Heading Up to Cloud Storage

PORTLAND, MAINE—There is no avoiding it. Most everything these days is gravitating towards the cloud. For broadcast and cable providers, moving content to the cloud from dedicated appliances seems to be the current trend, but is now the time to make the move? Cloud storage does offer some distinct advantages, but it takes knowing the whole scope of what is involved and what the pros and cons can actually be.

Alex Grossman, vice president for media/entertainment for Quantum For broadcasters, “cloud storage gives users the ability to maintain content and assets from multiple sources in a common repository that multiple users or multiple sites can access, to deliver content to multiple outlets from a single repository and to deliver content to multiple cloud-based distribution networks or CDNs at once,” according to Alex Grossman, vice president for media and entertainment for Quantum, a San Jose, Calif.-based provider of data storage and cloud solutions.

He also sees it as a trend broadcast and cable really need to be looking into at this point. “Right now we really see cloud services accelerating,” he added. “It’s not simply the promise of lower costs through the move to a more OPEX-oriented cost model, but also the fact that a greater number of broadcasters will embrace single-point delivery from the cloud, with storage and compute resources working together in an automated workflow. The role of CDNs and aggregators also will change as large-scale enterprise cloud providers move into the media space.”

As you begin to dive into cloud storage, several factors immediately come into play. Using dedicated on-premise appliances can cause cost ramp-up when it’s time to expand and often these solutions need to happen in large leaps. When storage devices are reaching their maximum capacity, the next item is a capital expenditure that can be quite significant. You need to estimate for the future and scoping out appliance solutions can be a tricky proposition. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of cloud storage is being able to scale up, or even scale down—on a continuous basis—your exact needs for content production. Archiving and VOD serving can fluctuate widely and cloud storage offers the option to basically pay for what you need.

Another key point is maintenance and backup. Current appliances need to be maintained for reliability and often require expensive hardware repairs or cyclic license costs. Cloud storage can erase a lot of that ongoing complexity. But choosing what type of cloud storage can be tricky.

“There are primarily three cloud models,” according to Mike Palmer, vice president for the news division at Masstech, a Markham, Ontario-based provider of archiving, sharing and media asset management systems. “Public cloud, where storage is abstracted to a service such as Amazon/Microsoft; private cloud, where storage is hosted by a customer at their own IT department; and private distributed cloud, where storage is distributed among multiple locations in an enterprise but available to all.”

Palmer advises that often the private distributed cloud can be a better option for broadcast. “Private distributed clouds offer the benefit of long-term scalability and resilience with the ease of expansion,” he said. “In the current broadcast environment where stations are more frequently being bought and sold, the ability to keep a station’s content in a discrete storage location is important, as oftentimes this content may be considered part of the assets of a station. Also key is the ability to interconnect a number of these locations in such a way they appear to be a single larger repository. Local segments of the aggregated, distributed content repository inherently have both greater local reliability, local availability and greater local value.”

One factor that needs to be addressed up front is the pricing model on usage, according to Ray Baldock, consultant at Baldock and Associates in Sacramento, Calif., who specializes in broadcast technology strategy. “Remember, pricing models need to be selected based on the expected usage, but this may not be apparent when the content is initially uploaded,” he said. “Pricing based on frequency of access or I/O bandwidth can all too easily reveal surprises down the road.”

Security is another key element that must be addressed, and even in this instance, offloading that element to a third party can free up a lot of cycles that typically would be handled in-house. Cloud storage security is a primary requirement of all cloud-based services, and often it’s a better and less expensive option than what can be accomplished by a production or broadcast facility.

Francois Quereuil, senior director of worldwide marketing for Aspera In fact, many do not see a lot of downside to moving to the cloud. Francois Quereuil, senior director of worldwide marketing for Aspera in Emeryville, Calif.—an IBM company that deals in large amounts of data to and from the cloud—clearly sees the benefits. “I would say that there are no real challenges in the cloud when it comes to security, reliability and scalability,” Quereuil said. “Cloud infrastructures are immensely scalable by nature, security is an absolute requirement and all providers have the highest standards in terms of reliability, since they are dedicated to operating their infrastructure and nothing else. The up time is far greater than what any broadcaster could ever achieve on their own. Now the main challenge is data transport to take advantage of all the benefits of the cloud. Large volumes of data need to be moved to and from remote cloud infrastructures in practical time frames.”

But Quereuil believes there are many options now that provide a far great benefit over in-house technology. “Existing TCP-based transfer technologies [such as HTTP or FTP] do not provide the level of speed and performance required to take full advantage of the cloud’s promise,” Quereuil says. “At Aspera, for example, we leverage the wide variety of cloud storage out there such as AWS S3, Google Cloud, Windows Azure, IBM Softlayer and many others.”

While cloud storage is compelling, the add-on of cloud computing may be even more enticing. Some files not only need to be stored but also need to be transcoded/encoded. Devices on a premise can do a lot of the heavy lifting, as long as they are upgraded often and can crunch down massive amounts of content.

Larry Thaler, president and founder, Positive Flux But what if the processing power was more unlimited? More distributed? Cloud services can be the best place to spread out encoding and decoding over many systems in many different locations. Larry Thaler, president and founder of Positive Flux, a New York-based company that specializes in media strategy, says a lot of the advantages are here today.

“Content is available anywhere and can be shared between suppliers, team members as well as clients.” he said. “You get freedom from physical infrastructure that is expandable upon request. Many vendors offer transcode and CDN services. We are seeing the next natural step is simultaneous use by workgroups which can drive a location-free media production workflow. Perhaps input and output speeds and costs associated with this could stand to be improved for this method, but cloud based storage and processing will continue to be nibbling at the edge of production/delivery for more distribution and acquisition.”

Are there any downsides to cloud storage? The primary one that comes up is lack of control. While cloud storage frees up a lot of resources for broadcasters and cable providers, it does mean giving up a fair amount of control over hosted content.

Grossman at Quantum says customers should progress slowly. Despite the fact that cloud storage can potentially reduce costs and complexity for broadcasters, there are some caveats they should consider.

“The current crop of cloud providers has designed offerings for developers, and most cloud storage services are engineered for long-term storage,” Grossman said. “At the same time, the cloud OPEX model offered by most providers is designed for longer-term archive rather than short-term transactional production, so broadcasters should carefully consider and model with both usage and costs based on a broadcast workflow before jumping into public cloud deployment.”

All in all, security, uptime, scalability, reliability, network speed and many other factors that can be strictly controlled in-house become elements handled by someone else. It could be unnerving, but also could really streamline an operation with the right partner aligned with your core goals. It would almost certainly free up a large amount of headaches that current providers now have, so investigating now the offerings cloud storage can provide could be a very smart move.