Cloud Computing: Working in the cloud
With the vast amount of services available and the countless purposes they cover now, let’s take a look and the advantages and opportunities they offer to our Broadcast environment and the audiovisual media industry in general.
Text: Luis Pavía
This article is of an educational and informational nature, so we will at all times make reference to services and functionalities as notions and avoid explicit mention of brands or vendors.
Amongst a myriad of definitions that can be found for “cloud computing” or cloud-based IT, one of the most comprehensive ones presents this as an activity covering everything that is related to provision of IT services based on offshoring of resources through the internet. Said resources span across hardware, software and services and include the servers, storage, databases, networked services and all software as required for internet-based data management and processing, security, platforms, services, analysis. “The Cloud” is all this.
The advantages provided by the cloud lie in offering swiftness in innovation, flexibility in resources and improvements in economies of scale. By paying only for services being hired, operating cost are decreased, infrastructure is streamlined for higher efficiency and scaling it as business needs change turns out to be a simple task. Such possibilities have been developed and implementation thereof has been accelerated thanks to the availability of high-speed data connection networks, both through fibre-based systems and through 4G and the now already present 5G wireless networks.
But, beyond definitions, will not that ‘cloud’ thing be something ‘ethereal’ where I place my valuable content, which may all of the sudden ‘vanish’? No. Definitely not. Then, what is ‘the cloud’ and what use is it to me? This is one of the big questions we will try to answer by means of a multitude of input depending on who ‘I’ is. And in order not to deviate from our main areas of interest, we will be focusing this article on the uses and services oriented towards our audiovisual environment, in which we have now possibilities that were not even conceivable to even the most visionary science-fiction scriptwriters just a few years ago. And, by the way, said information must be useful to us as a reference for catching a glimpse of where we are heading and where we could find ourselves in the short and mid-term.
Let’s review some history bits in order to be aware of the path already travelled to get here, not losing sight of the periods comprising each evolutionary leap.
Going back nearly to prehistory, that is, to the childhood/youth of professionals still working but with longer experience -in a time in which audiovisual material used to be recorded on negatives- some will remember the news anchor reporting that images regarding a piece of news would not be available because the film would not have made it to the studios on time. This used to happen in the 60s and was still the same when recording was done on tape, since the 70s. Unless a deployment of point-to-point connections specifically engaged to that purpose or through satellite, so as to enable sending of signals remotely was in place. And this would only be possible in very specific, special circumstances.
This means that often one had to rely on transport of physical media containing audiovisual material. And initially these materials would make it in a single medium up to a single destination in which, quite likely, just one person had first and single access enabling development, copying, distribution, assembly, filing and whatever would be required before being able to share it. This could be assimilated to the times of messengers and telegraph. Yes, the telegraph we all have seen in Westerns. Only that the audiovisual world was still like that with tapes in the 80s, because the initial processing of originals in tape was quite similar to processing of the older negatives: copying, editing, filing… No efficient method existed back then for making it readily available to several users in a simultaneous way, except for distribution of video signal through specific point-to-point connections.
When we started recording contents on digital media and the expansion of the internet came alongside, copies could be made with minimal quality loss and content could be sent from any origin to any destination. Provided both had a physically wired connection in the computer. Because if we intended to send it as a data file instead of as raw video signal, file size was so huge and network speed so limited that transfer times -being of course much quicker than those of any transport at a relatively insignificant cost- were just unfeasible for a live broadcasting, which would still require transmission through specific connections for video signal, even through satellites.
The good news was that by then we had already obtained the possibility of having content stored in a common depot, normally shared within the same building, with several people being able to gain access simultaneously. In the same line of comparison as above, this would be equivalent to physical mail, telephone or fax. Yes, mail involving envelopes and stamps. But we were comparatively like that even it was already past year 2000!
Internet kept growing and fiber-optic networks came. But, they did not reach everywhere in the same measure. Neither amongst countries, nor within the same country. And more or less in parallel to fiber-optic came the deployment of 4G, thus enabling high-speed access through wireless networks and in remote places, provided phone and 4G coverage were available. But then around that time, HD content was also becoming popular. Compression systems and algorithms were improving, thus making it possible much better quality signal to be sent while moving the same amount of information as for content in standard SD definition, and even a lesser size of data. Progress made in various different fields converged in order to achieve a significant leap forward in a relatively short period of time.
