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What does digital workflow mean for the creative industry?

As technology trends advance and reliance upon IT infrastructures increases, what effect will this have on the creative industry? With information moving toward the digital domain, Jonathan Morgan, co-founder of software developer Object Matrix, examines the demise of tape-based archiving and the natural succession of the digital workflow:

There seems to be a number of potentially confusing technology trends currently circulating in business IT, such as cloud computing, virtualization and Software as a Service (SaaS), which will all have a big impact on IT infrastructures. It is important to recognize these trends and understand what they can mean for business. “Digital workflow” is one such trend that will totally change the way advertising and creative agencies store their projects.

The more traditional workflow relies on tapes to store information. Projects are recorded onto tapes, and then stored in a vault to be used again, if necessary. However, this tape-based workflow is becoming increasingly redundant, because the reality of an online and on-demand world takes effect. Editors, producers and, especially, clients want their projects immediately, which is not so easy a task if the clip required is stuck in a vault.

A digital workflow basically describes the network and IT infrastructure employed by a company to carry out everyday tasks. In a digital workflow, assets are created digitally and then edited and processed on the network without having to create real-life tape copies. Whereas once the tape workflow vs. digital workflow arguments raged, the fact that many manufacturers are entirely dropping tape-based camera ranges in favor of digital ones.

With a digital workflow, there simply is not a tape to ingest or to put on a shelf. This leads to challenges that need to be successfully addressed if the workflow is to be kept efficient. How can data on cameras be stored in a highly resilient fashion as soon as possible? Where can ingest systems temporarily keep the mass of footage that comes with every shoot, much of which may never be used in any cut? How can the company’s (often expensive) storage area networks (SANs) be kept free from overloading and/or overflowing? And because there isn’t a tape to keep anymore, what data should be kept, and how should it be stored?

The answer to the first three of those questions, for many, comes via the usage of a nearline archive. A nearline archive is a scalable and highly available space to place data until it is required for editing on the SAN. It places an emphasis on data resilience and data security that is combined with fast access. However, it is not required to provide the speed of access achieved with a SAN, which, may need to deliver uncompressed HD in real time, for example.

A second purpose for a nearline archive is to store assets after they have been edited on the SAN until the final cut and archiving takes place, allowing the SAN to remain lean and mean. Data can be prepared and transcoded in the nearline archive ready for use on the SAN, and without holding up the SAN. Lastly, a nearline archive is an excellent place to keep a library of useful assets that can be accessed at the click of a button and repurposed into different parts of the same production or into new productions altogether. This can significantly increase productivity over tape when those tapes need to be pulled off shelves. The answer to the question of how to archive data when there is no tape to put on a shelf largely depends on the organization storing the data: in the value of fast access to that data, the number of requirements to reuse that data, the value in being able to browse and use that data for inspiration and the intrinsic value of that data.

For creative agencies, the ability to quickly revisit and repurpose old projects has a particularly high value. Having complete access to archive material can provide inspiration and stimulate ideas for current projects. Editors and producers can see how previous campaigns were run and how to change or replicate ideas in seconds. Not only does this save valuable time and money spent searching for the correct piece of footage in a vast tape library, but it can also dramatically improve agency efficiency in the client’s eyes. More time is devoted to the actual campaign development, rather than administrative procedures. In defining the appropriate digital workflow for an organization, there is an opportunity to not only improve reliability, speed and functionality in the areas of capture, ingest and nearline, but also to move away from an offline tape archive to an online digital archive.

As for the future, one thing that we know for sure is that digital storage hardware will improve and, essentially, should be able to be added into our archive rather than causing the archive to be replaced in its entirety. We also know that archives will grow as more data is captured and as data formats become ever larger. By keeping data using open standards, on non-proprietary and easily exchangeable hardware, and by the usage of non-proprietary metadata formats, data will remain accessible and searchable beyond the lifespan of any one piece of hardware and even far beyond the lifespan of the asset manager currently in use.

In summary, a digital workflow enables new efficiencies for advertising agencies to offer the best service possible to its clients. The value implications of keeping all assets live and just a mouse-click away cannot be underestimated. Digital workflows are a paradigm shift that is revolutionizing the way creative agencies conduct business, not because tape cannot do a job, but because efficiencies, speed and revenue opportunities of digital workflows are essential to business survival and growth.