Cloud computing for broadcasters

Broadcasters stand to cut costs, increase productivity, reduce risks and improve their agility.
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Though implementation of cloud-based services may be relatively new to the broadcast industry, the history behind cloud computing stretches back decades. The concept was alive in the 1960s, and the model itself has matured from IBM's use of virtualized mainframes with thin clients in the 1980s to the mid-2000s' development of data centers that virtualize software on one platform. In 2006, Intel and AMD hardware, motherboards, and chips with virtualization technology made it possible to equip data centers with robust yet far more cost-effective hardware platforms that essentially collapsed the equivalent of 15 boxes into one. This was groundbreaking in that it enabled the running of many virtual machines on one host computer with no real impact on functionality.

The cloud we know now grew out of this virtualization technology, which today allows cloud-based service providers to offer businesses, including media organizations, vast amounts of computational power, as well as hosted services that enable a new approach to content production and delivery. By leveraging third-party computing capability over the network and by gaining greater functionality in using less-expensive network-connected clients — namely the browser-equipped workstations employed across the media enterprise — broadcasters stand to cut costs, increase productivity, reduce risks and improve their agility.

Adoption

Whether or not it's evident to the user, cloud-based tools addressing common business concerns are already in use by a variety of industries, including the broadcast industry. For example, Salesforce enables companies to manage customer relationships, Google Docs makes it easy to share and edit documents, and OffiSync enables compatibility and collaboration in working with shared documents. What's changing now is that cloud applications are being employed more directly and more broadly by media companies for the purpose of content creation.

The troubled economy gave adoption of cloud-based solutions a jumpstart, as broadcasters quickly came to realize the value that the hosted-services model offers in reducing capital costs and in enabling nonspecialists to take on a larger share of content creation. These compelling benefits have allowed broadcasters to run leaner and to be smarter in using their limited resources.

From the managerial perspective, the cloud represents an operational cost rather than a large capital expenditure for use of a particular application. By shifting the bulk of infrastructure to the service provider, the cloud-based model eliminates the cost of integrating, installing, maintaining, supporting, upgrading, and expanding proprietary hardware and software.

Furthermore, with infrastructure and software services hosted by the cloud provider, the broadcaster — whether a single station or a station group — realizes much faster, more convenient and more affordable access to the latest technical advances. The broadcaster benefits from working with remotely hosted high-performance, high-reliability hardware — such as servers and render farms — that never would be financially feasible for a single broadcast facility. Software updates and bug fixes become a thing of the past, and new features and functionality are developed, tested and released more rapidly than they are for traditional software solutions.

Workflow integration

Because cloud-based applications tend to deliver near-universal functionality, they're ideal for enabling and streamlining the routine tasks that keep the business running. While there are cloud applications geared specifically to high-end users, the true advantage of cloud computing lies in being able to bring essential functionality to a larger number of people. Typically, the use of pre-established templates, preconfigured menu options and customized interfaces serve to reinforce a consistent result. Whether the application focuses on video editing, image editing, graphics creation, animation or some other element of the workflow, the key is that it serves as an easy-to-use tool that helps users to create and deliver content while maintaining the company's quality standards.

The cloud also facilitates greater collaboration throughout broadcast production and delivery workflows. The workflow diagram in Figure 1 illustrates how users at different locations can join forces effectively, working simultaneously and in parallel to fulfill an order or complete a project. In this case, media companies can maximize the value and efficiency of their staff by applying the right talent to the right job. Or, when staff at one location is stressed, the company can prevent bottlenecks by bringing personnel from other sites onboard. Tracking of media, metadata, users and projects from beginning to end, regardless of their location, helps to ensure that content is finished and taken to air on schedule. These capabilities aren't unique to the cloud, but it can be very difficult to achieve this agility with “on-the-ground” software.

Every business, cloud-based or not, is interested in improving its workflow and the quality of its product, and this is why the cloud soon will be ubiquitous. As long as cloud-based applications offer the necessary integrated tools and can support simple media management and seamless cooperation between networked users, the cloud makes these improvements possible — and it does so without requiring added infrastructure maintenance and investment.

Structure and stability

One of the greatest benefits of cloud computing is that the end user needn't worry about any of the technologies running behind the scenes. Cloud-based service providers maintain their own data centers or, more often, lease private cloud services from enterprise-class data centers capable of providing infrastructure, large-scale virtualization servers on which applications run, redundant SQL servers that support intensely data-driven applications, expansive and scalable file stores, and — in the case of video and graphics — farms of render boxes. Figure 2 illustrates how the graphics cloud supports operations on the ground, wherever they may be located.

Containing appropriately sized pools of CPU and RAM resources, an enterprise-class virtualized server infrastructure typically hosts the multitude of virtualized Web servers used to run the live production site, as well as several other identical tiers used for testing and development. An enterprise-class high-availability (i.e., clustered) server infrastructure hosts the site's database tiers, with multiple instances running to support the production, testing and development tiers. Storage in a cloud data center usually consists of an enterprise-class, high-availability SAN/NAS storage system with both synchronous and asynchronous replication capabilities. Storage capacity depends on the type of application, but it can easily be scaled to reach into petabytes of storage space.

All of this technology is held together by redundant network security and network distribution appliances at each site. Redundant intrasite and intersite load balancing and traffic management appliances balance traffic loads among the many different Web servers and database servers within the system. These appliances maintain performance by ensuring that, despite usage by hundreds or thousands of users, no server is ever overrun with too many user requests, and they also enable easy horizontal scaling of the Web server farm. To protect content within the cloud, support continuous operations and provide for disaster recovery, these appliances perform deduplication, compression, encryption and replication at the main data site, as well as between geographically distributed sites. Run by the likes of Microsoft and Amazon, among others, these clouds are tested and validated for the applications they support. Numerous Internet backbones converge within high-end data centers to provide redundancy, guarantee uptime and ensure high-bandwidth performance even in times of crisis. Service level agreements address the usual concerns such as security, performance, outages, data restoration and maintenance.

Broadcasters can connect to the cloud effectively through high- and low-bandwidth links, from a simple cable modem to a T3 line or 20Mb/s connection. The time saved by working in the cloud easily offsets rendering times, for example, even over lower-bandwidth links. Because Internet connectivity brings wire, image and video services into broadcast facilities and supports their communications and research tools, most facilities already have instituted backup systems that ensure ongoing access. These measures also project the security and reliability of cloud-based services. The Internet is a highly resilient means by which to move data, and short of an issue at the station level, it is dependable for cloud-based content creation tools.

The performance and responsiveness of those tools will more likely depend on the design of the cloud application than on network configuration and capacity. While the cloud enables the application, it could be considered the least important element in adopting a cloud-based service. Within the broadcast environment, key requirements would be interoperability with (or integration into) existing systems, ease of use and functionality appropriate to the roles of the service and each user within the overall workflow. The merits and value of cloud-based applications can be evaluated and judged the same way conventional software is assessed: according to the workflow benefits it offers the user and business.

Greg Lennon is director of product management and product manager, hosted services for Chyron.