Why broadcasters should have a solid cloud strategy

Person watching broadcast entertainment
(Image credit: Pixabay)

It seems inevitable that everything in media playout – and all other domains in media capture, management and delivery – will ultimately be based on cloud technologies. The pandemic has accelerated any flexible system that accommodates remote workflows to the extent that what may have taken years to deploy is now happening in a greatly truncated timeframe. Keeping the lights on, businesses afloat, and content on screens has short-circuited many of the objections to cloud deployments. In some areas of the business and with some workflows (editing and Media Asset Management are particularly strong) it is now the norm rather than the exception, especially in projects that are currently out to tender.

About the author

Daniel Robinson is head of Research & Development at Pebble.

However, despite the increasing noise around cloud adoption, areas of the industry remain where legacy equipment and methodologies still hold sway. For example, most playout today is still based firmly on-premises in dedicated, purpose-built facilities. Indeed, there are significant revenue streams dependent on their uninterrupted operation. And while there are few wholly on-premises playout facilities being specced in the industry nowadays, especially in the mature markets with established high bandwidth infrastructures, the move away from legacy equipment is perhaps taking longer than cloud evangelists would once have thought.

This is despite the acknowledged advantages of the cloud, notably the shift to an opex financial structure, the ability to scale rapidly, reduced time to market, and the implementation of an iterative development environment that enables companies to innovate at a speed unmatched by bricks and mortar installations.

So, what are the hurdles here? Why is playout a holdout when it comes to the cloud?

There are several reasons, but they are headed by the overall consideration that, in practice, switching to a fully cloud-based playout system over a short period can be a difficult undertaking. Investment cycles, capital availability, personnel capabilities, and local network capacity can all hinder adoption. However, the broadcast industry is certainly transitioning, and while the rates of change will understandably vary considerably across different markets — and even between broadcasters within them — broadcasters certainly need to be thinking of the cloud in the medium to long-term.

The hybrid way

This is where the hybrid solution becomes important. Rather than jumping in feet first and going all-in on the cloud, this approach allows businesses in the broadcast sector to slowly lower themselves into the water by deploying cloud technologies on-site. This effectively operates as a stepping stone in the migration journey to an eventual cloud deployment and provides an invaluable learning opportunity for broadcasters.

The approach can also be an incremental one, maximizing the learning opportunities and minimizing the risk. A broadcast organization is unlikely to have just one type of channel under its umbrella, for example; there may be content that is not time-critical, or which works perfectly well at standard definition (SD), or is made available to over-the-top (OTT) customers only. Channels such as these can be made up of pre-prepared videos and pre-rendered graphics and governed by simple automation. It’s entirely feasible to operate these wholly in the cloud, where content is uploaded once and stays there, without disrupting the more mainstream playout operation.

Hybrid cloud operations though can also benefit channels right across the spectrum. For instance, at the other end of the scale are channels delivering high quality, time-critical live content such as sports or rolling news, both over the air and via streaming services. Add in high-definition (HD) and ultra-high-definition (UHD) resolutions, the wider color gamut that HDR necessitates content, or complex real-time graphics, and committing fully to the cloud may make less sense financially at the moment. This is due to the way that cloud services tend to be priced and how they penalize more data-hungry applications.

But even these can benefit from a hybrid approach if the costs are considered holistically, rather than just being ascribed to playout as the hybrid model provides improved redundancy, analytics, or archiving via the cloud, all of which may traditionally have appeared elsewhere on the balance sheet.

A variety of models

The coming years will see a variety of playout deployment models emerge as the industry also diversifies further into different broadcast offerings. Dynamic FAST channels – free ad-supporting streaming TV services - will live alongside static channels, and back-to-back clip playback channels will exist next to pop-up event channels. This means that technologies for deployment will be tailored to clients’ circumstances and business models.

To support these diverse scenarios, vendors also need to be providing solutions that are designed, and can be installed and adapted, for each type of deployment – whether it be serial digital interface (SDI), Integrated Production (IP) in the cloud or hybrid.

Some vendors are leading the way with new cloud-native, service-orientated platforms that are designed to be infrastructure agnostic and enabled for public cloud and on-premises deployments. In this way they can deliver dynamic scalability and exceptional resilience to broadcast operations. An important additional feature is iteration. Agility is a large part of the advantage of the cloud, so hybrid solutions must be developed for easy deployment of updated software, with an emphasis on remote web-based operations, management and solution monitoring. That makes it easy to reconfigure to adapt to its surroundings and evolve at the newly accelerated pace of cloud iteration.

These types of solutions also provide enhanced visibility and control of playout infrastructure wherever it is located and, regardless of scale, enable broadcasters to expand their deployment as new services are released. In an ideal scenario this will allow them to write and integrate their own functionality using open and secure APIs, providing flexible and modular solutions that encompass numerous use cases from single channel infrastructures to multi-channel, multi-site, geographically dispersed operations.

This flexibility and degree of customization is exactly what broadcasters need as the transition to the cloud takes place, and the first solutions that embody this way of thinking are starting to make an impact on the market. The eagerness with which they are being met also reflects the realities on the ground and in the buildings of many broadcast organizations. A reactive move to an all-in, all cloud strategy may not be the most effective way to evolve your business. But, having a solid technology strategy and a clear destination in mind — as well as the right technology partner to help enact and evolve it — means that broadcasters don’t need to make hurried decisions that may not suit their current market positions.

The key to successful cloud deployments is that there is no one size fits all or one timeframe fits all solution. We all now know what the final destination is, but we can also take different routes and travel at different speeds to get there.

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Daniel Robinson is the head of Research & Development at Pebble, which delivers automation, playout and management solutions to the broadcast community.