Cloud computing solves insatiable viewer appetites

By now most can comprehend the notion of production services completed (or assets stored) inside a “cloud,” that is, a remotely located facility that is securely connected to a production facility via a private or public Internet connection.

However, while the concept has been successfully used in other IT-based industries for several years, broadcasters have trailed behind when it comes to understanding how to leverage the cloud mostly because traditional broadcast technology has always been very task specific. The data (baseband video) being used often has a live component to it, which can be problematic for data packet delivery methods. Once it’s converted to a digital file, however, the potential for leveraging a cloud-based environment brings several advantages.

“It’s taken a while for broadcasters to consider utilizing a cloud environment, but the move to file-based workflows has begun to change the mindset,” said David Sallak, Media & Entertainment Chief Strategist for clustered storage vendor Isilon Systems. The company is working with parent company EMC to help broadcasters “virtualize” their technology and get the most out of it. “That transition means there’s the ability to leverage general IT-based technology and platforms into the broadcast space.”

For local stations, the general concept of using remotely located equipment to put together the nightly newscast might be a bit pie-in-the-sky (pun intended). But for those looking at serving a wider (national or international) audience, capital dollars go further in terms of new technology spending, and services can be up and running faster when using a cloud-based service. The strategy might even improve employee productivity.

“Instead of buying one piece of hardware for every task, I can now run two or three tasks on one piece of hardware that’s not even in my building,” said Sallak. “My costs and power consumption are greatly reduced while my ‘elasticity’ or ability to scale as needed, is increased. That’s where all of the new excitement in virtual clouds is coming from.”

Indeed, the real value comes when you have to create thousands of pieces of content (in varying formats) to serve the variety of TV, Internet and mobile platforms now available to consumers. Time-consuming tasks such as transcoding and other forms of signal processing can be seamlessly handled by a centralized facility and the end result then distributed to multiple sites (or channels) very quickly.

This has become critical with the advent of smartphones and other portable devices demanding unscheduled use of video. Simulcasting content to the Internet was tricky at first, but has been worked out at the station level with limited pain. But how are broadcasters supposed to keep up with the growing, unpredictable demand for content using their existing single-channel architectures?

“There is clearly a case for cloud-based content distribution when you don’t know when a viewer or subscriber is going to want to watch a particular program, on an alternate platform like a cell phone, and it has to be served immediately, on demand,” said Jake Winett, director of Media & Entertainment Industry Solutions at Microsoft.

“This concept breaks the model of focusing all of your resources to developing content for a single newscast at 6:00 or 11:00 or delivering a show at a certain time and day of the week. Broadcasters are now being asked to be 24/7 news organizations or entertainment program providers. I don't see how they will be able to do that effectively without outside help.”

At the NAB Show in April, Microsoft announced a partner program to lead media and entertainment companies to the cloud. Companies like Aspera, Digital Rapids, Harris, Origin Digital and Signiant Systems all expressed interest in developing industry-specific solutions based on the Windows Azure platform (with many hosting demos in the Microsoft exhibit booth).

Microsoft said it would make its Internet Information Services HD Smooth Streaming technology available as a subscription service on Windows Azure. This will add to its technologies already available on Windows Azure, such as the Microsoft Media Platform Video Editor (formerly known as Silverlight Rough Cut Editor), which was used by NBC Sports for its online coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Aspera helped manage bandwidth for those Olympics and other major events using its cloud-supported services.

Another big concern for broadcasters is secure access to the services, when they are needed. No one wants to have the problems experienced by customers of Amazon’s cloud-based services recently, when a widespread failure in’s Web services business took down many Internet sites on Thursday, highlighting the risks involved. Several companies — from small startups to major corporations like Pfizer and Nasdaq — use Amazon’s cloud-based service to serve their Web sites, applications and files. Careful planning and redundant backup plans are essential to any mission-critical operation.

To protect against total system failure, broadcasters have several options. This isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Media companies could deploy a mix of on-premise and private or public cloud platforms. As part of a private cloud, a broadcaster could manage its own resources internally, yet still leverage the efficiencies of using remotely located hardware systems. This model been accomplished with some success by broadcasters — such as Fox Television, Gannett Broadcasting, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Scripps — which have all subscribed to the Axis graphics platform from Chyron.

The staff at the various stations within a group is supplied with prebuilt templates that it uses to quickly create graphics for multiple outlets, including print — sometimes within minutes. The stations can also share graphics created from a centralized location.

In an external or “public” cloud (not the general Internet), increased storage or other services that were once dedicated tasks at the station can now be ordered and established on an as-needed basis. The extra cost associated would then be much less than having to buy new technology outright, and the virtual technology gives broadcasters better capability to respond to increased demand. They can also order less services when demand is low.

So the benefits of a virtual environment can be very rewarding, however, even proponents of the cloud say it can't solve every production problem. When there’s a breaking news story, there’s no substitute for a localized system that can be used immediately.

“When a local station needs to turn around content quickly, that is focused on a specific market, there’s no substitute for locally stored content,” said Isilon’s Sallak. “A public cloud would cost less to store those assets, but it would be challenged to turn them around quickly. So, there’s a ‘time-to-market’ challenge that the broadcaster needs to assess when they consider cloud computing and the assets that will be stored and processed in the cloud.”

Basically, when you need to scale storage capacity or signal processing quickly, but aren’t sure about the investment or sustained customer demand, look to the sky.