​Is Cloud Playout Ready For Primetime? Pebble Beach Systems Has A View

Cloud playout, with graphics and branding, holds out the hope to broadcasters of being able to introduce new channels on an operational expenditure basis rather than investing in dedicated hardware. The question is not whether the notoriously risk averse broadcaster will move their play out provision to IP – the benefits are widely understood – but when. Despite the hoopla surrounding IP this year and the claims made by various vendors that their technology is good to go on virtualised machines running in data centres and controllable from anywhere, the reference sites remain few and far between. If you talk with different vendors, which as a journalist you are privileged to do, you soon realise that the claim and counter claim made for their products and against competitor solutions must also be confusing to potential service provider clients.

So to bring some clarity to the situation The Broadcast Bridge is to publish a series of opinion pieces on the topic. First we hear from Pebble Beach Systems which is undertaking its first implementation of Orca, a software-defined virtualised IP channel system. The system, being introduced at Amsterdam service provider Digital Media Centre (DMC), optimises a software-only implementation of Pebble Beach Systems' Dolphin platform to run in a private cloud with IP inputs and outputs.

Here's sales director, Tom Gittens.

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the benefits to a service provider of adopting Cloud playout?

Tom Gittens: When compared to a non-virtualised approach using traditional devices, handling playout in a virtualised environment enables more efficient and agile deployment of resources, as virtual machines can be used for other processing requirements such as MAM or business systems when not required for playout.

The trend towards the use of data centres also means that the responsibility for infrastructure, power consumption and cooling etc. is abstracted away from the core operational functionality, which can then be hosted much more cost-effectively in a standard office environment.

Hardware refreshes can be much more easily effected in a virtualised environment, with generic technology upgrades possible without a complete reinstallation of dedicated hardware being necessary as for traditional broadcast devices.

The Broadcast Bridge: There is some confusion about what Cloud means in this context. What do you mean when you talk about Cloud?

TG: Use of the public cloud raises complex issues around Service Level Agreements: service providers – who are typically the early adopters – will be under SLA agreement with their clients. They then in turn need to enter into an SLA with the public cloud provider, which may not coincide with the terms their customer demands. For this reason we are certainly currently seeing a degree of reluctance amongst service providers towards hosting services in a public cloud. That said, things are changing, with meaningful discussions currently underway for the public cloud to be used to host temporary channels. This can be a highly cost-effective route to take, as hosting in the private cloud does require a substantial upfront fixed investment in virtual machines, with the ability to accurately forecast the likely capacity required and invest accordingly.

The Broadcast Bridge: To what extent can playout infrastructure be shifted to the cloud now?

TG: It is important to factor specific channel characteristics into this debate. For now, the cloud is better suited to ‘simple’ non-live non-reactive channels where schedules are typically locked down well in advance of playout. Also, latency can become an issue through a cloud-based IP system, and highly demanding real time graphics can be a challenge in a VM environment.

The Broadcast Bridge: In all seriousness how easy is this shift – what does it entail?

TG: It’s an evolution, not a revolution. Broadcasters are highly risk averse and will probably start to use this technology in lower risk deployments such as Disaster Recovery. At Pebble we recognise the need for a period of coexistence for best-of-breed deployments of classic technology alongside the adoption of IP and virtual machines. Our Marina solution supports this strategy with the ability to combine control of dedicated technology and virtual machines in one system. In fact both Marina automation and our Dolphin integrated channel solution have been designed as pure software products which can be hosted in this new environment.

The Broadcast Bridge: You mentioned 'simple channels'.  How would you define a complex channel?

TG: A complex channel is defined by the amount of operator involvement and the level of reaction required for live events which may overrun or underrun. It also encompasses the complexity of the channel design, which may for example involve complex audio, the management of multilingual channels, Dolby decoding and encoding, live voiceover, and high level real time graphics driven by operational rules. A simple channel would be static, with a schedule probably updated once a day, with all media derived from clips and with relatively simple graphics and branding.

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the barriers to adoption?

TG: The key barrier is the perceived risk in terms of security of operations, and also the benchmarking of performance and knowing where the technical limitations are in terms of performance. Software-defined solutions will typically incorporate many variables, so testing on the known platform is vital to ensure reliable performance. There is widespread acceptance that virtual machines are the way forward, but questions remain over on air reliability, and there are some factors which are definitely encouraging a wait and see approach, not least 4K.

Tom Gittens, Sales Director, Pebble Beach Systems

Tom Gittens, Sales Director, Pebble Beach Systems

The Broadcast Bridge: Are dedicated graphics engines or other dedicated hardware still necessary to run channels in the cloud?

TG: Yes, for 3D graphics and 4K encoding, certainly in the medium term until codecs become more efficient or move inside the CPU, which is an emerging trend.

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the challenges involved in delivering an Ultra HD channel with 4K graphics from the cloud?

TG: CPU is the key issue here. The more pixels there are, the more processing power is required. The efficiency of the codecs and the amount of CPU loading are all factors.

The Broadcast Bridge: What type of media organisation will move to Cloud playout first?

TG: The people who are moving first to software defined networks are the service providers, who stand to benefit most, first and foremost because of the scale of their operations. The requirement for them to rapidly change channel characteristics, to launch channels quickly, and to launch experimental channels are also factors. However, its adoption for Disaster Recovery does open up a range of options for traditional channels which may currently run without a DR plan. Valuable content is typically stored at a second site and it is highly possible that that media could be playing back on air through an IP output derived from a virtual environment within hours.

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