Staying in Control With the Cloud

OLYMPIA, WASH.—Agility, cost savings, and being able to respond to rapidly changing markets quickly are all major drivers of cloud-based production adoption by broadcasters. But that doesn’t mean that every broadcaster plans to eliminate its on-premises production facilities.

“The broadcasters we work with want to lower the infrastructure costs, while extending the life of on-premises production assets,” said Shawn Carnahan, CTO at Telestream, a Nevada City, Calif.-based provider of cloud-based video encoding systems.

Steve Smith, CTO of Cloud, Imagine Communications The efficiency that goes with cloud-based production also makes it easier for broadcasters to expand to new regions. “Broadcasters can deliver a channel in distributed geographies like Germany and Australia using cloud technologies, which otherwise would have required setting up separate and expensive satellite feeds for each country,” said K.A. Srinivasan, co-founder of Amagi, a solutions provider for brands and TV networks, based in Bangalore, India.

But in mission-critical production areas like playout, broadcasters hesitate to move to cloud because they fear a loss of control. Nevertheless, even with playout, the cloud’s agility and cost efficiency become compelling factors. “For high-demand events, broadcasters can use the cloud with playback because it easily allows them to spin out extra channels for an event like a world cup soccer match, and to then deallocate these channels when the event is over,” said Eric Openshaw of Pebble Beach Systems, a U.K-based provider of broadcast playout solutions.

According to Mike Kronk, vice president of core technology at Grass Valley, broadcasters the cloud can help broadcasters reduce travel expenses. “In a soccer match, a broadcaster might have to send camera operators to the stadium, but it won’t have to send replay operators, who instead can work the match from a central location by participating over the cloud,” he said. “This is especially useful when you have events that are occurring throughout the day and it is impossible for your replay people to be in more than one place at once.”

Some cloud services vendors advocate transitioning the entire broadcast workflow to the cloud, from content preparation to storage, archival, playout, delivery and monetization —but the majority of TV networks are principally using cloud for playout, storage and archiving.

“Broadcasters like the scalability, flexibility and reduced costs of the public cloud, but they also like the direct control that is possible with the private cloud, where they can build a virtual system that they can operate themselves,” said Steve Smith, CTO of Cloud for Imagine Communications in Dallas. “By using a private cloud, they believe that they can obtain better performance in areas like network quality of service, security, bandwidth and latency.”

Another approach is to outsource all production to a public cloud, which works well for pay-on-demand pop-up experimental channels, and for the video content archiving. “If you want to micro-broadcast pop-up channels and major events, broadcasters can leverage pay-as-you-go and deliver broadcasts to specific groups of customers,” said Tom Lattie, vice president of marketing and strategy for video production at Harmonic in San Jose, Calif.

Smith believes that the viewing desires of younger consumers are prompting broadcasters to consider moving to the cloud. “Regardless of how broadcasters use cloud, the move to cloud-based production isn’t predicated on how broadcasters have done business before, but on how they must appeal to Gen X and millennial customers,” he said. “These are people who have grown up with Facebook, tablets and YouTube. They expect you to deliver over-the-top content to them via the internet. With cloud-based production, broadcasters have the agility to purpose-build and distribute content to these consumers on a variety of platforms that can range from tablets and iPhones to television sets.”

As more broadcasters implement cloud-based production, the transition affects changes in workflows.

“The entire broadcast platform is now accessible from any location, which will enable broadcast team members to collaborate from different locations,” said Srinivasan.

In other cases, changes actually centralize personnel. “The way that this works is that instead of sending people out to work onsite in a production truck with monitors, these personnel can all be centralized in one place, collaborating with broadcast people who are onsite,” said Openshaw.

Does this create anxiety among employees?

“There is definitely resistance among broadcast employees to the cloud, and definitely concerns about job losses—but what this really is, is a transition into a new skill set,” Openshaw said. “What the industry wants now is people who have a combined set of skills in broadcasting and IT. For existing employees, this could mean that some cross-training is in order.”

Despite these challenges, broadcasters seem intent on further exploring—and adopting—what cloud-based production can offer.

Eric Openshaw, General Manager, Pebble BeachTHE CHALLENGES
Challenges broadcasters see in cloud-based production primarily exist in the areas of content security and broadcast service levels (SLAs).

“The prevailing sentiment in the broadcast industry is still somewhat tepid when it comes to cloud-based production,” acknowledged Openshaw. “Broadcasters are concerned about whether cloud services providers can maintain 99.9 percent uptime on broadcasts, and they also have lingering concerns about performance, bandwidth and latency in the cloud.”

In some cases, broadcaster opinion may be impacted by lack of exposure to the cloud.

With its VOS cloud offering, Harmonics makes it easier for broadcasters to transition to the cloud with a step-by-step approach that moves functions like playout away from strictly physical implementation to a virtual implementation and then a cloud-based implementation.

“The intent is to emphasize what many CIOs already know—that cloud is more of ‘a state of mind’ than a technology,” said Lattie. “You begin by virtualizing a physical asset to create economy of operation—and you then move to a cloud-based implementation where you can interact with other applications and leverage your investment because you have open interfaces into other functionality. This increases your agility because you have greater adaptability to change and faster speed of deployment.”

Some broadcasters have gotten the cloud message and are aggressively implementing cloud-based production.

B4U Networks, an Asian entertainment channel with operations in the United States, U.K., Canada, Caribbean, Mauritius, India, and the Middle East, transitioned its entire broadcast operations to a cloud-based broadcast platform in late 2015. Working with Amagi, B4U moved its entire content assets to the cloud and created multiple feeds to cater to various markets. By using a flexible cloud infrastructure, B4U was able to operate hybrid content delivery models that combined satellite, fiber, and cloud-based production in various geographical markets.

Sundance Channel Global (part of AMC Networks) used Amagi’s cloud platform to regionalize its channel in Brazil without setting up a separate expensive satellite feed. The channel aired two to three hours of local programming, replacing content on a common satellite feed covering Latin America. Local content was pushed to the operator headend in Brazil via cloud.

Broadcast Pix rolled out its first cloud-based system, BPNet at the 2016 NAB Show. According to Tony Mastantuono, product manager for the Billerica, Mass.-based provider of integrated production systems, BPNet is primarily a cloud-based service that enables online and offline storage and archival services for content and distribution. “It really becomes an ecosystem for your production and all your production elements,” he explained.

With BPNet, users can upload any content from any device to the cloud. Broadcast Pix switchers have direct access to the BPNet cloud, creating a bidirectional application for uploading content, and grab and push it to Broadcast Pix switchers. BPNet is a subscription service, but doesn’t require an account to be accessed.

Some broadcasters are adamant about not placing all production in the cloud, while others plan entire migrations of production to cloud. “What we see most often is a move to a private cloud environment, with virtual mirroring of both data and applications for complete failover,” said Carnahan. “Over time, we are likely to see a hybrid on premises and cloud-based approach to production where sites create infrastructure so they can easily move between the two for maximum efficiency and highest quality of operation.”