From production site to home sofa
One of the tenets that have been voiced out over and over the past few months is that the pandemic has sped up ‘digitalization’ of businesses, thus bringing about in the matter of a few months the changes that were envisaged for coming years. In our industry, this has been mainly applied to cloud content creation solutions. We shed some light on this in the lines below.
By Yeray Alfageme
Cloud services, compression and bandwidth
Ingesting, editing and broadcasting in the cloud is not anything new. Since the appearance of YouTube and similar platforms, content creation in the cloud is something that any ‘millennial’ knows and in fact uses naturally on a daily basis. However, implementing these kinds of solutions in professional environments, in which quality of the content thus created must meet certain standards demanded by viewers, is not that simple.
Not very long ago, the amount of information required for producing high-quality multimedia content would force one to resort to specific storage and processing systems that had to be hooked on to the same network. Earlier in this century 100-150 Mbps would be required in order to get an editable HD image that could be produced properly. This would call for the need of having high-capacity storage systems and LAN networks featuring at least 1 Gpbs and, therefore, working from specific production sites.
With the appearance of cloud services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud, high-capacity storage functionalities would be offered at reasonable rates, which are nowadays even more affordable than physical systems and are available anywhere. These providers were gradually introducing specific services for the audiovisual industry, being the most remarkable example of this the acquisition of Elemental by AWS. This move gave Amazon a media processing and encoding portfolio much more advanced than any available from other competitors such as Microsoft or Google. The latter also have solutions for media workflows, although not as flexible and advanced as Amazon’s.
Another driver making possible remote production of high-quality content is the increase in compression rates available nowadays for video codecs. On the audio side, being information needs much lower, working with high-compression codecs is not as important. At present it is possible to use high-quality HD content with just 30 Mbps, a third of what was needed not so long ago.
The latest innovation that has been the key for adoption of these kinds of workflows is the availability of large-capacity home Internet access. In Europe, for instance, 94% of the population has got Internet access at a speed of at least 30 Mbps, with speeds ranging between 100 Mbps and 300 Mpbs very frequent in all mid-size and large cities. By combining cloud services, high-compression encoding and widespread availability of ample bandwidth in most instances, we get the perfect environment for working with media workflows from any place.
Remote v Cloud v Hybrid solutions
What we know as the production centre where all equipment is centralized in a single building –or in several buildings, if involving large organizations boasting extensive production sites- would be an on-premises solution. No one who is located outside the premises can get access, either to systems or to content. Connection to the local area network hosting said systems is required.
An initial approach to a workflow from anywhere would be to make these systems accessible from outside the premises where they are physically located, which means remoting them. But this does not only entail connecting to the production site from outside, but also the capability of being able to operate the units -an editing station for instance- by connecting to it, although the media flow remains within the local system. Usage experience for machines in these kinds of environments is far from ideal and it would only become a solution when not enough bandwidth was available for using the content from the outside.
The opposite approach would be to have all production systems decentralized, that is, not in a single specific location –even absolutely unknown sometimes- but make them accessible from anywhere. This would be a 100% cloud-based system. This solution has many advantages, as production is not localized and the physical risk is nearly zero. Additionally, as far as costs are concerned, the system is only operated on a pay-per-use basis. The only thing we must foresee is the extra storage that will remain unused for a time or the inactive processing capacity, which it is only there to be available for when the need arises.
On the other hand, the risks involved lie in the fact that all our content is in the hands of a third party -the provider of cloud services- which is something to be worried about, sometimes quite rightly, because of reliability and availability issues relating to our content, especially in critical times. And also quite obvious are security concerns. How secure is our content, lying there in the cloud, accessible from anywhere? Well, these issues have been mitigated nowadays, but remain something to take into account.
Then, we have hybrid systems as an in-between solution. In these systems there is a specific location, the production site, in which the whole content is secure and stored. This site is connected to the cloud, either through the Internet or by means of a private connection offered by the service provider, in order to make a mirror image -partial or in full- of said content, thus enabling access to it from anywhere. Furthermore, processing capacity is also shared between the on-premises systems and the cloud systems, thus making it possible to streamline the on-premises systems in order to avoid unnecessary costs in connection with inactive systems or capacities as cloud services can be used whenever so required by the relevant workload.
