Migrating To The Cloud Takes Careful Planning For Work-From-Home Workflows

It was late in 2018 when a major public broadcaster in the UK came to London-based 7FiveFive, a technology solutions provider, with a growth challenge. Their postproduction department had about 75 edit positions throughout the building working off a shared storage SAN and some orchestration for getting media in and out of the system. Files were stored in folders that were getting harder to locate and retrieve.

It was a classic on-premise centralized shared storage environment, installed in 2014, that supported the postproduction department and the system was getting old and tired. Adequate bandwidth was hard to come by and a proliferation of video formats was stalling its required fast-turnaround workflows.

As Tim Burton, 7FIveFive’s Managing Director, explains it, the client wasn’t sure how to improve upon what they had, but they knew they wanted to modernize their postproduction workflows and their content supply chain.

Managements’ exact words were: “We want more, but we don’t know what that is.”

The broadcaster was looking for a partner to help it transition to more flexible infrastructure, one that would guide them along the way to fruition. What they got was an all-cloud video editing solution that allows them to work faster and more flexibly without compromising data security or user experience.

First Steps

The first step was to determine what exactly the client’s business goals were for the division and how this media production system was going to help that. The technology discussion would follow, but Burton wanted to challenge them to recognize where they were at that moment in time and where they wanted to go. There was not a budget at that point, although they did want to know how much it was going to cost so they could go to management and fight for it. So, 7FiveFive was asked to put together a business case for deploying the right technology.

Burton immediately thought of implementing the cloud as part of the overall infrastructure, but the client was very concerned about using remotely located technology. They felt there were too many technical and psychological hurdles between where they were and where the cloud was at that time. They were thinking of keeping most of their resources on premise.

However, Burton challenged some of their preconceptions of how the work gets done and allowed them to see that opening up the internal system to enable a wider user base, located anywhere in the world, would be beneficial both today and over time.

What they didn’t want was an off-the-shelf workflow solution that might limit what they were trying to do. This would have to be a custom design, with the client’s exact workflow habits accommodated. Burton proposed a post environment that took advantage of a mixture of on premise and remote working technology, with automation and asset management layers that were all integrated under a single user interface, that could be accessed by everyone on the team no matter where they were working.

Special software can help define cost modeling and profiling to enable production teams to develop a yearly budget for what it would take to operate the system. Illustrative data - not real client data.

Special software can help define cost modeling and profiling to enable production teams to develop a yearly budget for what it would take to operate the system. Illustrative data - not real client data.

Pandemic Shift

Then, in late 2019, the pandemic hit and the client was forced to send everyone home with a Mac laptop and have them retrieve files from the main studio with file acceleration software. That didn’t cut it. Editors were complaining about the time it took to download material, edit a story, and then upload it back into the system (an hour of footage, over an 10-18 Mbps connection, took nearly ten hours to upload). Much of the problem was that team members had terribly slow Internet connections in their homes. The need for a decentralized, remote infrastructure became paramount to the new migration project.

In a mere three weeks 7FiveFive created a proof-of-concept virtual environment in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud. It would allow the staff to work from home with the same speed and access to resource they had at their production facility. They jointly put together a budget and it got approved by senior management the same day.

The challenge was that they needed to get content out of the cloud and into the client’s headquarters quickly. It turns out much of the content the team was working with was being delivered by Sony DADC, which provides a full range of services to the entertainment industry. Sony was using AWS microservices to process content before it was sent over to the client’s main postproduction operations.

So, they went to Sony and asked if they could get the content in an uncompressed format and Sony readily agreed, as it would save them a lot of egress costs. Once they had this native cloud to cloud handoff in place every user on the network was able to access content stored in the cloud and on premise directly and pull it across into their edit systems with relative ease.

The Seed Was Planted

The three-month experiment got extended to six months and then continued throughout the height of the pandemic. Then the pandemic started to ease, and people began to return to the office. But the seed of this new way of remote working had been planted and the staff expressed its desire to continue with remote working. They said they felt they could work just as efficiently from home.

As a caveat, the client wanted to keep the monthly costs below a certain point. So, they worked together to define cost modelling and profiling and came up with a yearly budget for what it would take to operate the system. Management then gave the green light to extend the project

At this point they had gone from potentially refreshing a system to a short-term solution that was now becoming the long-term solution. This meant scaling it up, bringing on more people and integrating this new cloud infrastructure with the client’s other existing on-prem systems. They added an asset management tier and also started implementing some automation and system reporting. And they put it all under a Web-based interface that everyone on team could access from wherever they wanted to work.

In the end 7FiveFive gave them the knowledge, the tooling and the support to be able to run a virtual post environment in the cloud. And, although Burton’s team was retained for several software tools and technical support, the client’s staff learned to operate it themselves. What the client came to realize was that for them, the most efficient way to set up this type of workflow was to outsource the technology (to build and use public cloud) but in-source the staff - editors, producers and media managers - and operational elements of the business.

Getting Everyone On The Same Page

While 7FiveFive provided the technology platform, they had to be sure that the editors could all work the same way they always had before. But here were some changes that needed to be learned. When they sat down at a desk, they needed to learn how to dial up a few buttons to configure the infrastructure the way it needed to work. They also had to be made aware of the fact that now the computer they were sitting at is not “their” computer, but a virtualization of it. This meant they could not drag and drop files onto the desktop. It was a concept that the staff needed it understand fully, and it took a bit of time.

