While the migration to cloud-based production has tended to the dominate the headlines, the admittedly slower and more nuanced emergence of cloud distribution should not be undervalued, writes David Davies.
It is not always easy to identify the precise moment when a new technology crosses over from being a theoretical possibility to a commonly achievable reality. In broadcast, IP-based media is an obvious recent example, but the same could probably be said of the cloud. In this case, though, it might not have been overly helpful that much of the industry discussion has tended to focus on the often-revelatory possibilities of cloud-based production.
So through the course of more than a half-dozen interviews for this feature, it’s nice to be able to confirm that migration to the cloud of another critical area – distribution – is also increasing, albeit in a slower, less uniform and more nuanced way. “Cloud distribution is used more and more across all the different types of distribution,” said Kristian Mets, Head of Sales, Business Development at Net Insight, adding that “standard and specific cloud workflows for cloud distribution are emerging as they involve other technologies and competences related to cloud management. They do not vary a lot depending on what cloud is used.”
But John Wastcoat, SVP Alliances and Marketing at Zixi, is not alone in identifying the multiple factors informing different rates of adoption across media applications. “There is considerable variation in leveraging cloud for distribution, as well as lot of experimentation being made possible,” he said. “For example, event-driven operations heavily leverage cloud resources, taking advantage of the dynamic scaling of resources on demand. [Then there are] broadcasters who need to rapidly deploy new channels, such as FAST channels, or who are developing novel audience experiences and will also generally leverage a cloud-first strategy.
“For operators who are managing a large number of fixed linear channels with predictable usage, the cloud benefits of dynamic scale and on-demand provisioning are less needed, [while] options to constrain costs, especially egress costs, where the channels operate on a perpetual basis are important.”
Cloud distribution: ‘VOD is the prime use case’
Although individual opinions on the progress of cloud for distribution do vary, there is consensus around the greatest migration to date having occurred in newer over-the-top and video-on-demand services.
Olivier Braun, Product Manager Streaming Services at Red Bee Media, commented: “The use of cloud is widespread for OTT distribution towards end-users, but still growing for B2B contribution. VOD is the prime use case because the cloud model and its elasticity enable organisations to seamlessly scale up or down as required to ingest a large batch of assets, and storage is virtually unlimited. […] Cloud distribution for live is getting better, but it’s certainly still an ongoing process with room for improvement. For large-scale live events like the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and the NFL Superbowl, we still have a way to go.”
Rick Young, SVP Head of Global Products at LTN, said: “VOD and non-live workflows are the most accessible lift when moving to the cloud for processing and distribution. For many in this area, the flexibility, scalability and limited required Capex have been game changers. For live and real-time distribution, the story is very different. Public clouds are all built uniquely with different strengths and weaknesses that present unique challenges for live workflows. Vendors that are building cloud technologies are attacking the challenge in different ways.”
Multiple interviewees cite cloud egress costs as a specific continuing challenge, although Braun asserts that this pain-point can be “quickly solved by using pre-integrated CDNs, such as CloudFront with AWS, or Akamai/Fastly with Azure.”
Wastcoat also draws attention to the beneficial influence of ever-tighter integration between cloud platforms and service providers, noting that Zixi “works very closely with Amazon Web Services and has helped develop new mechanisms in the AWS Elemental MediaConnect solution for readily sharing live video content while retaining strict controls over entitlements.”
He pinpoints a key benefit to cloud distribution being that routing “from source to target destination can be bonded across geographically diverse signal paths and through multiple cloud regions, providing a level of redundancy in IP video distribution that is easily managed in Zixi’s Software-Defined Video Platform (SDVP). Traditional VOD operators like AppleTV+ and Amazon Prime Video are licensing an increasing variety of live events, drawing in audiences and creating ‘appointment TV’ value for advertisers. At the same time, vast libraries of VOD titles are being leveraged to power FAST simulated-live linear channels for distribution to a growing number of OTT services and devices.”
Symon Roue, Managing Director of VIDA, offers another variation on the FAST factor:
“With FAST channels and SVOD being 100% cloud-supported, the transition is almost entirely to cloud. As you move upstream towards more traditional methods and sources of content production like archive and linear playout, the supply chain workflows are actually increasingly on-prem and people-driven. So there is definitely a disparity across sectors.”