As advances -especially those linked to technology- boast exponential growth, such a leap forward translated in being able to send and broadcast quality content in real time nearly from anywhere. In our analogy we have already been capable of broadcasting live from a remote location. But, note that in order to reach that stage smoothly in HD and with quality we have had to wait nearly to the last decade.
And progress in all these fields has been such that nearly any high school student has within reach means that less than two decades ago not even the largest companies could dream of. Either because such means did not simply exist or because if they did, cost would render them accessible only to the highest budgets.
What is the current situation then? We find ourselves in extremely exciting times that are open to countless new ways of creating content and unexplored business opportunities in which it is possible, for example:
– Be shooting content in 4K resolution on a remote location while as it is being captured by the camera, generating and sending an HD proxy in real time (a lower-quality copy) to a remote storage service. But, look: We are calling a fullHD resolution content “a lower-quality proxy” due to the fact that compression rate is relatively high.
– That an editor is doing the assembly with said proxies in such a way that upon completion, the system ‘tells the camera’ which is the footage actually used in the final assembly process, so the camera will only forward the indispensable fragments plus the cues configured in uncompressed 4K or HD for the final version.
– That a production service may be receiving signals from several cameras -even from a different continent- and a remote producer generates a live broadcast in real time, and even do that from yet a different continent.
– Or merely the possibility of deploying only cameras to an event and have all production made remotely from the studios of a broadcaster as if the cameras were in the set or the OB truck in the relevant location.
– Or even enabling viewers receive signals from several cameras in a virtual multi-display and allowing them to be their own directors by letting them choose what images they would like to see full-screen in any given moment during the show or event being broadcast.
– That, thanks to artificial intelligence, contents getting to a certain storage location be labelled with the tags corresponding to the images contained with no need for human intervention. So whenever editors having access to such content search for any keyword, all takes having the relevant visual content are immediately identified with no need to have anyone doing the tagging.
– That real-time audio extraction can be performed in order to generate the text of the speech, using it at subtitles, and even link the text as metadata in order to perform searches based on spoken content. Naturally, this feature also enables simultaneous translation to all languages included in the platform being selected. And this usually involves dozens of languages.
– That, through face-recognition systems, individuals can be identified and tagged in the metadata automatically in order to make subsequent searches easier.
– It is also possible that a broadcaster may exhibit content in a virtual showcase so other broadcasters can find and purchase it with full immediacy and sufficient security assurances. Setting forth deadlines, markets and conditions in order to monetize file content that would otherwise remain in a closed, inaccessible repository that would then be hard to derive a profit from.
– Editing software trials and tests have been already performed, showing successful edition of takes and sequences in order to generate content in an autonomous fashion, although, for the time being, they are far from the skills of a human editor.
Some of these services and functionalities are already fully developed and implemented, being already widespread and growing as they become increasingly popular. It is, for instance, the case with platforms to which broadcasters resort in order to offer content while simultaneously purchasing other content they may need with no need to invest time and money in production through their own means.
It is also true that –at least for the time being- some functionalities offered under these services have certain limitations, though. For example, in order to convert spoken content into text, no more than one person should speak at the same time. But this is only for the time being. Because, well, there was a time in which computers would only be capable of displaying text on a green screen and just look at how the picture has changed now. Let’s allow a little time to have it ready. Just a little. And let’s keep being astonished at how much will be possible.
Although these are just a sample of some current capabilities and even though some could be achieved locally with no need to rely on cloud-based services, it is worth highlighting that they do require using cloud services in order to become fully functional. Because, as we have just seen, the cloud is much more than storing files in a remote service in order to have them within reach whenever we are not at the studio or just as a mere back-up copy.
Let’s see now what kind of players can be found in these scenarios, to what extent they have a role, and what position(s) are taken by each of us.
First of all, we should identify, of course, service providers. For the cloud service, on the one hand, and for all other services we may want to host or hire through our cloud.
On the one hand we have broadcasters and creators of content. All broadcasters and creators of content having an interest in doing business, with all interactions and synergies that can be generated amongst all of them.
And then a third group, possibly the most important, comprising clients such as consumers of said content.
But let’s go into a bit more detail, because these are not always self-contained islands as some stakeholders play several roles at the same time.
