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New Generation Of Master Control Systems Enable A Myriad Of Processes Without Limitations

Master Control and automation systems have been at the heart of broadcast television facility for decades, ensuring that content—programming and advertising spots—gets to the right place at the right time. And while they have served the industry well in that time, these once state-of-the-art systems were comprised of expensive dedicated hardware that often forced customers to work in a very limited and proprietary way.

Today’s vastly improved, software-centric systems have brought new capability and flexibility that is critical to multi-platform distribution success. Rather than limit your operations, the new generation of master control/automation systems assimilate to your individual business and operational needs and offer the choice of on-premise, the cloud to a hybrid infrastructure of both.

On Solid Ground

Despite all of the promised benefits of a cloud-based system, there are many organizations that still have their operations on-premise and enjoy the familiar and reliable workflow—without latency concerns—it brings. On-premise systems are much more responsive (near real time) because they are utilizing 100 percent of the available resources. This works well for TV news stations that often have to make last-minute schedule changes due to late-breaking events. In addition, if you are operating a high-demand, more real-time playout channel, it’s going to lend itself to an on-premise approach.

The Hybrid Approach

However, when you look at the prospect of a hardware-based, direct-access content management system, you realize that not everything has to be immediately at your fingertips. This means you might store content in the cloud while managing it—and retrieving individual clips quickly—on premise. And you also need to understand that tools are available in the cloud to allow you to schedule content in advance. This opens you up to a more hybrid environment of on-premise and cloud. Or even an evolving system. This would be an on-premise system with the cloud-based tools that best fits your specific application.

All-In On The Cloud

Deploying your operations purely in the cloud is a relatively new idea and many broadcasters have been concerned about placing all of their assets in a remote location. Indeed, this transition has been slow to materialize.

Many have come to realize that the cloud is good for automated OTT/FAST channels that don’t need much maintenance and basically run on their own. The cloud is also useful for moving content from on-premise to cloud based storage, and for disaster recovery.

One thing holding up industry-wide adoption has been that broadcasters are not as familiar with IT systems as they need to be. They don’t understand the architecture of cloud as a technology, versus the on-premise technology that they are very familiar with. So, there’s a lot of education and planning involved to figure out why you want to move to the cloud in the first place.  The reason cannot be to do it just because it is the latest technology trend. It has the be a business decision.

Is It Right For Me?

To determine if the cloud is right for your facility, it’s helpful to look at the ride-share industry and how it affected car ownership. On the one hand, if I own/lease my car, I can go anywhere I want to in it and I can drive it as much as I want and it still costs the same every month. This is called a “predictable cost”.

Now, let’s say I give up my car and I want to use a ride-share service. I only pay when I use the car, but my costs are not predictable each month. Some months I might use the ride-share service more than others.

Therefore, with the public cloud I pay by use. So, for various different tasks, where there’s some unpredictable changes that could occur (like a last-minute schedule change), the cloud is particularly useful for that. I want to launch an OTT channel for a special event and I want to offer more 24/7 coverage of that than I would on my main channel, the cloud allows that very easily. And then I shut down the channel when the event is over and there’s no more cost.

If I did all of my signal processing on-premise, I have to look at how much resources I have to dedicate to that channel while taking some away from other production activities. And when I don’t need the channel anymore, I’m stuck with unused equipment that is not generating any income.

Another important consideration is reliability and accessibility of using public cloud as a service. In the same way that contingencies were engineered for on-premise workflows the same have to be considered for public cloud platforms in the event of outages or connectivity issues.

Remember that the cloud is simply a set of remotely located tools. Do you need to move content around between sister stations? In this case you can set up an on-premise network or put it to the cloud to give everybody involved access to it as they see fit. So, the task is: move once and then collect.”