Cloud distribution: ‘Resilience and fault tolerance are paramount’
There are also enduring concerns around resilience, heightened by a series of major cloud service drop-outs during the last 18 months (a handy overview of which can be found here.) There has been an issue with “major outages because a specific cloud region or provider was having problems, so orchestrating video routes across multiple regions and developing multi-cloud strategies are key to mitigating outages,” said Wastcoat. “Key customer concerns [in this area] include redundancy, latency and costs, with the need for solutions across these priorities for resilience and fault tolerance [being] paramount.”
Tony Jones, Principal Technologist at MediaKind, similarly indicated that “addressing the issue of scale and latency is an absolute priority if we are to realise a streaming world of live without limits. In many instances, cloud-based technology can stitch together disparate pathways and workflows from the content provider to the consumer – yet one of the persistent challenges is timing.”
As Jones indicated, this is an area where expectations have risen steadily through the passage of years (and technologies). “It was not uncommon in the first iteration for live sports events to be tens of seconds behind the primary feed going over cable, satellite or terrestrial TV. Today, delays are often measured in -second increments.”
Nonetheless, it’s clearly an objective that can be realised in the fullness of time. According to Braun, “significant progress has been made across our industry regarding latency and timing. In fact, I would argue that today there isn’t any additional technical limitation when using using cloud-based distribution.”
Cloud distribution: All-encompassing ecosystem?
Meanwhile, there is plentiful evidence that the ecosystem of services and solutions to enable effective cloud distribution across media environments is continuing to expand. For instance, in line with MediaKind’s focus on timing issues, Jones said that “synchronisation has helped innovate service offerings and is one of the latest features in MK Engage, our cloud-based streaming platform service, enabling personal real-time camera switching to enhance the consumers’ experience. Along with live-to-VoD, these new features advance the value of MK Engage, unifying access to content from our CMS [Content Management System] and Aquila Live Streaming Solutions. It makes the user experience more seamless and easier to understand how MK Engage operates and what it delivers.”
For Red Bee Media, Braun noted that “from a streaming perspective, our VOD pipeline is fully cloud-based, while our live workflow is partially cloud-based – for live events and low-volume channels. The latest addition to our cloud distribution capabilities is our partnership with QuantumCast to integrate the company’s IceCast audio streaming technology within our Red Bee Pulse OTT product. The partnership enables our broadcast customers to benefit from greater device reach, improved ad insertion capability, and increased scalability across both TV and radio.”
Emphasising the importance of customisation that is increasingly preoccupying both OTT and more ‘traditional’ media companies, LTN’s latest technology is LTN Arc, described by Young as “a unique and fully managed service that enables live event versioning at scale for digital audiences, allowing rights holders to repurpose and decorate centralised feeds into customised streams for global cross-platform distribution. With Arc, content owners can easily spiderweb live sports and events content with tailored graphics and local language commentary to deliver culturally relevant content worldwide while meeting diverse platform requirements.”
Cloud distribution: ‘New commercial models’
Inherent in many of these observations is the belief that – although not insignificant challenges may occur – cloud distribution also heralds exciting new opportunities. These are likely to manifest themselves in both the creative and commercial domains.
Allain Pellen, Senior Market Manager OTT and IPTV at Harmonic, comments: “I think that, increasingly, there is an awareness that cloud is more of a method of delivering new features and new ways of doing things – as opposed to just replacing [what has gone before].”
“The traditional ties into more static infrastructure are being eliminated, allowing our customers to do things with greater agility,” observes Jones. “For example, traditional broadcast or sports media company customers can leverage the power of the cloud to launch new services direct to consumers. Temporary or event-based channels are the natural first movers in the live space into public cloud, but this then opens the “why not move all of it?” question for the more traditional channels.”
Ultimately, the facility of cloud distribution to deliver what will surely be the industry’s key objectives for many years to come – namely ever-increasing quality, customisation and options for revenue generation – means that its trajectory does carry an air of inevitability. Concludes Jones: “From a broader perspective, cloud distribution offers content owners a greater opportunity to monetise their content for a global audience, and this also allows the expansion of personalisation and increased monetisation.”
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