Workflows in the Cloud:  A Heavenly Solution for Broadcasters’ CAPEX and Video Processing Goals

While cloud computing isn’t new, only recently has it begun to play a critical role in the video workflow process as broadcasters seek new ways to reduce the costs of their video processing and quality control (QC) needs. The immediately available processing infrastructure of the cloud is naturally appealing to broadcasters as it eliminates the need to actually purchase and deploy costly equipment, which reduces their capital costs.

Quite simply, the cloud is a network comprised of many interconnected computers working together in real-time. While this implies any large aggregation of networked computers, realistically it translates to the Internet. While millions of servers power the Internet’s functionality, the instantaneous connectivity and load-sharing varies and is invisible to the end-user. The cloud leverages the advantages afforded by the Internet to deploy all of the hardware as virtual servers that can instantly scale to meet demands – like watching an episode of your favorite show on your television or a two and a half hour movie on your tablet.

Characteristics of Cloud Computing for the Broadcasting World

The cloud, which is leveraged for various reasons across multiple industries, is a great match for broadcasters’ needs as they must manage costs while delivering blemish-free programming, which otherwise require a great amount of investment in infrastructure.

Key features broadcasters leverage in cloud computing:

  • On-demand self-service
  • Broad network access
  • Resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity
  • “Metered” service

On-demand self-service for a broadcaster means access to a broad range of cloud-based tools that can ensure efficiency and responsiveness.Broadcasters can simply log into their account and add or modify service levels as needed. The dedicated user-facing system acts like a vending machine from which broadcasters order server time, storage capacity and ultimately operating systems (OS) and software to match their immediate needs. The entire transaction occurs without any intervention by the vendor and the “deliverables” are immediately available.

Cloud computing supports broad network access and solutions are offered for a variety of access interfaces and client platforms. A range of “solution stacks”—comprehensive toolsets used for developing web applications — makes it expedient to move many elements of video processing and delivery into the cloud. The elements of a solution stack include the OS, web server, database and programming (scripting) language.

Resource pooling is key to the effectiveness of cloud computing. Resources, whether storage or compute capacity, are shared by users. The vendor’s entire physical infrastructure supports virtual partitioning of these functions and assigns resources dynamically amongst users. One customer’s CAD project might run concurrently with another user’s transcoding job, but the two will never meet. Users always have full access to all the CPU instantiations they have ordered, though the actual computing activity is not mapped to specific physical servers. This leads to rapid elasticity, the next cloud characteristic.

Rapid elasticity denotes resources that can be provisioned, re-sized and released to scale with user demand. Importantly, this “demand” is not held for an arbitrary length of time whether needed or not. Users rent capacity as needed, for hours or years, and release it when not required.

Metered service is how cloud vendors bill for their cloud operations. While there is no upfront charge for provisioning services, such as a block of storage, resource usage is metered. Applications can also be measured; with common video operations such as transcoding or file QC operations usually charged for per minute of play time for the end product.

Cloud-based Service Models

Now that we have examined the key characteristics of cloud computing, it is important to know the options broadcasters have for implementing a cloud solution.Cloud service providers make it easy for customers to understand, select and order cloud products.Though there are many specialized functions available, the basic products are storage and computing capacity.

Broadcasters can configure the same computing platforms, OSs and amount of storage as they have used in their brick-and-mortar facilities. They can send and retrieve files at the time of processing, or store the files in the cloud and perform operations like transcoding exclusively within the cloud.

In the Figure above, the On Premises column outlines the litany of steps and processes executed in a typical full-scale facility. The user supports capital costs, hardware and software maintenance, security, IT and more.

In the Figure above, the On Premises column outlines the litany of steps and processes executed in a typical full-scale facility. The user supports capital costs, hardware and software maintenance, security, IT and more.

The cloud services hierarchy begins with “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS). This is the most basic level of cloud service currently offered, providing only computing resources and storage. This service basically substitutes the cloud for certain on-premises hardware. IaaS is offered by major commercial vendors like Amazon and Microsoft.

Many broadcasters only require an IaaS solution. With no up-front costs and capable of scaling up or down on demand, IaaS can be ideal for smaller operators. Larger broadcaters can use IaaS to cost-effectively handle peaks in demand while maintaining their own on-premises infrastructure for day-to-day operations.

Services in the IaaS model are billed based on the computing time and storage used. APIs are typically implemented with SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and REST (Representational State Transfer) protocols, both are proven environments for exchanging information to deliver web services.

The next level of service is Platform as a Service (PaaS), which includes a computing platform and a solution stack. A solution stack is a toolset for developing web applications that includes OS, web server, database and programming language. Two of the most common solution stacks are LAMP and Microsoft’s WISA.

As Figure 1 shows, PaaS takes a larger share of the management responsibility out of the user’s hands. Users manage only their own applications and data.All of the supporting development tools are vendor-supported, with associated guarantees of reliability, backup, security, etc.

