While broadcasters appeared to be more accepting of cloud technology in 2011 than previously, the industry clearly remains schizophrenic about it. Some are willing to look at it based on the potential financial benefits and the system flexibility it brings. There are also a lot of “diehards” that don’t trust cloud technology in any shape or form.
For the proponents, the future looks bright. One benefit could be putting devices on a network and managing them from anywhere in the world. This means, for example, that broadcast automation systems can be designed with more reach while file-based technology can become a lot more flexible and accommodating of broadcasters’ budgetary realities.
“Cloud-based technologies [are] something we need to examine very carefully going forward,” said Kenneth Michel, Vice President Content Systems and Engineering Services, Disney/ABC Television Group. “The elasticity of the cloud, where we can ramp up very quickly based on business demands without having to make heavy capital investments, and then shrink accordingly, is very appealing to all in the content delivery industry.”
Yet, not everyone is completely sold on the idea.
“Cloud-based storage can provide an economical method of archiving content for short periods of time or for disaster recovery scenarios,” said Bob Seidel, vice president of engineering and advanced technology at CBS. “However, I would not store content that is intended for air in the near future because there are too many examples of network-wide system failures that have disrupted service for major Internet-based companies.”
Mark Darlow, manager for automation and asset management products at Harris, agrees, citing a lot of concern about the security of assets and available bandwidth.
“When you start to look at the production side of the business, it makes sense,” he said. “Animation companies use cloud technology for rendering of content, so signal processing is an acceptable way to use the cloud. But computer animation processing is very different from video processing, which is what broadcasters are most concerned about.”
As part of a massive cyber initiative, Darlow said Harris as a company has invested “hundreds of billions of dollars” in virtual infrastructure to help support its military and media customers. This includes deploying tight “military grade” security methods.
One way to ensure security of the cloud, according to Darlow, is to reach down to the individual computer it is tied to. Any remotely located platform needs to recognize an individual desktop IP address and not give anyone else access to it.
Some of the network timing protocols that are emerging would allow automation to be offered up to outside customers as an outsourced or managed service.
“You’ll be able to do real-time control over an IP network,” he said. “The financial opportunity is there. You now have to perform real-time control through a VDCP or 4:2:2 serial control. It has to be localized. However, as the technology matures, even things that we now think have to be localized, like automation, won’t be anymore.”
Darlow—who has been discussing the use of virtual signal processing and storage with customers in earnest for the past two years (at least)—said larger organizations are the ones focused on cloud technology, not the smaller ones, because local stations have such smaller libraries and produce a small amount of content, relative to the big networks and content providers.
“There’s not yet a commercially viable model for local stations using the cloud,” he said. “People will get over their security concerns when the financial issues leave them no choice, that’s the reality. It’s about CapEx verses OpEx and there’s usually more money devoted to the later these days.”
The other downside to the cloud is that broadcasters have to pay a fee to access their own content.
“There’s something inherently wrong with that idea, in many people’s minds,” Darlow said. “Storage of content in a cloud is really what holds many people back from embracing it.”
The advent of multiplatform distribution has stimulated large media companies to use the cloud. The cost for ramping up a service is very high initially, so a cloud can be very good way to make it work financially. Establishing a cloud-based service also allows user to keep a close handle on capital investment and return on investment. They know exactly what they are spending when they use it. Typically stations don’t spend anything they don’t need immediately.
When Harris talks about the cloud, it usually includes discussion of remote or virtually managed services—which have been around for several years. Harris has been working in the managed services area since 2008, when it bought a company called Sezmi, and established a managed service team that takes advantage of the cloud. The company also produces a blog and website devoted to such technology, in an effort to reassure broadcasters that the concept is safe and sound.
Yet there are differences between using a remote managed service and the cloud locally that broadcasters need to be aware of.
“The difference between a managed service and the cloud is that a cloud has some technical aspects to it that your architecture has to conform to it,” Darlow said. “There’s a lot of options and they all operate a little bit differently, so broadcasters need to understand their business and how they want it to work. You can use existing products with a managed service and not have to worry about incompatibility.
For example, if a broadcaster is using a cloud processing service that uses Window Azzure, it has to ensure this all of its internal equipment is compatible. The Harris Invenio asset management platform leverages this technology as well. It took a lot of R&D work to get it right, but Darlow said customers are now ensured of a positive experience.
Companies like Encompass offer managed services for automation, but most people would not call them cloud service providers. The acceptance of the cloud is also being driven by economics, because building and equipping one facility to manage 100 channels is more cost effective then building 10 facilities that manage ten channels each.
What’s clear is that the time is now right for cloud services, in terms of efficiency and managing an ever-shrinking CapEx budget.
“It might be in the next few months, but I think our industry is changing more quickly than we actually realize,” Darlow said. “The profits margins have been reduced, so there’s more frugality and people are much more conscience of what they are spending. It’s very different than what it was even five years ago.
“Ten year from now, the business will look very different,” he continued. “Staffs will be smaller but facilities will be larger and handle more channels and content that ever before. Even call letter stations will have to change their workflow in order to remain relevant as well. In addition, consumer adoption of new devices is much greater than it used to be, so broadcasters have had to play catch-up. Cloud services are the only way to make this happen successfully.”
Today there are all sorts of perceived limitations that make people hesitate. But the industry is slowly seeing those hurdles going away.
“In the future broadcasters will be operating on a complete OpEx model as a managed services,” Darlow said. “The tipping point is going to be when there’s really good craft editing capability (of high resolution files, not proxies) in the cloud. It’s not there yet, but it will get there. Once you do that, people don’t have to follow the file anymore, which provides a great deal of flexibility. They can literally do anything their business models demand. Money will no longer be the sole stumbling block.”