NEW YORK—While the IT world has embraced software as a service and relied heavily on the cloud for offsite storage, the broadcast world has remained more apprehensive about moving away from on premise hardware and onto cloud-based systems. However, the last several years have seen greater endorsement from the industry vendors in what SaaS can bring to broadcasters, who are now beginning to embrace the model.
“When we launched Media Shuttle, our first SaaS solution, more than five years ago, many in the industry weren’t ready for SaaS,” said Jon Finegold, chief marketing officer for Signiant in Lexington, Mass. “In fact, it was common to hear from top media and entertainment execs that ‘we will never use SaaS.’ Fast forward to 2018, and Media Shuttle has surpassed the 400,000 user mark and is now the de facto standard in the industry for sending and sharing large files. From our lens, the state of SaaS in the industry is very strong.”
‘PAY AS YOU GO’
Mid-2018 could be seen as the transition era where ever more broadcasters and production houses give SaaS another look.
“We’re starting to see broadcasters understanding the need for buying software in different ways,” said Karl Mehring, director of product management for playout at Grass Valley. “The driver is the move from a load of equipment to a ‘pay as you go’ model, and that is something SaaS can provide better than other options out there today.
“This has really been driven by the adoption of the cloud and SaaS in other industries, where there has been a lot of success with it,” Mehring continued. “There will always be challenges with SaaS if you expect it to be same [as legacy broadcast equipment]. But that shouldn’t be a reason to always do the same thing when this technology offers so many benefits.”
SaaS can have the added benefit of ensuring that what doesn’t work so well for a company doesn’t mean a large capital expenditure. With SaaS there is the ability to experiment—something usually not possible with onsite hardware.
“The primary advantage of the SaaS model is that the cloud offers the ability to be more dynamic with your business,” said Brick Eksten, CTO for playout and networking at Imagine Communications. “You can try new software with less risk when it comes to upfront costs. If you follow existing IT models of the ‘fail fast,’ then you don’t have to put a lot of expense into it.”
SaaS also allows broadcasters to adjust to ever-changing needs in production. For many businesses SaaS offers scalability and flexibility, which can be important for broadcasters that have variable workflows or are covering a major event, such as the recently concluded World Cup.
“For UHD with typical infrastructure this would be a barrier as you’d need to invest in a lot of hardware that would then go unused 90 percent of the time,” explained Olivier Karra, director for OTT & IPTV solutions at Harmonic. “With SaaS you can optimize your investment in these small windows.”
These small windows could be project-based productions, and it is more than just running remote software; it can offer other advantages that hardware-based solutions don’t so easily provide.
“SaaS allows for a virtual workspace in the cloud, with access data, publishing data and the ability to share metadata as well,” said Tim Claman, CTO and vice president of product management at Avid. “It is also a ‘pay as you go’ solution where multiple users can essentially ‘paint on the same canvas’ at the same time.”
It can also include both storage and compute power during those special projects and events.
“This allows for heavy use for a month or two, where you need a huge scale, but you can downgrade after the event is over,” added Todd Kelly, product marketing director at Aspera, a division of IBM. “What is important for broadcasters is to utilize a platform that will create no latency or bottlenecks when uploading a lot of content to the cloud. You want to make sure you can still run other things on your network, and not have SaaS impact the rest of your transfers or your performance.”
Part of this comes down to understanding how SaaS and the cloud do fit together, but shouldn’t be considered entirely one and the same.
“SaaS is a managed service that can utilize the cloud, and that has created some confusion,” said Karra. “The way we see SaaS as a cloud service can be different from companies that are simply trying to mimic what is running on premise in existing infrastructure.”
A remaining downside to SaaS is the expense of moving large files to and from the cloud. While it does allow for flexibility and scale, broadcasters utilize far larger files than the IT sector, and as the cloud is geared for the latter, broadcasters may pay a premium in those peak usage times.
