​Is Cloud Playout Ready For Primetime? Harmonic Has A View

According to some vendors, cloud playout is good to go today. Yet for the most part broadcasters are holding off on investment. It is still early days for the technology of course and Moore’s law will send performance up and costs down so that realtime highly reactive graphics, UHD streams and live components can be played from virtualised equipment running in data centres. In this, the next in our series quizzing vendors on the industry’s state of readiness for the move to cloud playout, we hear from Andrew Warman, Director, P&P Strategy and Market Development provides a view at Harmonic.

The Broadcast Bridge: What is the argument for why a broadcaster/playout provider should consider the Cloud?

Andrew Warman: Like any technology change, cloud technology requires a major shift in thinking. Broadcasters and service providers need to consider what makes sense for them and their specific use cases. Based on our discussions with a broad range of customers, we typically find that broadcasters have two or three reasons for thinking about a move to cloud type playout.

One is that they are looking to deploy pure software running on customer/service provider furnished hardware. This may go hand in hand with virtualization. In this case, broadcasters save money because it is either part of the IT budget or is built into the service contract that runs their channels, leading to CAPEX and OPEX savings. With that being said, IT refresh cycles and depreciation do tend to be more frequent than the more traditional broadcast lifespan and associated depreciation.

Another reason broadcasters are considering the cloud is IP connectivity. The expectation is that lower cost Ethernet-based solutions equal savings. Add to this the continuation of function integration that really took off with CIAB (channel-in-a-box), and broadcasters need fewer connections as systems become more integrated in software.

In addition, some broadcasters no longer favor proprietary hardware. They don’t want to be burdened with vendor-specific hardware and maintenance, or dealing with proprietary designs. Overall, IT equipment costs less to operate and manage.

Channel agility is another key benefit of moving to the cloud. Traditional broadcast workflows are expensive to build, take time to construct, and can be complex to operate. Leveraging the cloud, broadcasters can get a new channel up and running in a short period of time and take it down if needed, without a large CAPEX investment. A cloud-based approach enables agile channel deployment since the software, licensing models, available processing power and connectivity are flexible.

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

AW: Vendor and customer definitions of the cloud vary widely. At one end of the scale, anyone operating a system that uses shared storage and a set of network connected I/O devices can be considered as running a private cloud. The opposite end of the spectrum is where broadcasters are wholly reliant on a cloud service provider to ensure content is acquired, scheduled, QoS is maintained during playout and accurate revenue recognition takes place. In the latter case, the broadcaster is completely hands off. In reality what is normally on people’s minds is somewhere in between these two scenarios – on premise or private-networked systems running on common off-the-shelf hardware that broadcasters have control over.

The Broadcast Bridge: To what extent can playout infrastructure be shifted to the cloud now? Which elements of the workflow can move to the cloud now?

AW: MAM, scheduling, traffic and billing, and automation are already either in the cloud or cloud ready. Even playout and encoding have been deployed in datacenter environments as pure software systems. In effect, a large portion of playout is already present in the cloud environment. This implies private cloud solutions rather than public cloud hosted solutions. But this does not solve all the workflow needs.

The Broadcast Bridge: What does the shift entail?

AW: Not all workflows have been replicated for cloud-type environments. Some will take a considerable amount of time to fully transition. An important question that broadcasters must ask is, “which of my workflows can readily be implemented in the cloud, and which are better serviced by a more conventional environment?”

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the barriers to adoption.. security? Existing contracts in place? Skepticism of the technology's robustness? A willingness to sweat legacy assets further? 

AW: The barriers to entry are many and varied, starting with perceived risk. The industry is, for all practical purposes, in the early adopter stage of IP and cloud playout. Standards are only now emerging that will allow broadcasters to solve some of the more complex issues that surround software-based video workflows using IT technology in a pure IP world.

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

AW: CPU rather than GPU graphics are up to the task in all but the most demanding graphic applications today. In most cases, it is not required to have GPU capabilities. Harmonic employed an all-CPU-based graphic solution for our playout solutions. 

Andrew Warman, Director, P&P Strategy and Market Developmen, Harmonic

Andrew Warman, Director, P&P Strategy and Market Developmen, Harmonic

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the implications for moving complex versus simple channels to the Cloud?

AW: Simple channels have schedules that are known days if not weeks in advance. Their schedules do not change much if at all on the day they go to air. Ad replacement may be needed, but there’s likely little or no live content, or the need to deal with live captioning, audio voiceovers, or complex graphics workflow, whether internal or external. Given the relative predictability of a simple channel, a cloud-type implementation may be practical as assets and workflows are easily controlled since there are few unknowns.

Complex or dynamic channels are more challenging. Content juggling, complex live events, external data, video and audio coming from a variety of sources, etc., creates a difficult situation for a public cloud environment. This is more manageable in a datacenter environment where the broadcaster or service provider has more direct access and tighter control of the various sub-systems that interact with the complex channel.

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

AW: UHD playout of any kind is in the early stages of rollout. Even with conventional solutions, it is not an easy task to put UHD channels on the air. The large size of the mezzanine assets and additional CPU load are large parts of the problem. The industry’s drive to HDR, 10-bit, higher frame rates and other approaches to create a more immersive experience for the viewer are also adding to the complexity of UHD. The promise of boundless disk and CPU resources should make it easier from a pure resource standpoint, but in reality, the industry is not there yet.

The Broadcast Bridge: What type of media organisation or broadcaster will move to SDN and cloud playout first?

AW: Any video content or service provider that has low value channels, wants to deploy channels for a short period of time, or does not know if channels will succeed may consider the cloud. However, there are examples of more complex high-value systems that are moving to datacenter and pure IP solutions, so it is not always about “good enough” solutions. It is much more about having the right level of control, appropriate redundancy strategies, and monitoring and management tools for the environment you are in.

The Broadcast Bridge: What are the implications of a shift to cloud-based playout for playout service providers?

AW: The advantages are lower operating costs, simpler monitoring and management, and the ability to turn on and off channels as needed. Knowing you can provision a channel days, even hours, before it’s needed, change its available features through software license keying, and utilize resources from an available pool rather than dedicated devices are highly attractive features of the cloud-based approach to playout. The opportunity for service providers is to become the expert in these types of solutions. Here it becomes less about the management of channels and more about management and orchestration of the IT resources that can host the shifting needs of broadcasters and content providers that we are seeing in playout today.

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