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The Cloud: Getting Beyond the ‘Wow’ Factor

One of the largest high-profile deployments of the cloud in a broadcast environment is Fox Sports 1’s use of a cloud video production platform developed by Aframe.

SAN FRANCISCO—At its simplest, cloud technology is seen as a straightforward means to a wondrous end—place media up into the Ethernet, and then with a few clicks, see it pulled down by someone else half-way around the world.

The reality is much more complicated, of course. The cloud craze that made headlines in 2013 was overshadowed by a long list of concerns: Copyright fears, format struggles, redundancy and security woes.

Looking at those big events over the last 12 months that relied on cloud technologies, it’s clear the industry is still struggling with issues like architectural limitations and workflow bottlenecks.

“There’s still a perception in the industry because of these failures, that maybe online streaming is still a risk, that there’s still too much drama. Will it work or will it not?” said Kurt Michel, director of product marketing for Media Solutions at Akamai. “We need to make sure people understand that [this technology] is robust,” he said.

The first place to start is by asking questions. How robust is the solution? What is the strategy for redundancy? How do you make sure that this is going to meet 100 percent of my availability requirements?

The recently wrapped 2014 NAB Show tried to answer some of those questions, sprinkling cloud-focused sessions and speakers across the convention and showing ways that broadcasters can begin to rely on the cloud.

“Cloud services have enabled media and entertainment companies to tackle distribution challenges and the complexities of offering consumers content anytime, anywhere and on any device,” said Mark Ramberg, general manager of Media and Entertainment for Amazon Web Services, who offered the keynote address at the convention’s two-day “Media Management in the Cloud” conference.

Expanding beyond the original business-to- consumer scenarios that first lit up the cloud, the technology is maturing to a point where it has begun to be leveraged for professional media workflows in both broadcast and post productions.

If you combed the NAB Show floor, it seemed that every other booth was touting a cloud-this-and-cloud-that. But in discussions with experts and manufacturers, the technology is beginning to show a maturity that is capable of handling large-scale content like 3D, HD and 4K, as well as more complex scenarios like second-screen distribution and complex content personalization.

“Media industry companies are realizing that they can’t keep up with the IT needs [required to handle some of these next-generation offerings], and are looking at the scalability and elasticity of the cloud,” Ramberg said.

There are certainly benefits: scalable bandwidth, open storage opportunities and transcoding solutions, to name a few.

In response, the real-world examples continue to expand. One of the largest is the high-profile cloud solution being used by Fox Sports 1, a cable channel launched by Fox Sports in the summer of 2013 that includes football, baseball, NASCAR and soccer programming. To handle a number of basic workflow issues—dozens and dozens of freelance stringers submitting hundreds of video files in a range of disparate formats—the network created a news media submission system that allows contributing videographers to upload content to a cloud video production platform developed by Aframe, a U.K.-based developer of cloud technology for media enterprises.

“Broadcast workflows today still contain steps where manual intervention, such as transcoding, is essential, [but] in competitive TV formats like sport, that simply can’t exist any longer,” said David Peto, CEO of Aframe.

The Aframe platform is being used to automatically transcode formats at the time of ingest, and then converts media to a DVCPRO format for editing or playout. An H.264 proxy viewing copy is created that can be viewed by stringers or editors in the field.

“[It] provides an easy mechanism for making content easily accessible for people who need it immediately, in a self-service model,” said Wendy Allen, vice president of media engineering at Fox Sports. “It’s a new paradigm shift that will save Fox time and money.”

The approach makes it feasible to use a global set of freelancers, many of whom are contributing media files with different professional equipment. The solution also allows the network to save bandwidth because a proxy is created at the time of ingest, instead of requiring all material to be downloaded prior to transcoding. At the NAB Show, the company released Aframe 3.0 and announced partnerships with Sony and Panasonic to integrate cloud capabilities directly into new wireless cameras and adapters, allowing for a completely wireless workflow.

Companies like Signiant are pointing to cloud technologies as a key reason for its recent success: an uptick in customers is directly attributable to the adoption of Signiant’s hybrid SaaS solution, said Margaret Craig, CEO of Signiant.

Cloud technologies have taken off for a number of reasons, she said, including improvements in storage, advancements in speed and upgrades in security. Companies are also leaning toward the cloud’s track record on redundancy issues. “That’s one of the things that the cloud is good at: allowing you to keep multiple files and keep them safely,” she said.

“This is really the year that [cloud adoption] becomes very real,” Craig added, whose company has seen adoption of cloud technologies all around the world, most vociferously in the United States. The company recently introduced the new software application CloudSpeX, which validates media file formats prior to transfer, and introduced file sharing capabilities to the company’s Media Shuttle file transfer system.

Perhaps nowhere has the cloud been more impressive than when it’s flexing its muscle as both a video processing engine and a delivery platform. There was a long list of companies who showcased such options at NAB—Envivo showcased a virtualized software and end-to-end cloud TV solution; Vizrt displayed the Viz Engine 3D compositing engine in the cloud; Akamai and Aspera showed off a high-speed option for uploading content to the Akamai NetStorage cloud-based online storage platform.

Akamai also addressed other issues that have swirled around the cloud, from digital rights management to format issues.

Margaret Craig “More and more live content is sitting ‘over the top’—the Super Bowl, the Olympics,” said Kurt Michel, director of product marketing, Media Solutions, at Akamai. The company worked to stream 98 live events at the Winter Games, he said, “and one of the things we did learn is that there’s not one format to be delivered to all the different devices.”

Addressing the importance of high-quality streaming was the goal of a 4K demonstration with Elemental at NAB. Partnering with Akamai, the company streamed a live 4K 60 fps HEVC-encoded video stream with MPEG-DASH packaging, which they claimed was the first-known display of live video in this format video over a content delivery network. “The combination of 4K content at 60 frames per second offers the best quality available in deployable streaming video,” Michel said.

Regardless of their background, a singular refrain came from a number of different experts: the cloud is the way the future is headed. “Media companies are looking for ways to increase agility and get content distributed to customers faster and faster,” said AmazonWeb Services’ Ramberg. “That requires companies to develop new strategies to address their needs in scalable, nonlinear ways [and that is one reason] that the use of the cloud for professional media workflows is accelerating significantly.”

The industry seems ready, according to Mark Overington, president of Aframe North America. “There’s been a seachange in the last 12-18 months,” he said, as more media companies warm to the idea of using the cloud to automatically transcode media, to review and approve video such as dailies, and to catalog and tag media with metadata early in the creation process.

One of the remaining challenges: changing the industry’s reliance on his current workflow.

“But the majority of the time, people find [the cloud] to be incredibly powerful,” he said. “There’s a wow factor here.”

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.