They identified a few key people within the organization that could in turn train their subordinates. But it was not easy. As far as getting the staff to buy in to this new way of working, some got it right away and others were more hesitant. It was important that they got everyone on the same page and helped them recognize why this is important to their future viability. Often with these types of transitions, it comes down to the personalities that are tasked with bringing it on board. What seems to happen is that the people that like it use it, and slowly bring others along once they see how fast and easy the cloud platform is to navigate.

Another thing they found was that if the changes made were easily recognizable, people were more apt to take to it more quickly. For example, they equipped the staff with new widescreen computer monitors, which made the staff want to use the cloud system more. Sometimes the shiny new things are what get the most attention.

One thing to note: they were not replacing their familiar Adobe Premiere workstations with a cloud-based editor. With the new system all of the keyboard shortcuts work the same and all of the same plug-ins, fonts and edit tools were available to the editors when required. Even the codec support is exactly the same. Projects that they once opened on premise could now be opened in the cloud just as easily.

Resulting Business Benefits

Once the platform was up and running, the client immediately started to see some business benefits that they hadn’t anticipated. The first was that they can now spin up more edit positions when they need to very quickly. This has prompted them to experiment and try new FAST channel launches and OTT services. The elasticity of the cloud platform allowed them the luxury of trying things without incurring significant cost. And it was an OpEx cost, so it was easier for the accountants to approve.

The next benefit was that when they decide to close their Latin American office (in Miami), it didn’t mean people lost their jobs. Given the fact that the cloud platform implemented has global reach, it could be expanded to the team in Miami, and they could now handle global projects. So, they were able to retain the team, who now all work from home, and they can handle work required for different time zones. The cloud gave the client more flexibility (and productivity) without bringing on additional staff.

The platform also allows the client to share its resources with other divisions within the company. So, they are now able to get the same specialized productivity with the same floorspace and headcount. The physical space required has decreased but more work is getting done.

An editor status page helps remote workers to stay connected to the main production facility and checks the status of the connection on an on-going basis.

An editor status page helps remote workers to stay connected to the main production facility and checks the status of the connection on an on-going basis.

The third advantage is around data security. While he data (content) is available in one centralized place (the cloud), you’re not actually giving each user access to that original data, you’re giving them access to a workstation that in turn has access to the data. This way you are not pushing high-value assets out to people’s homes.

So, the client sends the at-home worker an application they install on their home computer and a username and password. They then stream them a virtualized PC that the remote worker can use. It’s still the user’s personal computer, but they have limited access. For large media organizations, this has become very important in a work-from-home model.

Pain Point

What everyone involved in this migration project came to realize is that this would only work if the entire staff committed to making it work. For example, when you start moving into a work from home model, you are often limited by the Internet connections in people’s homes. It can sometimes be hard to get people to respect that this is a shared responsibility model. It was mandated that remote workers had to have a good connection because they are part of the overall workflow. If they couldn’t sort out their home Internet connection, then they would have to work from the office.

Technology At The Core

Among the technologies that helped smooth the transition was Teradici’s PC-over-IP remote desktop protocol that allows you to use a PC remotely over the Internet. This provides the freedom to place a computer (edit system) wherever you want to: on premise, in the cloud or a virtual data center.

In general, a lot of people have tried to solve work-from-home models by saying, “the compute is at the edge (at the home) and I push the data to it.” In this specific case 7FiveFive did it the other way around. They located the main data in the hub, in the middle, as well as the processing resource required, and simply streamed the content files out to the users.

Doing it this way means they only have to store content once. In addition, the data rate that is required to provide a good user experience is 20 MBps, which is much lower than having to send the hi-rez version. And the time needed to finish a project is significantly reduced. Instead of having to download the raw material, edit it and then upload it again, the centralized environment allows them to connect to the central storage and edit in the cloud (no downloading) with the hi-rez version of the file (exactly like they would on premise). So, PC-over-IP remote desktop was the empowering technology that helped make this remote production model work.

In the end 7FiveFive took all of the client’s equipment previously mounted in racks on premise and delivered the same functionality on an as-needed basis in the public cloud (AWS). And instead of physically installing and configuring it, Burton wrote software that did that for them. Basically, they created a software-defined post house. Rather than going out and buying workstations and cabling and configuring them, we created software that did that for them in the cloud. And you don’t have to be an IT expert to use it. It’s designed specifically for production people.

The Results Are Far-Reaching

It’s now three years from that original proof-of-concept experiment and the client loves the system because it has opened up new efficiencies that they take advantage of on a daily basis. And it saves them money and effort as well.

The value they see is in the new-found flexibility that allows them to produce more content while spending the same amount of money they did previously. And the staff now have increased capabilities. Using the public cloud also brings economies of scale. The more they use it, the more they save.

There is widespread agreement within the client team that the client is better off because they have been able to allow their people to work from home without limitations. They also now have editing happening where they are storing the content. That means less hardware requirements and infinite scaling up and down. This also allows them to pivot and be more agile as a business.

Proceed With Caution

This has been a dramatic change in how the client operates its workflows and overall media business, but it’s not for everyone. Not every business will benefit from the cloud, so it’s important to look at need, logistics and practicality. It’s not a one size fits all. It’s more nuanced.

Working from home or some other remote place is the new way of producing content for many, but the model should be thought out before you build. The goal is to replicate the on-premise experience at home, but the reality can be a bit more complex. Careful engineering design and frequent consultations all along the way is critical to success.

In today’s highly competitive environment, these decisions are driven by financial concerns as well as technology. While the cloud allows you to save on capital investment for new equipment, in most cases you are replacing the cost of buying new hardware with cloud costs, so it can be similar at the end of the day.

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