“Moving large data to the cloud and back is just very costly, so it is good for storage but moving content back and forth gets very expensive very quickly,” said Ian Fletcher, CTO for media at Grass Valley.
“One of the things you have to consider as a broadcaster using the cloud is what your end distribution model looks like,” added Imagine Communications’ Eksten. “If you are originating content in one country but distributing in another, the satellite costs may justify the transport costs of using the cloud.”
Understanding the costs and transport times with SaaS and the cloud is important, especially for those broadcasters that are only now adopting it.
“Video is very [data] heavy, and businesses that are attuned to IT content need to understand this, and that includes getting the workflows dialed in so that you can see the cloud as a benefit and not something that will slow you down,” said Avid’s Claman.
Then there’s the question of bandwidth.
“For smaller production houses you could hit your file caps,” warned Stan Moote, CTO for the International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers. “That is the one thing everyone has to be careful about. Broadcasters can be savvy about understanding the magnitude of the file size when it comes to transporting it, but there needs to be an understanding of the costs of putting it in storage and getting it back out. This is why some recent statistics show that 40 percent of companies that went into the cloud came back out.”
There may still be some holdouts among broadcasters, but in the short term SaaS may co-exist with legacy systems.
“An important consideration for those looking at SaaS is how it will extend to on-premise operations,” said Shawn Carnahan, CTO of Telestream. “A lot right now is a hybrid. SaaS is increasingly driven by the workflow that often needs to be distributed via the cloud. Some of this may allow broadcasters to better utilize the premise resources or move the extra processing to the cloud.”
For some broadcasters the hardest part may be simply adjusting to SaaS and the cloud, even in this transition period.
“The biggest challenge with SaaS is always finding the 80/20 balance; it comes down to understanding which features and capabilities will add the most value to the most customers so that you can keep the balance of simple and powerful, which is key to a successful SaaS business,” said Signiant’s Finegold. “The media industry is in a very dynamic stage right now so there are always opportunities for new features and new services. The challenge is to focus on the things that matter most to the most customers—a never ending battle in SaaS.”
SIDEBAR: SaaS and Security
One consideration for broadcasters and production houses that are utilizing SaaS along with the cloud for storage is that data isn’t entirely on-premise. This is a legitimate concern given how Sony, HBO and others in the media and entertainment world have had content stolen or leaked. However, security is something all industries should think about regardless of whether SaaS is part of daily operations.
“More and more we’re seeing broadcast production integrated tighter and tighter with IT departments, but more importantly integrating better IT policies,” said Brick Eksten, CTO for playout & networking at Imagine Communications. “We are finally seeing better collaboration here, and while the broadcast world isn’t at the level of banking systems, I’m not really sure it has to be either.”
Taking cybersecurity more seriously is what matters however.
“It is absolutely critical and security hasn’t been taken seriously enough in the industry,” said Ian Fletcher, CTO for media at Grass Valley. “It has actually gone backwards in many ways. We’re used to systems that were disconnected, as for so long we worked on ‘air-gapped’ machines that weren’t connected online. Now with the move to SaaS every system is connected, but at the same time security isn’t always something that you can retrofit into existing infrastructures.”
Added restrictions could of course slow the workflow, especially when many different individuals or teams access the data. However, a cloud with the right security could allow for approved remote access to data and should help broadcasters overcome the barrier of distance.
“We’ve taken the view that regardless of whether it is a private cloud with a data center or the public internet you need the same type of security that you would see if you were doing banking online,” added Fletcher.
Treating data in the broadcast world with the same level of sensitivity as banking or health care is the logical next step.
“SaaS offers the ability to set up the legitimate users for the particular content; as well as their level of permissions where specific control can be granted,” said Todd Kelly, product marketing director at Aspera, a division of IBM. “Broadcasters simply need to organize the content so that they can make sure the right users have the right access. The user access model is the really important part. We’ve seen leaks, but most of it is due to operator error.”