TVN Tech | COVID-19 Speeding Broadcasters’ Shift To Cloud
To support myriad direct-to-consumer platforms while continuing to deliver traditional linear TV programming, big broadcasters and cable networks have been steadily migrating their workflows from dedicated on-premise hardware to the cloud, either through private data centers or public cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.
That gradual shift has accelerated in the last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, say cloud technology vendors, as networks have employed remote operations as much as possible.
For some broadcasters, that has meant flipping the switch on business continuity plans they had already configured to run in the cloud. For others, it’s been scrambling to set up new applications in the cloud, such as editing.
“Without exception, every one of our customers is doing more in the last month [in the cloud] than they’ve done before,” says Simon Eldridge, chief product officer for SDVI.
SDVI’s Rally supply chain management software is used by a number of major networks to orchestrate workflows running on cloud platforms, working in conjunction with other third-party software applications to handle functions like ingest, QC and transcoding. Major customers include Discovery, Turner, A&E Networks and CBS; SDVI just won a technical Emmy along with AWS, Evertz, Discovery and Fox Network Engineering and Operations (now part of Walt Disney Television) for its pioneering work in cloud applications.
Discovery was an early cloud adopter and is probably the furthest along of SDVI’s customers, running its entire supply chain from content ingest to playout from the AWS cloud. It originates 496 channels from the AWS cloud today, with operators at its Sterling, Va. uplink facility handling exception monitoring. That building has stayed open through the COVID-19 crisis, but access has been limited to a handful of key personnel. The same goes for its international facilities.
“While all our broadcast facilities remain open, heavy use of the cloud made moving to remote working across our technical operations possible during this time,” says Brinton Miller, EVP, technology strategy and architecture for Discovery.
Imagine Communications has also seen increased interest in running disaster recovery (DR) and remote monitoring applications in the cloud, says President Steve Reynolds, as customers have had to either close facilities or operate them with a “skeleton crew” due to social distancing guidelines.
“It’s monitoring by exception,” Reynolds says. “When you’re working with a quarter of the staff you had two weeks ago, you’ve got to make sure they’re looking at the right things. That conversation has accelerated.”
Microsoft Azure has seen strong demand in the last two weeks from broadcasters and post-production facilities looking to do editing in the cloud on high-end platforms like Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer, says Microsoft Media Cloud Architect Scott Bounds.
While many customers previously were “dipping their toes” and doing proofs-of-concept on cloud-based editing, Bounds says, they have a new sense of urgency. Editors who typically rely on powerful desktop computers at their broadcast center or post house can’t run the same software at home on their laptop computers, so their employers are turning to the cloud for processing power.
“Now, it’s ‘What’s the quickest way to get this done?’” Bounds says. “They’re saying, ‘I have X number of folks, and I have to stand people up. It might not be fully integrated, but we can live with that.’”
Going Live Through The Cloud
TAG Video Systems, whose IP-based multiviewing and monitoring systems for both broadcast and OTT content are used by customers like Amazon Prime Video, CBS, NBC and Fox, has seen several new cloud-based applications for its software surface amidst the COVID-19 crisis. One network used its multiviewer, which can handle both compressed and uncompressed content, to create an internal IPTV system to support remote monitoring by employees working from home. And TAG is also about to enter into a proof of concept for live production multiviewing through the cloud with very low latency.
“If we can do that, then it paves the way for live production to be done in the cloud,” says Kevin Joyce, TAG’s chief commercial officer.
The cloud has already proven itself for media processing applications like transcoding, and broadcasters were quick to use it for new digital businesses like OTT distribution. Linear playout, particularly for prerecorded content, is now becoming more and more popular based on the success of networks like Discovery. To date, broadcasters have shied away from using the cloud for live production or playout, mostly due to latency concerns. But Joyce expects the focus will soon shift to live production.
“I think there will be an acceleration of live production applications, and a lot of editing tools and production switchers will now be cloud-friendly tools,” Joyce says. “It’s just a matter of time before the latency of the cloud would allow this to happen, and I think some of the large providers are figuring out a way to solve it.”
Peter Wharton, president of consulting firm Happy Robotz, has worked with PBS and Sinclair Broadcast Group on their cloud initiatives and also advises multiple vendors. He agrees that there is increased interest in taking the cloud live.
“Live production is still the holy grail, the one piece of the workflow that’s really missing in order to virtualize broadcast operations,” Wharton says.
But, he says for many broadcasters, virtualizing production in the cloud doesn’t make that much sense when their on-premise studios and control rooms are working just fine. The economic benefits are more apparent for live sports production, where large networks have already relied for years on remote integration [REMI] to minimize the amount of equipment and personnel needed in the field.
He thinks that might go one step further with major vendors now offering cloud-based remote production as a service, such as Sony’s Virtual Production and Grass Valley’s Alyve.
Fox’s Early Move
An ambitious decision to bring live production to the cloud has already been made by Fox Corp., which last December announced a sweeping deal with AWS to employ its cloud technology to support ingest, production and playout for all of its businesses, including Fox Owned Stations, as it creates a new technology platform in the wake of the Disney/Fox merger.