The hybrid approach is the most widespread solution nowadays for mid-size or large production sites. Prices for cloud services are becoming increasingly cheaper and these solutions are more reliable and secure than ever, so a 100% cloud-based solution is not at all something unheard of or overly risky. In fact, nearly –or probably all- current manufacturers are providing cloud solutions as an alternative to their offering in traditional systems. The only difference is the kinds of services offered.
Iaas, PaaS y SaaS
When it comes to choosing and purchasing cloud services, there are three different options available: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), or Software as a Service (SaaS).
IaaS means replicating in an interconnected external data centre identical equipment to that available at the production site. From storage to processing power and even network infrastructure are all replicated in an environment that is more secure and is better connected than the original single location. This option only adds connectivity to our systems, but it does not provide increased flexibility, savings or capacity in respect of the solution located at the premises. It only offers some more reliability, as an external data centre normally has better facilities concerning power, conditioning and infrastructure than our private site.
There are no providers offering these kinds of systems any longer. IF we wish a system like this for legal reasons, sometimes the information must be located in a specific place and meet certain physical security requirements; we must contact the storage provider and fit the equipment in their premises.
The following step would be a Platform as a Service (PaaS). In this instance, we are not purchasing a specific infrastructure; in fact, said deployment is seamless for us and managed by the relevant service provider. By means of this solution, some storage capacity, a few user licences and some processing power are acquired and the necessary systems are automatically resized and escalated for the chosen capacities. Although this means a great difference as compared to a IaaS system, it is not still 100% optimal as we could have unused capacities that are being paid for and this could be streamlined by means of a SaaS system.
In this case there are indeed occasions in which acquiring a PaaS system is necessary for several reasons. If we want to make sure that at any rate we are going to be able to meet all peak workload, a PaaS system is the right thing to choose, even if at a bit higher cost. Besides, in a PaaS environment we are sure that we will pay for it, as it cannot be resized indefinitely. It is true that in SaaS systems limits can be set, but there are variations that are not liked by the financial side.
The last step and most advanced as far as development is concerned, is Software as a Service (SaaS). In this case, not only the underlying physical systems are transparent to us and are operated by the service provider, but also all the internal architecture of the systems at application and configuration levels are outsourced. This ensures that the system will have the highest availability possible based on what we are willing to engage, of course, in addition to being completely scalable and adaptable to our needs. When hiring SaaS systems, only used capacity is paid for and cost is fully variable, but also fully tailored to our working requirements from time to time. A certain capacity can be booked, either for storage or processing, and have it idle although available. Yet, there are tools that can streamline and make such capacities really efficient.
Many engineers like me could be scared by the fact that a third party may operate all our systems while we just take care of using and managing them at high level. But seen from a business standpoint, what we really want is to produce content in a secure, efficient manner and not having to swap hard disks or wire the whole building to that purpose.
The cloud applied to broadcast
Nowadays there are systems, either PaaS or SaaS for nearly any known media production system. From pure cloud storage featuring varying security, availability and access capacity levels; to full-fledged cloud-based content production and edition systems with processing or rendering capabilities, even for direct broadcast from the cloud. Something very frequent nowadays are PAM and MAM distributed systems, and they can be found in hybrid PaaS solutions with local equipment as deep storage, and processing and edition being performed in the cloud.
The best known manufacturers of edition systems also have a SaaS solution that can be used to edit content by just accessing a web platform from any PC or location. Likewise, MAM systems accessible through the web are usual and offer solutions with capabilities that are far higher than local systems and in some instances much cheaper.
Finally, there are full content broadcast systems in the cloud. These systems feature greater synergies and advantages for purely digital broadcasts via streaming, as we never leave the digital environment and no baseband video signals whatsoever are generated, from capture to final broadcast of content. The thing is that in many instances baseband linear video systems would be used because there was no choice, although it did not make much sense as a concept if we stop to think about it.
This year 2020 has made us rethink a lot of things and the way of producing content has been one of them. We had already had cloud services for some time, as well as the necessary encoding technology and the available bandwidth to make everything work, but we were missing a final push.
We should not limit ourselves to IaaS systems in which we just replicate in the cloud what we had at home, but also go for services that are more advanced such as PaaS and SaaS in order to be able to make use of the benefits provided by these concepts as applied to our industry.
Because it is not only about doing from our sofa the same that we do from a production site, but also about making the most of this revolution in order to produce more and better content and do away with the restrictions imposed by a specific location. And viewers do not care where we produce content from provided it is of good quality, right?