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The Cloud Creates Storms for New Facility Design

NEW YORK—Five years ago, my very first blog entry explored how cloud-based asset management might change television production. Now, on the heels of NAB 2016, it’s a great time to revisit this topic.

You could not attend the NAB show without being blown over by the exploding number of purported solutions for content creation and distribution operations in the cloud: content storage, collaborative editing and graphics creation, traffic, play-out, and even switcher control panels connected via IP back to their mainframes at headquarters. It is becoming possible to have the entire process, short of the camera itself, somewhere other than where the talent is.

This raises the question of why we build facilities in the first place? Since their inception, both content creation and distribution have been done by teams of co-located people in control rooms, traffic operations and master control. These teams function under tight deadlines, where immediate communication is critical to success. Aptly named control rooms keep people working together to ensure that programs are coherent and become a product the organization can be proud of.

Now, with pervasive broadband and cloud services, an editor in LA could easily be working on tonight’s episode of “Jimmy Fallon,” while it is being shot in NY. It is possible for people to collaborate instantly on content irrespective of physical location. Businesses can engage the right contributors, based on price, talent, availability, and other considerations.

Yet, I can’t help but find it ironic that I am writing these words immediately after leaving a conference where thousands of my peers came together. There is still power in face-to-face communications. There is a reason why a company like Google, which knows more about enabling people to work remotely than almost any company on the planet, continues to build large offices. Water-cooler conversations and chance encounters with people outside their collaborative circle foster innovation.

As counterpoint, while at NAB I had a great discussion with one of the largest U.S. media companies, which has done more to push content operations into the cloud than anyone else I know. In fact, all of this company’s multi-platform, international distribution systems are now cloud-based. When I expressed that I was under the impression that cloud storage costs were a significant barrier to cloud implementations, the response surprised me: with storage costs coming down dramatically, their highest costs, in fact, are in taking content out of the cloud. That suggests that it may now be time to do as much in the cloud as possible and to keep it there for as long as possible.

What this all suggests is that designs for the next generation of production facilities must strike a balance between, on one hand, the benefits of co-location and face-to-face communication, and, on the other hand, the advantages of cloud-services, a remote workforce, talent-on-demand, and multi-platform distribution.

A facility designer today faces formidable considerations:

  • Construct offices or desks for each worker, or push for a location-free workforce and provide shared-transient work zones for personnel only when they need to be in the building?
  • Develop on-premises data centers, or minimize these and push everything possible to the cloud?
  • Plan for content to be orchestrated in a live control room or utilize just-in-time automated assembly from segments as required?
  • Embrace IP for video/audio routing, accepting the higher costs, immature standards and likely timeline risk, in order to set the facility up for deeper integration with cloud services? Or be branded a cost-conscious Luddite by building an SDI-based facility?
  • Develop operational and support organizations based upon these new technologies, and deal with the inevitable Game of Thrones that will be initiated, or keep organization structures intact, but never fully embrace the benefits of the technology?
  • And lastly–financially capitalize the equipment and control the business’ destiny for economic life, or focus on SaaS (Software as a Service) and be subject to the whims of the marketplace?

The choices aren’t black and white. It’s likely that hybrid approaches driven by cost, time, freedom to think out of the box, and company culture, will make each facility unique in some way. It seems to me, however, that a media business will be something else entirely by the time a building being contemplated today is completed in a couple of years. Therefore it behooves us to find optimal answers to these questions, right now, before shovels go in the ground.