Cloud vs. Virtualization for Playout: Does it Matter?

(Image credit: Veset)

In recent years, broadcasters have been increasingly lured towards cloud playout solutions, giving them a simpler and more affordable way to manage live channels, while enabling scalability for being able to evolve fast. However, there are different iterations all claiming to be cloud playout, from virtualized solutions running in private cloud data centers to remote access to on-prem hardware. From a broadcaster's point of view, does it matter? Are all clouds made equal? 

The Evolution of Playout
The broadcast industry is adapting at a fast pace, forcing operators to rethink workflows. None more so than the linear TV models from the last decade, which have had to compete with the rising popularity of streaming services. Although on-demand content continues to grow, opportunities exist for linear broadcast to hold its place in the competitive landscape. 

However, in order to do that, providers have had to adapt fast, finding more cost-efficient ways of delivering the same high value and high-quality content to viewers across the globe. 

While other industries have been preoccupied with the use of more advanced technologies such as AI and blockchain and other cool new technologies, broadcast is still stuck in the past and preoccupied with getting old legacy devices (set top boxes, satellite transmission equipment, etc) and standards to work with new means of distribution.

 That fundamentally has been the ultimate drag on innovation in the space, and a digital first conundrum hangs over the industry. 

Disrupting the Market
Cloud infrastructure has been a crucial part of market disruption in video distribution due to its unmatched scalability and reach. Whereas the giants of streaming/VOD content distribution such as Netflix and YouTube have been born in the cloud, linear TV and broadcasters operating them have been probably the last bastion of on-prem solutions. 

Virtualization has been part of the cloud technological stack—providing a way to run multiple software processes on the same hardware while ensuring that hardware is used to its full potential. But that may be just one component of the multifaceted side of the public cloud stack. These rapid changes in the broadcast industry have meant that the adoption of cloud technologies for playout is inevitable.

Cloud vs Virtualization
One of the continuously perpetuated misconceptions in the broadcast industry has been in presenting cloud-native applications as nothing more than remotely accessed software run on a virtualized server in a data center. Virtualization has the same goal as cloud—to provide a way to run multiple software processes on the same hardware while ensuring that hardware is used to its full potential. But that may be as far as the similarities go.

Additionally, some hardware manufacturers have been marketing remotely accessed, traditional playout hardware servers as “cloud playout solutions.” In reality, such an approach has little to do with the values of true cloud.

Are all clouds equal?
There are a few key ways that true cloud differs from the purely virtualised:

1. Resources
Cloud resources encompass storage as well as networks, servers, applications, and services. With no physical infrastructure, the cloud can be remotely accessed through common operating systems and is much easier to maintain. Without the backend of cloud technology, virtualization demands substantial commitment of resources to manage applications. 

2. Complexity
Gone are the days of complex hardware. True cloud optimizes resources to deliver efficiency, meaning broadcasters can operate large numbers of channels and feeds globally. Operators can respond quickly to rapid and complex industry changes by self-managing their cloud system, without needing external input.

Virtualization and remote access need specialist equipment bringing additional maintenance requirements and increases the investment cost and risk. 

3. Cost savings
True cloud playout requires little or no upfront investment and with competition soaring between cloud resource providers, the overall cost to users is falling. Virtualized services and remote access both require additional hardware and/or specialist servers. When you factor in the costs saved on resources and maintenance over time, cloud solutions offer long-term financial benefits.

Most importantly, achieving scale, quality and security of larger public cloud providers have been unattainable even for the largest media organizations. 

4. Adaptability
True cloud applications aren't tied to proprietary hardware or hosting in a specific data center. This means that services can be deployed and accessed across different regions closer to the distribution and consumption of content, accessible usually through a web browser interface by channel operators. 

With cloud playout coming to the fore, linear TV is no longer defined by 24/7 channels only, scheduled but short-term pop-up channels around live events are gaining traction as a use case. Cloud playout, run on systems offering a multi-tenanted and shared backend, allows for fast scaling in response to viewer demand, enabling the immediate launch of new channels or closure of existing ones not getting sufficient audience share.

True cloud applications can evolve fast as market needs change, whereas alternative solutions require intervention to update hardware. 

5. Redundancy
Redundancy is a core advantage of cloud-based solutions. True cloud automatically backs up media and other assets without requiring additional investment, resources and manpower. Redundancy and resiliency are directly in-built in cloud-based solutions. With remote access, redundancy isn’t automatic and requires investment in additional systems along with ongoing maintenance.

Beyond technological challenges, the broader industry continues to focus on external shifts in perceptions of security and feed quality. For linear TV to thrive, it must embrace the reliability of cloud technology. By using IP to reduce the costs of operations, broadcasters can drive the adoption of cloud playout, ensuring their own future through major cost-savings and boosting efficiency.

Embracing the right technologies can be the difference between success and failure. Cloud playout can easily coexist with traditional broadcast technology, integrating itself with many aspects of existing hardware-based infrastructure. This allows a gradual replacement of legacy equipment and software which in turn enables new workflows to be implemented without major disruptions in operations.

Igor Krol is CEO of Veset.