By Ian Cockett, Technical Director at Pebble Beach Systems
What is a channel-in-a-box without the box? Why, it’s a channel-in-the-cloud of course! With the prevalence of cloud operations surrounding us across all industries, is it time to consider moving your broadcast playout to the cloud? Before dismissing the possibility as “pie in the sky cloud”, let’s take a look at how the convergence of IT and video is creating the perfect storm for the adoption of cloud-based playout.
The transition from proprietary to off-the-shelf
This is hardly news to those in the industry. This transition has been a long time coming and as equipment fails or becomes EOL, replacement solutions are almost always utilizing off-the-shelf components. Broadcasters have steadily been replacing dedicated, proprietary hardware with standard, off-the-shelf IT solutions in the transmission chain for the past decade. Channel-in-a-Box offerings already power a complete broadcast chain in 1U or 2U racks throughout the world, and have evolved well beyond the limited playout and graphics capabilities of years past. No longer a solution limited to small broadcasters, today’s CiB offerings are a viable solution for MCOs with complicated automation requirements.
Virtualization becomes reality
To realize the full value of the proprietary to off-the-shelf transition, software components should be capable of running in virtualized environments. Hosting multiple services on a single server drastically reduces the broadcast operation’s footprint in the data center, lowering the initial CAPEX outlay. Other savings, such as easier deployment and lower power consumption cut OPEX.
That brings us to our third and final piece of cloud-enabling technology.
IP video replaces baseband
The proprietary link in the virtual chain is frequently the SDI ingest and playout server, but the transition from baseband signal to video over IP continues to gain momentum. Now it has reached an inflection point. The emergence of SMPTE 2022-6 and VSF TR-03, that provide high bitrate standards for formats up to 1080p/50 and 1080p/60 over a managed IP network— enables the completion of the transition. The broadcast technology vendors’ adoption has attained critical mass and the complete transmission chain can be enabled on standard IT infrastructure and IP networks.
Of course, dedicated hardware and baseband signal gear will remain in use for some time in some facilities. Many MCOs have unique customization requirements that are being well met by a best of breed approach to outfitting the transmission facility. In many organizations these legacy deployments are still on the books, and not slated for replacement for several years. And as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
The table is set, but dinner is not publicly available
While the foundational technologies are in place for public cloud deployment, obstacles remain. Broadcast might be ready for the cloud, but the cloud may not yet be ready for broadcast. More accurately, you could argue that the public cloud is not ready for prime time and the most demanding of broadcast SLAs (service level agreements). A private cloud may be (more on that in a bit).
Let’s begin with the public cloud’s limitations. Assuming adequate security, one illustrative case of an organization interested in introducing large scale operational efficiencies is the broadcast transmission service provider. Companies such as Encompass in North America and Ericsson in Europe have demanding and specific service level agreements with their clients, broadcast license holders. Those SLAs exceed the SLAs currently offered by public cloud vendors such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Rackspace.
Beyond bandwidth and uptime assurances to meet SLAs, latency still must be drastically reduced on the public cloud before it can be used to broadcast live events. As MLB.tv subscribers in the US can attest, quite often social media is exploding and the mobile alerts have been received before the decisive play has reached the OTT viewer’s television.
Decades of living under Moore’s Law has taught us that the technology will advance to the point where the large public cloud providers will be able to meet standard broadcast SLAs. It’s still unknown whether they will be willing to revisit their rate cards in order to be an economically viable resource to MCOs. Currently, the storage and compute costs to run a large number of permanent channels in the public cloud and the costs to get those high bitrate streams out of the cloud probably exceed what it would cost a facility to host those needed resources internally.
The private option
Rather than waiting for the public cloud to meet the broadcast industry’s needs, a private cloud deployment is already a viable alternative for many playout and automation use cases today. The rollout could mimic the rollout of CiB. Before full 24/7 deployment, a cloud installation could serve as a disaster recovery option. Many broadcasters deployed their first CiB as a backup to the legacy transmission system.
The additional benefits of a cloud architecture include not only the flexibility to provision and tear down channels in an instant as required, but also the ability to completely repurpose underlying hardware on-the-fly. For example unneeded resources can be allocated for MAM, or even more generic enterprise activities. When it becomes necessary to upgrade hardware, decommissioning and re-commissioning times are a fraction of what they are in legacy deployments.
A mid-sized or large organization can benefit greatly from a private cloud deployment. During spikes in demand for playout, graphics, and automation, less mission critical activities such as automated archiving to LTO or the cloud can be de-prioritized to allocate compute and bandwidth to the on air activity. Regional and college sports networks are known for having exactly those kinds of large fluctuations in compute, storage, and playout needs throughout the broadcast day and over the course of the year. Live broadcasts are limited to a few hours a day and are concentrated over a set number of months. A private cloud deployment would be an ideal solution.
VOD and other OTT, among the entertainment services most prone to spikes, should also prove to be among the early adopters of cloud-based playout. Yet MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) might just be the sweet spot for this offering.
In September 2015, Digital Media Centre, a provider of media logistics services to content owners and MVPDs engaged with Pebble Beach Systems to deploy a large scale, fully virtualized, all-IP Orca integrated channel solution for private cloud deployment. Controlled by Pebble Beach’s Marina automation solution the system stands to break new ground in terms of its flexibility and cost effectiveness. Many other service providers and their customers are watching this groundbreaking deployment with an eye toward their own needs.
Broadcasters don’t have to wait for public cloud service providers to address their shortcomings to benefit from a cloud architecture. They can begin deploying standards-based scalable solutions today in their own or a partner’s data centers.
Software-based integrated playout systems running on off-the-shelf IT hardware are in use around the world. A fully virtualized implementation is a logical next step for broadcast businesses seeking to evolve IP-based services alongside more traditional channel delivery methods. The flexibility to provision and tear down channels dynamically in an instant is a revolutionary concept for companies used to the “old way” of doing things. However, with today’s budgets and schedules, software-defined virtualized IP channel solutions such as Pebble Beach Systems’ Orca have arrived at exactly the right time for organizations seeking a pure IP video solution.
For centralcast hubs, service providers, MCOs (Multiple Channel Operators), sports broadcasters, and corporates such as publishing companies seeking new ways to inform their audiences, such a virtual channel in a box delivers an affordable option to deploy or contract IP-based channels instantly without the burden of racks of complicated hardware, and weeks or months of setup and provisioning.