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Meeting cloud challenges head-on

By Mike Cronk, Vice President, Advanced Technology

The origin of ‘cloud’ as a computing term reportedly stems from an analyst presentation. The story is, the analyst’s slide deck had a picture of a cloud representing the idea of moving a workload from a local server via the internet into a highly virtualized computing environment hosted within a remote data center. It quickly became a shorthand to describe many concepts such as utility computing, Software as a Service (SaaS) and hyperscale computing.

Whatever the origin of the term, everybody needs a ‘cloud’ strategy today because the intrinsic benefits are too impressive to ignore – scale, reach, flexibility and more. One of the most critical upsides is that cloud allows organizations to avoid the need to maintain large infrastructure assets such as datacenters, racks of servers and complex networking designs, and instead focus on their core line of business.

The perfect storm

The potential to lower capex, boost efficiencies and scale operations has meant that the adoption of cloud and SaaS within the TV industry is fast gaining momentum, with the impact of COVID-19 accelerating the uptake. Our industry has traditionally built everything we need for ourselves, with the ‘as-a-service’ consumption model mostly used for tasks such as playout and other content distribution processes – but that was already changing before the pandemic. If you look at data from the 2018 Devoncroft Media and Entertainment Cloud Adoption Index, use of cloud across the sector was projected to rise by 88% between 2016 to 2021. The pandemic and its restrictions have only hastened a process already underway.

The two main underlying reasons for this trend are the need to produce more content to feed growing consumer demand, and to distribute multiple versions of content to a broader range of affiliates, media partners and platforms. Just to give an example, go back 20 years and a Saturday afternoon soccer match in the English Premier League might have been carried by three or maybe four affiliate networks. Today, a clash between Liverpool and Manchester United will have at least 30 affiliate networks picking up feeds, along with a dozen more highlight packages – many with different commentary, graphics, and format requirements. Add in SD, HD and 4K versions and this one live asset will spawn several hundred hours of associated content.

The same is true for NFL football, NBA basketball, F1 motor racing and an array of other popular sports – not to mention international news and live entertainment events such as awards and music festivals. As a result, broadcasters and other players in the media landscape are turning to the cloud as a way of scaling up production processes. With cloud-enabled platforms, they can accomplish more tasks via automation and generate more content output using a similar number of staff.

The demands of broadcast

The difference between utilizing the cloud in the IT sector and the broadcast industry, however, is that tapping the cloud for TV is trickier. In the IT world, when an application takes an extra couple of seconds to carry out a process, the end-user does not really notice. In broadcast, two seconds of black screen or out of sync audio is simply unacceptable to producers and audiences alike.

And herein lies the overriding challenge: Cloud fundamentally needs IP based workloads and TV engineering is still in the midst of an ongoing transition to IP. Although many key standards have been defined, large swathes of the industry are still only partway through the journey. Some of the most difficult technical issues around ensuring that the cloud can deliver the same experience as on-site production have only recently been solved, and the first pioneers are now starting to make the transition.

Broadly speaking, cloud adoption in broadcast is focused around three areas:

  • Playout, which has the lowest technical difficulty and has been the industry starting point – however, the economic value gained by moving playout into the cloud is limited;
  • Production, which has more demanding requirements requiring fast user experience – this is at an early stage but has potential for broad economic value creation;
  • Live, which is the most demanding of all applications, requiring the lowest latency, highest simultaneous signal counts, and highest number of operators to keep in sync – producing live in the cloud is a real game-changer for the industry, as highlighted by our recent live virtual event, GV LIVE Presents – Engage 2020, produced using the Grass Valley Agile Media Processing Platform (AMPP).

Delivering mission-critical solutions that overcome issues such as audio synchronization and acceptable end-to-end latency – all within a user-friendly operator environment – are part of a veritable laundry list of specific challenges that Grass Valley has worked with its customers to solve.

A window to the future

In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I will be talking more about what we are doing behind the scenes to overcome these challenges and deliver tangible cloud services through GV AMPP. We will offer a deeper dive into AMPP’s core Intelligent components including Fabric, Timing, Connection, Identity and Streaming. We will also look at the future impact of industry trends such as cloud and IP through vision papers, more blogs and GV LIVE events. And over the next year, you will see many projects that GV is working on with major broadcasters and innovators from outside of the traditional TV industry that highlight what’s not just theoretically possible but deliverable – here and now.

We are looking at a future vision for our industry that allows broadcasters and other players to not just move workloads to the cloud but to reshape how those workloads function using automation and artificial intelligence. To say that this is the most exciting time in TV engineering is a massive understatement.