Moving to a service-based platform provider such as the public cloud verses acquiring on-premise hardware is a serious financial decision. Capital Expenditures (CapEx) verses operational expenditures (OpEx) will depend on how predictable cash flow may be for the business. For smaller operators that have cash flow challenges CapEx may prove a more predictable model. For larger operators OpEx may be worth considering. The important thing to remember is that cost must be a significant part of the equation to make the right decision on which technological direction to take.

The Business Model Dictates The Workflow

In the end all of these workflow elements have to be factored into your decision of whether to move to the cloud. Your individual business model will dictate the answer. It’s also about risk and not letting technology be the tail that wags the dog.

Moving to the cloud is not too difficult because on-premise master control/automation systems are modular in their configuration and approach. This allows you to build systems that work best for you, in a phased migration that allows you to grow with the system. When helping customers in the midst of a “lift and shift” mode, we are creating cloud-native environments. And for customers it’s all about reliability.

Decomposing The System

The first stage of moving to the cloud is taking your software solution into a virtual machine environment, in a way that feels like it’s its own platform. So you look at the various pieces that make up that process and then create microservices that mimic those different pieces of the process.

You start by “decomposing” the platform-centric software to a microservice-centric software to mimic the same results. Once you are in the microservices, then you are “cloud native,” which means that you take advantage of all of the flexibility, scalability and other benefits that a software architecture provides. First of all, it’s self-healing. If a microservice goes down, the software orchestration layer recognizes something is not right and shuts down that bit bucket and start a new instance of that microservice to keep the operations up and running.

So, what goes to the cloud first? Content storage has been done since the 1980s, that’s not new. Computing (CPU and GPU) has been the most valuable byproduct. With the cloud there’s no limitation of signal processing usage. It’s virtually unlimited, as long as you are willing to pay for it.

Evolution Of The Cloud

It is important to note that the Cloud is a relatively new and evolving technology platform for the Media & Entertainment industry. As an industry, we have spent the past several decades moving from dedicated, proprietary hardware to more IT-centric commodity hardware and software-centric workflows that were dependent on IT standards. Some of those standards are not inherent within the public cloud platforms. Operations that are more latency sensitive may find that on-premise hardware may still be required as mentioned previously. There is also a desperate need for a universal control plane that is unique to the Media & Entertainment industry. The more we as an industry dedicate our attention to building these “standards” the more it will become a plug and play experience.

Automation Anywhere

Whether locating your resources on premise or in the cloud, it’s important that you have a direct conduit to all of your master control/automation systems parameters. And you have to be able to monitor the system remotely.

Web access to a suite of apps for on-premise and cloud operations can oversee an entire network of systems to allow remote or on-site operators to supervise and adjust file delivery parameters for each relevant part of the systems individually. It can also provide a big-picture view of how a problem is effecting the overall infrastructure. This remote monitoring should include easy interaction with the system database, schedule changes, traffic reports, and other things.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

When it comes to master control and automation systems, not much has changed over the past 20 years. That’s because tradition is hard to unseat. People love the way that they’ve always worked and don’t necessarily want to change.

However, to be successful everyone on the staff has to be on-board with the migration. It’s important to encourage the staff to think about their workflows to see if becoming more reliant on software-based systems can make them more efficient. If you make the migration process as simple and transparent as possible, it will also enable more opportunity.

This means less hardware in front of you and more software-centric platforms where the processing could now be done remotely. It’s simply a much more efficient and reliable way to perform the duties of the master control and automation operator.

Customization Meets Efficiency

The customer now has choices as to what type of operations they want to deploy and technology suppliers are eager to customize workflows to meet individual requirements.

Successful broadcast operations add intelligent workflows where they make sense. With so many distribution platforms to support, broadcasters need a platform (made up of many individual systems) with a lot of automation and flexibility. This will enable media businesses to stay competitive and operators to do the same thing they have always done: monitor the quality and accuracy of the on-air product, ensure the transmission meets government regulations, troubleshoot equipment malfunctions and preparing programming for playout.

Only now they can change workflows quickly and do it several different ways. That makes master control operators very happy.