At this year’s DPP European Broadcaster Summit, broadcasters shared notes on cloud strategy
Craig Bury, CTO / Partner, Three Media
Earlier in 2022, at the DPP European Broadcaster Summit, broadcasters came together to debate what they actually needed from future technology platforms. The discussion ranged widely, but participants took away some clear messages.
The first was that there remains tension between the traditional “every broadcaster is unique” viewpoint and the need for cost-effective, rapidly implemented technology which allows media enterprises to respond to the market. One widely recognised pathway is use of the cloud.
The challenge is how that strategy fits into the existing media industry. Even if the differences between individual broadcasters might be exaggerated, those between media and any other branch of the IT industry are clear: We are about getting content to the consumer in the best possible quality, and that means delivering against very specific technical demands. When we talk about “real time”, we mean a new image 50 frames per second without exception.
“Content is the differentiator,” one broadcaster told the conference. “That’s where we add value to the viewer. Shared infrastructure is something we already do very well from a distribution point of view. As we go into the cloud and IP distribution, that’s a thing we need to solve.”
What do we mean by cloud?
It is probably worth clarifying what we mean by the cloud, and why it brings new challenges. Traditional broadcast infrastructure has depended upon bespoke pieces of kit which only did one thing, because that was what the technology allowed us to do.
As the IT industry developed ever-more capable hardware, so it became possible to do much of what we needed in software, running on off-the-shelf computers. Smart vendors saw this trend, and developed their products anew in virtualised software, allowing the best use of hardware resources by continually reconfiguring the architecture, dependent upon demands.
Traditional broadcast infrastructure has depended upon bespoke pieces of kit which only did one thing
The cloud takes this virtualised software architecture and runs it on computers in someone else’s data centre. Advantages: someone else worries about maintaining that data centre, which allows the scale of operations moment by moment.
The disadvantage is that you have to get your files to and from this remote data centre. That’s not a problem when you are a bank or an airline dealing in kilobyte-sized files. But it’s a real challenge when you are a media company dealing in gigabytes and terabytes.
Cloud providers were initially reluctant to help with making their services media friendly. AWS were the first, through the company’s acquisition of encoder specialist Elemental, able to offer some sophisticated media processing on its platform. But even if those tools fit your specific workflows, they will need to be integrated with services from other vendors, and with equipment at your premises.
So, it is unreasonable to expect AWS – or your other chosen cloud provider – to be able to provide more than the underlying infrastructure. How best to use it in a media context is down to you.
Just as you did when you were screwing hardware into 19in racks, you need someone to design an integrated system which will reliably deliver. But now it is more complicated, because the great value of microservices and the cloud is being able to change things as you go along: you are no longer limited to what the system was originally designed for.
That engineering design resource can be in-house, or supplied externally. But the firm feeling of the DPP conference was that “broadcasters don’t have sufficient in-house resource – and, in some cases, expertise – to carry out all cloud integrations themselves. There is an urgent need for specialist cloud systems integrators”.
Those specialist systems integrators have to be part of the life cycle of the technology. One broadcaster made the comment that, for some suppliers, “the view is typically three or five days of integration, then walk away. It is the ongoing support of integrations over the lifetime of the products that matters”.
Metadata is critical in the glass-to-glass supply chain
To deliver that relationship successfully brings us back to the “tech company that does media” concept. There are cloud experts out there, and indeed AWS-certified partners. But if they do not understand the specific demands of media, they will not be able to deliver solutions that provide the security, reliability and – most importantly – true Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) that delivers real benefits to the broadcaster and customer.
Your cloud system integrator
Metadata is critical in the glass-to-glass supply chain. Can you adopt it to deliver real savings? Initiatives like Interoperable Master Format (IMF) allow businesses to store one master kit of video and audio parts and derive everything from it. That means less storage to be paid for, but more processing: how can those relative costs be evaluated?
Received wisdom is that egress charges are the big financial trap in cloud systems. But there are also costs for accessing and rewriting files, as well as for internal processing. All these transactions may seem individually minimal, but they soon add up and can make a significant difference to the operational expenditure.
Is the right compute model selected for all the processes? Are you making the most of scheduling and deferring some processes? Even though the ability to respond to peaks in demand is one of the cloud’s great strengths, does the charging model for your system architecture penalise you?
How are you going to structure the storage, processing and response to deliver five-nines availability, when a cloud provider will typically only commit to three? No broadcaster is going to compromise on resilience or risk output integrity.
The only way to achieve the media company’s goals is through an independent cloud system integrator
AWS led the way, but now all the big cloud providers are interested in media and can suggest their own solutions. Like broadcast single-vendor solutions, designed to be sticky, locking the user in. While they are agile and flexible, a broadcaster needs a deep understanding of the complex permutations of the services on offer, and how these are charged, in order to architect a cost-effective, performant solution. The cost calculators don’t tell the whole story.
The only way to achieve the media company’s goals is through an independent cloud system integrator – like Three Media – which has proven financial modelling skills, alongside workflow optimisation and process mining experience. Most importantly, they understand the true nature of the media industry, that creativity is king, but that value can only be realised when the fruits of that creativity are finally put before consumers.
As one of the broadcasters at the DPP conference said. “There is no value being provided by a supplier if it doesn’t have a direct outcome for our end consumers. Unless we make that transparent and visible – and they make their challenges visible to us – the relationship will never really work.”
This article first appeared online with FEED magazine.