday, March 12 from 9:00-10:00am at the Las Vegas Convention Center.  For more information about DSE or to register for this or any other educational seminar or workshop and learn about digital signage go to www.dse2015.com

ANC Sports Enterprises, Purchase, NY. (914) 696-2100. www.ancsports.com