More Broadcasters Considering Cloud Tech

ROSEVILLE, MICH.—The cloud continues to present new opportunities on both the production and distribution end for broadcasters, but challenges remain even as interest and adoption continues.

“The cloud is now being widely adopted for media management, distribution and storage; this has been a shift in recent years,” said Karl Mehring, director of playout and delivery at Newbury, U.K.-based Snell Advanced Media.

Exactly how the cloud will fit into the media world is one that continues to be debated; just as the very term has become synonymous—oftentimes erroneously—with anything related to off-site digital storage.

“The term ‘cloud’ has become somewhat overused,” Mehring added. “Some people call their own datacenter a cloud, others think of a datacenter run by a third party as a cloud and then there is the public cloud such as AWS, Azure and so on. Public cloud is the next area to consider; we are starting to see a desire from customers to use the commercial and technical flexibility of the public cloud and are starting to run customer POCs with ICE SDC in such environments, we also showed a deployment in AWS at NAB this year.”

Despite the lingering confusion over nomenclature, 2017 could very much be the year of one particular segment: the “public cloud.” Research firm Gartner forecast the worldwide public cloud services market to grow 18 percent to a total of $246.8 billion, while cloud adoption strategies could influence more than 50 percent of ITO deals through 2020.

T Shobhana, vice president and head of global marketing and communications at Prime Focus Technologies

“Cloud is the business elixir, as it can be harnessed by organizations of any scale and size to drive outcomes like greater efficiencies, increased monetization and lower total cost of operations,” said T Shobhana, vice president and head of global marketing and communications at Prime Focus Technologies’ Bangalore offices.

Cloud technology can allow business to scale up or down quickly owing to unique customer acquisition and engagement cycles. “Cloud technology provides a flexible, scalable and cost-effective way to manage workflows across different geographical locations,” Shobhana added. “Its benefits include high levels of automation, faster time-to-market and lower TCOP. Extreme digitization on the back of cloud is the future, as this helps usher in never before seen efficiencies and a renewed focus on the creative product.”

The cloud, in both its public and private varieties, is being embraced as an end to end solution on the production as well as the distribution side today.

Dave Walton, assistant vice president of marketing and communications for JVC

Dave Walton, assistant vice president of marketing and communications for JVC, touts the company’s approach to the cloud, noting that nine of JVC’s professional cameras are IP-capable. “We have encoders built into the cameras, and these create IP connectivity that can send the content to the cloud,” he said. “You can have multiple cameras streaming through a single bonded cellular modular including our portable JVC Bridge.”

The JVC Video Cloud further allows operators to stream directly to one or millions of users. “It doesn’t matter how many there are,” added Walton. “A cloud-based system makes it easy for operators to create their own distribution network as well.”

This in turn has created challenges thanks to today’s global “always on” production workflows.

Quantum has been a step ahead, announcing that its StorNext 6 platform will include new FlexSpace functionality that allows users at different sites to store files in a shared archive as well as to browse and pull data from the repository. In addition, shared archive options include both public cloud storage—Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud via StorNext’s existing FlexTier capability—and private cloud storage based on Quantum’s Lattus object storage or, through FlexTier, third-party object storage such as NetApp StorageGRID, IBM Cleversafe and Scality RING.

“This allows our customers to designate public or private storage as a target for archive,” said David Frederick, senior director of media and entertainment for the San Jose, Calif.-based company. “Being able to push that out to the cloud of customer’s choice adds convenience, while it maintains accessibility as if you were maintaining the content in your own facility.”

In addition to the distribution benefits there have also been more aspects of the production process that have moved into a cloud environment.

Harmonic’s VOS platform is a cloud-based preparation and delivery solution for broadcast and OTT services, offering core micro services that include ingest, playout, graphics, transcoding, encryption and delivery.

“It provides the key building blocks for quickly and efficiently defining and launching new services using templates and an intent-driven user interface tailored to an organization’s hierarchy of users,” said Andy Warman, director of production and playout strategy and market development at Harmonic in San Jose, Calif. “Workflows can be as simple as encoding live streams to enabling new distribution platforms, expanding graphic branding, live streaming and file ingest, and scheduled playout to support progressively more complex needs.”

For playout there has also been a shift to private datacenters, explained Snell’s Mehring. “This has started with the shift to channel-in-a-box, which is essentially a software product with a small amount of hardware to help accelerate real-time operations and provide SDI connectivity.

“With Moore’s law on our side and advances in IT and networking technology, deploying software-defined products such as SAM’s ICE SDC is now becoming a reality, with enough compute and network bandwidth to provision fully featured and highly presented thematic and live channels from private datacenters,” he added. “With advancements in GPU virtualization we can even now provide full live rendered 3D graphics from a software instance of ICE SDC in a datacenter.”

