From Playout To Ingest, Cloud Plays Expanding Role For Broadcasters
Broadcasters are continuing to adopt public cloud technology as a replacement for dedicated on-premise hardware for a variety of workflows, seeking new operational efficiency and flexibility. The cloud is already being used successfully for non-live functions like content prep and archiving, as well as playout of networks based on preproduced programming such as diginets and cable networks.
Cloud experts who joined a TVNewsCheck webinar last week said the cloud isn’t quite ready to handle all of their live production and playout needs, but some are actively pursuing that goal today.
NBCUniversal Media experimented with a private cloud model for news production several years ago, running newscasts for Telemundo’s KBLR Las Vegas, by remotely controlling 2110 hardware located in a Dallas data center and connected via a high-speed network. While that effort was successful, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the need for more remote workflows accelerated NBC’s evaluation of public cloud technology. That led it to pivot away from the private cloud model instead of expanding it to more stations, said Jamie Simmons, senior director, content technology for NBCUniversal Media, during the webinar Cloud Strategies for TV Broadcasters moderated by this reporter.
Simmons said that NBCU can take some chances with these smaller operations as they don’t have a lot of hours of news each day. For one small Telemundo station, NBCU is now using the cloud in a hybrid mode, with a virtual production control room in the cloud but other functions remaining on-premise. And with another Telemundo station it is trying to take all news production functions to the cloud.
“We’re building a complete production facility [in the cloud],” Simmons said. “The station is going to have walls, it’s going to have control rooms, it’s going to have studios where people can go and sit down and do what they normally do — but all of the technology will be in the public cloud.”
One big advantage of public cloud over private cloud is that it more easily supports collaboration between production staff in different markets and the discoverability of content in markets across the country, he said. But there were other factors.
“The biggest hurdle was doing 2110 uncompressed video within our corporate network, and 2110 doesn’t work well in the public cloud,” Simmons said. “That kind of shifted us to, we have to look at video solutions outside of 2110 that are more public-cloud friendly, that are more lightweight, easier to move around and less latency.”
Sinclair’s Progress On Cloud Playout, Centralized Ingest
While news production in the cloud may still be a work in progress, playout is much further along, at least for non-dynamic content that doesn’t require any live inserts. Sinclair Broadcast Group has been successfully originating and distributing its broadcast diginets for several years from the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud, noted Walid Hamri, Sinclair senior director, media systems.
When it acquired Fox’s regional sports networks (RSNs) as part of the Disney-Fox merger, Sinclair had to “start from scratch” and replace the technical infrastructure. To replace the master control facilities at the RSNs’ previous home in The Woodlands, Texas, Sinclair used on-premise technology, creating a new 2110-compliant facility at Encompass Digital Media in Atlanta. But to replace the RSN’s archive at The Woodlands, Sinclair turned to the public cloud, moving 8.5 petabytes in total.
Sinclair’s most recent project in the cloud was to create a centralized ingest and media prep system for all incoming preproduced content, including syndicated fare and commercials, that eliminated discreet systems at each local station and streamlined the content preparation process. The next step for Sinclair will be to move all program playout and automation to the public cloud.
“One of the reasons we went straight for public cloud is the fact that it would be really hard to design a private cloud just because of the lack of flexibility,” Hamri said. “And we’re using some public tools, they could be from AWS or any public cloud provider, that don’t necessarily transfer easily to a private cloud. So, we know what we’re doing today. And being able to design what a private cloud would look like, taken into consideration what we’d like to do in the next five years, it’s clearly impossible, just in terms of infrastructure design.”
Telestream Touts Value Of Centralized Ingest
Transcoding vendor Telestream worked closely with Sinclair on its media pipeline project. Alex Emmermann, director of business development for Telestream Cloud, explained that previously each Sinclair station would ingest, prep and QC content separately, using its own transcode farms and storage. Now with the centralized ingest system in the cloud, those functions are performed once using the same “dynamic pool of resources,” and then the content is distributed to all of the stations.
If there is a problem with a piece of content after going through QC and intervention is required, having everything in a centralized storage pool makes that process easier.
“You can have that intervened from someone in a different market because you’ve got a shared pool of resources that are working on a common set of media,” Emmermann said. “You’re not sort of slave to, only that one person from that one market can take a look at it.”
In Telestream’s work with NBC, he added, it is running AI algorithms during the QC process to perform speech-to-text captioning. That makes it easier for NBCU stations to provide captions for OTT platforms like Peacock.
Maturity In ‘Media Factory’ Functions
Janet Gardner, president of consulting firm Perspective Media Group, said that the most maturity in cloud technology available to broadcasters today is in the “media factory” part of the overall media supply chain, such as ingest and QC. So, it makes sense that the strongest adoption of cloud by broadcasters is in that area.
She noted that vendors like Telestream and SDVI are also moving into an “opex” model, where customers pay based on usage of their software tools. That is attractive to broadcasters who “are trying to get of a capex spend approach for their infrastructure.”
Another area where cloud has gained major traction among her clients is in editing, mostly for entertainment programming where collaboration is key. She doesn’t see much work in live programming yet.
“We still see a gap,” Gardner said. “We see a lot of uptake in that ‘media factory,’ what we would call the middle of the supply chain, where people can submit content, it can be processed and then made available for other uses. But we don’t see a lot of maturity yet further to the left in the supply chain around metadata, other than metadata harvesting; around production management; all the way through to getting material and metadata managed so it can be really exploited in the cloud beyond just scheduling to broadcast or used for a one-off workflow.”
A Switch In The Cloud
A new player in cloud products for broadcasters is swXtch.io LLC, a subsidiary of technology company and U.S. stock exchange operator IEX Group. The company has leveraged its expertise in using the cloud for high-speed financial applications to create a software switch, cloudSwXtch. The product is designed allow broadcasters to expand their signal capacity into the cloud by means of a “virtual overlay network” while still maintaining the workflows and processes of on-premise hardware like ST 2110 routing equipment.
“The goal is to create parity between on-prem network performance and features and capability and cloud network performance and features and capability,” said Geeter Kyrazis, swXtch.io business lead.
swXtch.io officially unveiled cloudSwXtch, which performs a similar function as an IP hardware switch from a vendor like Arista or Cisco, at the IBC show this fall. It demonstrated the new product in partnership with cloud platform Microsoft Azure as well as established broadcast hardware vendor Evertz, which was able to connect cloudSwXtch to its MAGNUM-OS control system and 2110 routing hardware to support “ground-to-cloud” IP video flows.
Kyrazis noted that use of the cloud for production has come in “fits and starts” because of “obvious gaps” in features that broadcasters expect. He said that swXtch.io has figured out how to support key features from ST 2110 plants in the public cloud, which will allow broadcasters to add capacity through a hybrid approach.
“We’re trying to add features like multicast, PTP [precision time protocol] and very precise packet monitoring, the kind of things you take for granted in an on-prem network, and bring them to the cloud,” Kyrazis said. “Such that you can build a global data plane between your on-prem network and your cloud network, without regard to which particular cloud you’re running on, and without dependency on specific cloud services.”