A cloud service provider will be in charge of having in place all necessary infrastructure as to servers, storage, processing capacity, as well as communications infrastructure, taking care of meeting any requirements we may set in regard to security, reliability, redundancy, as well as all kinds of assurances, so our services will be available and our content accessible whenever required, just in the same manner as if they were in our own equipment, with all restrictions needed to be accessed only by whoever has the necessary authorization. This is quite similar to what a bank does when it keeps our money, having it available for us and protecting it from others.
We clearly perceive information security as a benefit -be it either data or content-, with no need to worry about undue access, undesired leaks and maintenance of back-up copies, for example. And what about the ‘what if they lose it?’ drawback? This will be guaranteed or restricted by any conditions we may have agreed upon hiring the service. And depending of our size, we can even have our own private cloud.
Additionally, other services can be hired, such as, for example, remote production, which can be provided by someone else who may however need to interact with our content through the cloud infrastructure offered by our provider for proper operation. In the same way in which we install editing software in our computer in order to edit content existing in our hard disk. Only that said applications run now relying on the processing power offered by ‘the cloud’, being our computer just a mere terminal.
The first advantage coming to our mind in this situation is the fact that we do not need to be permanently enhancing our equipment to have state-of-the-art technology, thus requiring lower investments. Drawbacks are the same that we face in changing platforms when we choose doing it this way, to keep the analogy.
In some instances and based on the kind of service we may be interested in, it may be the case that a single provider can provide both the service and the infrastructure required for this. Watch out this business opportunity for developers, which can then package their own platforms.
Moving on with the group of broadcasters and creators of content, synergies just soar. Each broadcaster can generate the content that will turn out more profitable or interesting based on their own editorial line, and just purchase or hire from third parties any content being most convenient, although less relevant, to fill in their grids. And, at the same time, a broadcaster can offer to third parties any content in which it is specializing in order to monetize it in a much broader market.
Much in the same way as broadcasters, independent producers and creators of content benefit from the showcase that mean hosting and distribution platforms, thus enabling their productions to reach more markets and increase their portfolio of potential clients.
For both of them, simultaneous translation and subtitling services from/into multiple languages are an added competitive advantage so as to have their content reach viewers that were initially out of range.
For all these players, the main benefits drawing our attention are a streamlining of investments in proprietary productions, improvements in specialization, and a significant increase in potential clients for monetization of content. A potential drawback would be being dependent on third parties for certain types of content, although this has been always the same. Correct strategy about planning of contents and allocation of investments will keep this risk at bay.
Having reached this point, it is now obvious that the number of companies included in the first group is much higher than we could initially think. Any company or professional being capable of providing a service relating our content, adding value, may become a new ally for our commercial strategies. In these instances, the cloud facilitates such activities in a fully offshored fashion by making them available for all –either new clients or new providers- nearly anywhere around the globe. And it offers us this same possibility of becoming either providers or clients of companies which would not be within reach if the cloud were not in place.
And now we move on to the group of clients, the most important one, but last in our list as we need to identify it properly. A client is whoever purchases our content, but in this case, other broadcasters, other producing companies, and even ourselves, whatever our role in the creation chain, are also clients when purchasing content. But we wanted to leave a purchasing client as an intermediary aside, as this agent already existed in a traditional production model -and belongs in the previous group along with its new, huge portfolio of providers- from end clients as viewers.
Final clients-viewers are nowadays no longer those traditional consumers of a linear home TV model having at their disposal a more or less wide array of channels from which make a choice, but have become consumers who select whatever content they want to see, whenever they want, in their chosen device and from wherever they are. There are increasing numbers of viewers having access to OTT/web platforms for selecting a-la-carte content of all kinds.
This means a major change in the whole model for generation of income from advertising, as well as in all related elements such as, for instance, audience measurement. Furthermore, new fields for application are now available. For example, client behaviour analysis, as we can now accurately establish what they watch, when, how and where they watch it. And even interactions in which viewers are able to click on advertisements if interested in the product in order to find out more and make direct purchases if so desired. All these interactions are possible thanks to Internet, ‘the net’, and interconnections it provides among “the clouds”.
But wait, ‘the clouds’? Is there more than one? Of course. If we go over our initial paragraph, and knowing everything we have covered so far, we will realize that the cloud is an extension of large, more or less closed networks that we had up to now associated to companies and corporations.
