10.01.2011 12:00 PM
Networked media
Storage and usage are almost completely disconnected.

It will not be long before there is a complete disconnect between where professional media is stored and where it is being used. This is a profound shift, and it opens possibilities that are only now being contemplated, including professional media applications hosted in the cloud. This new frontier is being enabled by cutting-edge innovations that combine IT technology in new ways for professional media. It is also fueled by some fundamental changes in large-scale corporate and consumer environments on the Internet.

For some time now, this column has looked into technologies that remove barriers to accessing professional media over LANs. At this point, many of the issues surrounding LAN-based editing, file transfer and quality of service have been addressed. In fact, collaborative, LAN-based professional media applications are common place.

We are at a point where one can conceive of a sequence of technical developments that allow a media professional to access content for professional purposes over WANs; in fact, some would argue we are already there.

You might wonder exactly what I mean by “networked media over a WAN.” Well, it depends upon the use case. The WAN in question might be a VPN between a broadcaster and a post house. It might also be a privately managed network used by a media company with facilities all across the U.S. Or, it might be freelance people working on a project that is hosted in the cloud. From where I sit, it is the last case that is getting interesting, and that is what I would like to look into in this article.

Securing the cloud

If you assume professional content can be stored in the cloud (another way of saying content is stored on servers accessible across the Internet) and that extremely fast connections are generally available, then the stage is set for professional use of networked media in the cloud. Almost immediately, one runs into objections about storing content in the cloud rather than in a facility. After all, this is almost the same as saying you want to upload a bunch of content to the Internet, and we all know this could have serious security implications.

Actually, it is not the same. What if smart people are able to figure out ways to secure professional media in the cloud? After all, security is always a risk/reward decision. I think this is not only possible, but also I think it is highly likely that media companies will accept the security risks associated with cloud-based storage of media assets.

With this barrier out of the way, the next question is whether professional applications accessing networked media in the cloud can be built and still meet professional user requirements for speed, security, quality and overall functionality. I believe such applications not only can be built, but also I have seen early implementations of these applications, and they are quite amazing. Surely challenges exist, but let's look at one example where these challenges are met and resolved using a creative approach.

One potential problem is latency. Latency could result in unacceptably slow response time in a viewer or editor. One way this challenge could be addressed is by intelligently predicting what content the user will require next, and moving the content onto the edit platform in the background while the user continues to edit. The concept of a “viewable window” (let's say 10 seconds before and after the currently displayed content) has already been employed in a number of networked editing systems. Extending smart solutions to networked media allows functional barriers to be removed.

But this scenario begs a question: Where is the system that is being used to manipulate the professional media? Traditionally, the system might be an editor sitting in a small room in a television station. Over time, we have seen these edit bays move from tape-based facilities to laptops, and the laptops move from edit bays in the station out into the field. But, in these cases, as we moved from specialized hardware to a combination of commodity hardware and specialized software, the application has still resided on the same platform as the media. (For example, you may be using a laptop editor, but the video and audio you are editing resides on the laptop as well.) As network performance across LANs and now WANs has increased, it has become possible to remotely access the content you are editing. In some cases, vendors have even demonstrated editors that operate using a Web interface. But now, however, we are at a tipping point.

Applications as a service

We know we can run professional editors on commodity computer platforms. We also know we can separate the location of the content we are editing from the location of the edit software. We can use network attached storage to edit content located on a remote server. And, as I have just pointed out, we are at a point where we can edit content stored on servers not within our four walls, but in facilities located in other cities accessed across a WAN.

Right now, we are moving from a paradigm in which we know exactly which servers are storing our content, to a notion of content stored in the cloud, on servers in places where it makes the most financial sense. The physical location is not dependent upon a specific place, but instead is based upon meeting performance criteria for latency, lost packets, etc. In this environment, professional media companies have no idea where content is stored or copied and only care that their contract with the cloud vendor ensures their business requirements for security and performance are met. How the cloud vendor achieves these requirements, while important, are ultimately left to the cloud vendor.

Wow, this is a very different world! But, this is not the end of it. What if our professional media applications are pulled into the cloud as well? For example, imagine professional editing software offered as a service in the cloud. In this world, you can walk up to any computer, open a Web browser, log in to your editing application and begin editing content. In this world, it does not matter whether you are using a PC or a Mac. Eventually, you can do the same thing using a hand-held device such as a tablet, an iPhone or Android device. You do not own the software, nor do you own the servers on which the applications or media are stored. In fact, the software and the media are stored in many different places in the cloud. The content and even the editing software are not only replicated in a number of physical locations on the Web, fragments of the content and software are cached close to the user in edge devices.

I know that, by now, many of you are thinking this scenario is not only out there, but that it is completely off the deep end. However, I can tell you that not only is this possible, but that I have seen early demonstrations of it from several vendors. Yes there are barriers — some technical, some cultural. Yes, it is true that in the future not all professional media applications will work this way. That said, a significant number of professional media applications will move to the cloud, so it is important that professional media engineers start thinking about this new future.

Brad Gilmer is Executive Director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association, Executive Director of the Video Services Forum, and President of Gilmer & Associates, a management and technical consulting company.

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