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Web Services, Hollywood Style

Microsoft unveiled a service-oriented architecture designed for broadcasters and film studios, with its server software as the center.

The Microsoft Connected Services Framework is an integrated, server-based software system for building and managing services using a service-oriented architecture, an application architecture in which all functions, or services, are defined using a description language and have invokable interfaces that are called to perform business processes. It can help media and entertainment companies manage disparate applications and streamline workflow, Microsoft said.

"Our customers are facing technology disruptions right now, with new distribution models like IPTV or video and music to a portable device," said David Alstadter, senior director of the group. They face the pressure of industry consolidation while scrambling to meet FCC mandates and follow the rules for public broadcasting.

"They need to interoperate, streamline the workflow and cut costs, he said. With digital distribution and consumption, they also need to track how content is used, making sure that rights holders are paid and pirates can't get their hands on the content.

Joshua Duhl, director of research for IDC's content management and retrieval practice, said there has been a historic split between operations and IT infrastructures in the broadcast and film industries. "But as the migration to digital content accelerates, it is critical to create unified, efficient methods for developing, managing and delivering content."

Microsoft's sales pitch is that the product set can shorten production cycles, reduce overhead, improve communications and increase the flow of information across organizational boundaries.

"Today, there are a lot of steps that require human intervention and time, and it's a very linear workflow," Alstadter said.

Instead of producers checking footage in and out, then using the phone, fax or e-mail to notify others that a step has been completed, the system can provide automatic notifications to everyone in the process, both in-house and out. Microsoft said by connecting production to back-end systems, companies can improve business intelligence and thereby profits.

The system includes elements from partners such as Avid Technology, North Plains, OmniBus Systems, Panasonic and Telestream, all established vendors in the entertainment industry.

The product builds on the Microsoft Connected Services Framework, which was introduced to the telecommunications industry in February 2005. It takes a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach, with Microsoft's framework in the middle, orchestrating the various pieces of software and hardware.

"We're trying to productize the core piece of architecture in the SOA," said Microsoft senior product manager David Chow. "The value of Web services is to call different functions at different points of time dynamically without a rigid workflow."

The framework includes six modules for profile management, session management, identity management, a service catalog, resource management and service logic/orchestration.

Customers could base the framework on Microsoft's Windows Server, SQL Server and BizTalk Server products, or they can use other server software. Microsoft Live Communication Server 2005, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 could plug in to provide notification and collaboration services. Later, Microsoft plans to enable integration with third-party ERP software products from vendors such as SAP .

"The Connected Services Framework wraps siloed applications in Web services with single-point connections," Alstadter said. Then, Microsoft server software orchestrates their interactions.

Any vendor or product using open standards such as XML, SOAP, and WSDL can play in the system. The partners participating in the launch already expose functionality through standard Web services APIs .

"We're not asking partners to develop anything special," Chow said. "These are products being shipped today."

Microsoft's Worldwide Media & Entertainment Group was created in November 2003 with the mandate of helping enterprise customers in this sector begin to consolidate their legacy systems into an SOA based on Web services.

Microsoft will present the framework at the 2005 National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas, Nev., the week of April 18.