Even as industry embraces the cloud, many challenges will remain, with cost and accessibility the biggest hurdles.

Ian Fletcher, CTO at Grass Valley, cautioned about the large amount of hype surrounding the cloud in recent years. ‘A lot was virtualized and put in data centers, and that has been seen as the way to go, but many in the production world are finding that it doesn’t deliver the cost savings that were promised,” Fletcher said. “This is because clients were often paying for the compute software, which is why Grass Valley has taken a more novel approach with its cloud strategy.

“The application of management is how we saw that the cloud could solve some of the problems plaguing the production world,” he added. “Our goal has been to remove the cost and complexities by removing the peripheral services and that has largely been successful for us. Getting data in and out of the cloud remains the expensive part, and broadcast needs to be treated in a special way.”

This rate of change is now creating even greater challenges. “We are seeing continuous advancements in the technology, thinking and approach to production, playout and delivery that are often not easy to navigate or realize where the true potential really lies,” Harmonic’s Warman said. “Due to the high degree of change happening, making strategic decisions and investments can be difficult.”

Bandwidth and connectivity is the challenge the media world faces, said Frederick.

“We’re adapting slower than in the IT space, while [media] content is much larger,” he explained. “It costs time and money to move files across the networks. When you’re moving megabytes it isn’t that hard to transfer data to and from the cloud, but we’re working in gigabytes and tones of files. Moving those in real time means real money.”

As higher resolution file sizes increase, the issue of latency will only magnify. Yet, file size is just one part of the equation. Adding more cameras also increases it, according to JVC’s Walton.

“Even when we are using algorithms for compression there is going to the issue of latency,” he said. “On the production side its effects can be minimal but on the distribution side it can become a bigger issue, especially as the internet is full of speed bumps.”

For those reasons having the right strategy in place is now more important than ever.

“[The cloud] is one of those technologies where companies need to do their due diligence and make sure they understand before they take the plunge,” said Jenn Jarvis, marketing product manager for streamline at Ross Video. “For some larger broadcasters the ecosystem is very complex, but this isn’t as easy as replacing one piece of the puzzle and flipping the switch. There are concerns such as outages that need to be addressed so larger broadcasters need to explore the options for those scenarios; while for smaller broadcasters who need flexibility and mobility, maintaining data on the cloud could be an interesting solution.”

It is important to understand too that the talk of the cloud can dovetail with virtualization and IT conversations. “It is all tied together,” said Jarvis. “The new reality is that broadcasters will also need to look for engineers who can handle the traditional work like fixing cameras and running cables, but now need to have a lot of IT knowledge too. You can’t rely on IT people who don’t understand the specifics of broadcasting.”

With the move toward the cloud, broadcasters are embracing a more software-oriented approach and from proprietary hardware and other equipment.

“Many people aren’t as interested in buying hardware as much, apart from very specific applications,” said Yuval Fisher, CTO for MVPD at Imagine Communications in Dallas. “The focus is much more on software. As such the private cloud is becoming ubiquitous, while the public cloud is now being explored for use in things that aren’t as mission critical, such as VOD transcoding where there is the time pressure.”

This also presents its own set of challenges.

“When using the private cloud there are issues where computation requires specialized hardware,” added Fisher. “Transcoding is an example as you need GPU acceleration; so will you utilize GPU/CPU infrastructure with generic platforms? There is also the matter of resolving issues related to multicasting, as a lot of broadcasters use multicasting.”

Then there are the issues of tech support, which comes at a cost.

“That is what they do for you, but you pay for their services,” said Fisher. “You relieve yourself of the headache but have that added cost. This is why the issue of where to opt for public vs. private is often debated.”

The tradeoffs come in terms of dollars spent. A private cloud, with the associated hardware costs, can have a much higher upfront cost while a public cloud can be handled like a pay-as-you-go service.

“Right now it very much depends on the size of the business,” said Fisher. “There are large businesses that can do it themselves and support the IT overhead, while smaller enterprises tend to go with public cloud, where it is easier to make the transition and the upfront costs are lower. Yet, we are also seeing some large operators who are testing the public crowd for those less mission critical situations.”

Retraining may be part of the equation, just as it will be important to attract individuals who embrace the real-time nature of broadcast while having a firm grasp of IT, including virtualization, deployment, networking and information security.

“These new ways of operating allow services to be spun up and torn down as needed for agility in operations allowing the underlying hardware to be re-utilized for other purposes, giving the best long term use of any purchased IT equipment or in the case of the cloud no-ongoing cost,” said Mehring. “This allows for short-term usage for such things as sporting events or simply for trying new channel ventures with minimal upfront cost.”