The highest level of cloud service is Software as a Service (SaaS), which brings virtually everything into the cloud. In addition to the underlying storage and computing resources, on-demand software is provided by Application Service Providers (ASPs). The concept is one of centralized multi-tenant software architecture accessed by thin clients via a web browser. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 are business-oriented examples of this approach, which is increasingly used for video production and distribution. Typically ASPs charge by the minute of processed end product.

Today a variety of cloud ASPs serve cable operators and other members of the broader video industry. Their services span almost every type of file processing as well as archiving and streaming delivery and broadcaters are not limited to a single ASP for all processes.

The Cloud-Based Video Workflow

Because of the cloud’s numerous advantages the multiple options for employing it, broadcasters are turning to cloud-based functions as an alternative – or supplement – to equivalent in-plant solutions.

As this Figure shows, all the main steps for delivering a video product can be handled within the cloud. The cloud “product” consists of virtual hardware functionality (CPUs and storage) plus the applications to execute the needed processes

As this Figure shows, all the main steps for delivering a video product can be handled within the cloud. The cloud “product” consists of virtual hardware functionality (CPUs and storage) plus the applications to execute the needed processes

Asset storage is an obvious candidate for the cloud as capacity is essentially limitless. Mezzanine files can uploaded after local ingest and editing, and then retrieved for further processing on in-house equipment if so desired. Better yet, they can be acquired, processed, re-stored and even archived without ever leaving the cloud.

In addition to storage, broadcasters are increasingly taking advantage of the cloud to process their content. Input and output file locations may or may not reside within the cloud, but wherever the material is stored it can be delivered to independent providers of services such as transcoding and QC. Transcoding vendors follow the broadcaster’s instructions and encode content simultaneously into as many formats as requested.

Utilizing the cloud for transcoding can be extremely cost-effective depending on the amount of transcoding required.For example, if a broadcaster only requires fairly infrequent transcoding it can forgo on-premise transcoders entirely and rely solely on the cloud.Conversely, if a broadcaster is continually transcoding content and already has on-premise transcoders it can use the cloud to handle peaks in transcoding demand, thereby maximizing their current equipment investment without requiring the need to purchase additional units. In either case, the resulting transcoded files can be stored in the cloud or on the broadcaster’s on-site servers.

QC operates similarly; with cloud-based QC solutions performing the same tasks as solutions deployed on site. With such cloud-based QC systems, users see a user interface on a CPU instantiation, which is the same view they would see on a local machine running the same QC software.Again, as in the transcoding scenarios, broadcasters can rely solely on the cloud to conduct their processing-intensive QC operations or use cloud resources as necessary when their on-premise QC solutions have maxed out.

Discrete cloud services like transcoding, QC and streaming video delivery are useful and valuable in their own right. Some broadcasters will run one or two of these processes within the cloud and perform the rest in-house. But the greatest benefit accrues when multiple processes are teamed up in a broad cloud-based workflow – Adaptive Bit Rate (ABR) streaming delivery is an example.

While only the largest broadcasters are currently using ABR streaming themselves as another method to deliver their programming, the trend is expected to grow as broadcasters increasingly seek to offer viewers a multi-screen experience.

Streaming vendors deliver ABR video directly from the streaming server to the subscriber. This last leg of content delivery is best handled by such cloud infrastructure operators as Google, Amazon and Verizon as their capacity is hard to equal in a broadcaster’s own facility.

But streaming demands are complex as broadcasters must support multiple ABR streaming protocols. Adobe HLS, Apple HDS, Microsoft Smooth Streaming and MPEG-DASH are the four primary ABR protocols and supporting most or all are necessary in order to deliver content to the broadest range of tablets, PCs, smartphones and even IP set-top boxes.Complicating this further, as many as 10 “profiles” of each piece of content must be created each with differing resolutions and bitrates to accommodate all the target display devices and network bandwidths. It adds up to a lot of repetitive transcoding on any one piece of program material.

Many video companies have discovered that the most efficient approach is to upload one mezzanine file (the master) to the cloud and perform all the subsequent operations there rather than transcoding locally and uploading multiple versions. The realization is that streaming delivery is more efficient if most of the workflow—not just the last step—is performed in the cloud.

The Bottom Line

The promise of the cloud is well deserved and being realized by more and more broadcasters.It truly gives broadcasters the ability to accomplish many of their most processing intensive workflow applications without the need to purchase and maintain costly equipment.In addition to containing – and even reducing – their capital costs and ongoing expenses, the inherent flexibility of the cloud allows broadcasters to use as much – or as little – of it as they need.

And it’s important to note that the cloud, while robust and proven, is still in its infancy and as it continues to mature, broadcasters will be able to accomplish more with it.

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