Let’s think for a moment of a bank’s IT network. Each bank has its own private cloud where client details are zealously kept. Each bank allows its employees, based on their responsibilities, access to certain client information. Each client has access only to the information relating services hired. And each bank shares with other banks the required information whenever a transaction is carried out between them. That cloud extends over the whole territory in which a bank provides services. And it is inaccessible to whoever is not either a client, an employee, or a provider.
Well. Then, if my producing company has already its own network, much in the same way as the bank we have examined in the previous example, what does a cloud that is external to my infrastructure provide? Some quite meaningful things such as: reduced costs as hardware, software investments are kept to a minimum, less electrical consumption, HVAC, etc. Processing power that is adjustable nearly in real time as commensurate to the needs in each moment. Scalability for increasing or reducing infrastructure, storage space, bandwidth, etc., as circumstances change. Power to productivity, as most operations can now be offshored, thus releasing professionals from all tasks inherent to global network management. Reliable operation, as IT resources of larger scale can be used. And security in protection and maintenance of information, as well as in services, also made possible by said larger-scale IT resources.
Cloud-based service providers classify into three or four broad categories their offerings, although for the time being only two of them seem to be of interest for our field. Let’s have a look at them in order to make the most of their possibilities:
IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) which provides us with the possibility of using servers, virtual machines, storage and network connectivity services. It offers system stability and security, storage, back-up copies, web-based applications, and very high processing power, as well as data analysis capabilities. It enables reducing both investments and maintenance costs relating equipment, scaling capabilities based on specific needs and focusing resources on the main business activity.
PaaS (Platform as a Service) adds to the previous one access to operating systems and tools for development and management of databases. This is ideal for application developers but of less interest in the broadcast and production environments as a whole, unless desired for developing specific applications.
Serverless or IT without servers. Being understood as such the equipment items required for supporting applications being developed on the various operating systems. As with the previous category, of little interest for broadcast environments, save for very specific situations. Some providers offer PaaS and Serverless in the same package.
SaaS (Software as a Service) in which we hire usage of software based on a subscription or pay-per-use scheme. This offers the versatility of easily, quickly adjusting the investment to the needs of each specific moment, as we are able to access sophisticated platforms by just bearing the cost associated to usage time. Or even change the number of licenses purchased. This also facilitates being permanently updated with the latest versions and immediate use of the latest capabilities available. This is also a very interesting feature for our production environments.
In fact, the cloud has been with us now longer than we think. Are we aware of the SaaS we are already using and of how long we have been doing it? Because this latter category is the one deriving the most benefit from the ongoing growth and expansion of new applications that are already being developed to cater to the needs of all market segments.
This category includes, for instance, applications enabling us to pick up live signals from highly diverse sources, including mobile phones operated by spontaneous viewers of a remote event, in order to make a live production and generate a signal that can be accessed through streaming for a perfectly defined audience without requiring a specific geographic location.
Or applications which, by making use of artificial intelligence and the huge processing capabilities available, enable us to release professionals from tedious, routine tasks so they can engage in much more specialist, productive and creative roles.
As an example of this, thanks to these possibilities, a local TV station is now able to make a live production for any kind of occurrence or event in the other side of the globe, include interviews with experts on the subject or with people involved located anywhere else, and make it available to a set of interested viewers with no limitations as to distance or even language, as subtitles may be provided with real-time simultaneous translation based on the location of the relevant viewer.
In sum, working nowadays in the cloud enables us to implement innovations in a quicker fashion, a flexible escalation of resources based on specific needs, share preliminary or final content throughout the globe by means of secure networks, provide content tailored to each device used for displaying them in order to improve the client experience, and reach every one of them with the least number possible of intermediaries.
And even more. Solutions can be found at present enabling us to set up a TV station with hardly any proprietary infrastructure and, to a great extent, relying only on ‘cloud-based’ resources and services. It is true that it would not be identical to any known model. But if we are able to answer just one question: how to make it profitable? We will be on the right track towards what will probably be the future of TV. Or the TV of the future.
In spite of the spectacular progress made, we are convinced that the most interesting feature lies not in the possibilities and capabilities already available. There are two aspects that, in our opinion, we should be focusing on completely. Even more so if we want to give an answer to the previous question. On the one hand, novel business and monetization opportunities offered by this new scenario, which is already a reality. And, on the other hand, all new fields now looming or soon to be developed which, in turn, will keep on expanding the range in all directions.
And having performed this brainstorming, do we know by now the role we would like to play?