The AWS system, which will eventually replace technical infrastructure that Fox sold to Disney but still uses under a transitional services agreement, will work with existing Fox production centers in Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, N.C., as well as a new technical hub Fox is building in Tempe, Ariz.
As part of the multi-year deal, Fox will be using two new AWS products that help address latency challenges in using the cloud for live production or high-end post production: an “AWS Local Zone” in Los Angeles that places compute and storage resources close to Hollywood clients to deliver single-digit millisecond latencies; and “AWS Outposts,” compute and storage racks built with AWS-designed hardware that allow customers to run latency-sensitive applications like editing and graphics on-premise, whether that’s in a station or a production truck.
Live production has by far the most demanding latency requirements among broadcast workflows, sometimes measured in the sub-one-frame range, notes Mike Callahan, head of media solutions marketing for AWS. He says AWS Local Zones and AWS Outposts should be looked at as one of many “helper tools” that will bridge together the multiple on-premise systems that broadcasters already rely on today for live production and allow them to work with the AWS cloud. He says AWS will take the same approach in working with those vendors that it did with Evertz on linear playout.
While Callahan notes that Amazon sells point products to the broadcast industry through its AWS Elemental video processing arm, AWS isn’t aiming to build its own live production tools for customers like Fox but instead is focused on integrating with existing third-party products.
“We have to bridge those gaps from the cloud workflow,” Callahan says. “Live production is probably the most stringent set of cases around that. Our goal is to help the set of companies that customers like Fox are using today, and help those vendors move to AWS. So we’re working really closely with them, just like we did with Evertz, with the next set of live production vendors to see what are the bottlenecks, and how do we get past them?”
One way to help combat latency is through high-speed transport. Amazon already offers live ingest to the cloud through its AWS Elemental Media Connect product, which Callahan says can securely deliver feeds from on-premise into the AWS cloud at a data rate of around 80 Mbps.
“Once it’s there, you can transport it from the AWS network to wherever you want it to go,” he says.
Anil Jain, managing director of media and entertainment industry solutions for Google Cloud, concedes that latency is still a challenge with applications like live sports production. He says one potential solution is to leverage Google’s robust global network by “moving greater capability to the edge, to capture content and move it directly to the cloud, and also do distribution at the edge.” Microsoft’s Bounds also pointed to the power of the Azure network in managing latency over long distances for applications like high-end editing.
Another important development for taking the cloud live is AWS’ December announcement that it will support the IP multicast protocol across its Transit Gateway product, which allows customers to connect their Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs) on AWS with their own on-premise data centers. Simply put, adding IP multicast support means that broadcasters can now use the AWS cloud to deliver the same piece of content simultaneously to multiple destinations instead of having to create a separate stream for every single recipient.
“It’s actually a huge deal, doing multicast in the cloud,” Wharton says. “You can now build a distribution network without having to recreate signals at each point.”
Lawo CTO Phil Myers says better connectivity and IP multicast support are crucial to making live production on the cloud a reality.
“As bandwidth increases and latency reduces, I would expect that the high-bandwidth live aspects of a broadcast chain would fully evolve and migrate to cloud-based solutions in the next couple of years, if not sooner,” Myers says. “Recent announcements by cloud providers such as Amazon around support for multicast routing via their Transit Gateway product offering shows a clear intent to move in this direction.”
Improvements in on-site connectivity will allow more and more content storage and processing compute to shift from on-premise devices to the cloud, adds Myers. In the interim, he predicts “rapid adoption” of hybrid cloud solutions like AWS Outpost, Microsoft Azure Stack and Google Cloud Anthos that allow broadcasters to run cloud workflows in an on-premise configuration today.
Jain agrees that Anthos is an important tool in broadcasters’ multi-phase transformation to the cloud. “We realize this needs to be an evolutionary process, not a revolution,” Jain says.
The first phase in broadcasters shifting their supply chain to the cloud was taking individual applications like linear playout and moving them to the cloud, allowing them to take cost out of their infrastructure.
The second phase is migrating more existing applications and running them in a multi-cloud or hybrid cloud environment. That’s where Anthos comes in, as it is designed to work in an on-premise scenario.
The third phase is what Jain calls “Broadcast 2.0.”
“That’s where we move beyond the notion of daisy-chaining lots of different racks and systems together and move to a model where the supply chain doesn’t have to be linear anymore,” he says.
Imagine’s Reynolds says that broadcasters’ adoption of the ATSC 3.0 next-generation standard, which marries over-the-air broadcast content with OTT content delivered via broadband, should hasten the industry’s shift to originating everything in the cloud.
“Especially with the OTT element for 3.0, that has to be handed off to the cloud anyway,” Reynolds notes. “By moving origination to the cloud you’re saving yourself some effort. What Imagine is working on is doing unified origination, not one broadcast chain for 1.0, another for 3.0 and another for OTT. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of the story indicated that Discovery’s Sterling, Va., building had closed. That was inaccurate. The building didn’t close, though access has been limited to a few essential staff with most job functions moving to a work-from-home basis.