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Clear the haze: Time to fully embrace decentralised broadcast workflows in the cloud

By Shaun Lim

Finding opportunities in the face of dire circumstances may no longer apply just for the eternally optimistic; it could mean the difference between success and failure for many organisations.

For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic brought a shift towards remote production and virtualised work environments, a trend that has been sustained as decentralised workflows continue to be the norm for many broadcast productions.

This, according to Cameron Smith, CTO of Dejero, stems from the industry realising that decentralisation of workflows provides more flexibility and mobility for teams to work and collaborate from anywhere across the globe, whilst still being connected to people and systems.

He told APB+, “On top of that, organisations have discovered that the cloud is a ‘feasible’ option for remote production and an economical solution too. Browser-based software deployment is easily done, and hardware upgrades are rarely needed. 

“This results in reduced CapEx as less equipment and less staff are physically required onsite, be it at the station, studio or at an event. Decentralisation and remote production provide a new agility for businesses to flex; workflows are more scalable, and resources can be expanded or reduced in line with the requirement.”

The pandemic, Smith added, has also accelerated the demand for on-the-fly collaboration and the shift to remote, virtual and cloud production, particularly for sports coverage, where events require complex infrastructure to connect multiple venues and challenging types of terrain can make the job even harder.

Fundamentally, decentralised or distributed architectures through cloud-native approaches have been about providing architectural and operational flexibility.

This, said Ian Fletcher, CTO of Grass Valley, allows broadcasters more levels of efficiencies than previously available, in addition to creative flexibility by enabling the deployment of on-the-fly services.

He elaborated,“From the technology and business perspective for live production, it has allowed more efficient use of compute and power by allowing broadcasters to offload services to remote compute, such as in the cloud, or at a central facility. 

“This means that key functions that are latency sensitive can take place at the venue, at the edge, with operators either local or remote whilst other elements may be spun in the cloud or on-premises to minimise transport and personnel travel costs related to the event.”

For playout and asset management, and post-production activities, this has further allowed services to be more easily distributed across geographic regions for new levels of resilience. With a truly distributed and cloud-native solution such as GV AMPP, this is made possible under a single orchestration layer that allows central administration and a single user interface for operators, regardless of how many locations the service is located.

“With such a system, the solution is extremely agile with the ability to spin an additional record port, playout channel, multiviewer, even a switcher, at a moment’s notice, just in time, to offer new levels of creative flexibility whilst maximising the use of any compute, and only paying for what you need when you use it,” Fletcher added.

For Skandha Media Services, an India-based cloud video platform provider for digital TV and pay-TV operators, the onset of the Covid pandemic saw them helping a client to decentralise operations by taking their entire live playout of India’s most prominent cricket league off premises and into the cloud. 

While acknowledging the risky nature of the move at the time, Neelesh Dalvi, Head of Digital Operations, Skandha Media Services, claimed that the client has not looked back and has gone on to enjoy a plethora of benefits.

“Workflows can be managed from anywhere, resources can be saved on many different levels, and revenue opportunities can be increased,” he explained. “More content can be streamed without compromising the quality of the video stream, and concerns over content security have been relinquished.”

Today, Skandha Media Services is providing cloud playout services for over-the-top (OTT) platforms covering a range of major sports events. Overall, the company manages more than 16.500 playout operations and more than 85,000 hours of streaming from almost 60 million views.

Another key advantage that decentralisation offers in playout terms is flexibility, which can be critical for OTT, as Neelesh described, “With OTT, every single event that a host broadcaster has access to, and every single match that a rights-holder owns, can theoretically be aired live. But they may only have the rights to an event for a short period. Hence, a media company’s ability to scale up and down not only the number of live streams, but also its resources, is paramount to its success.”

“This means full OPEX and zero CAPEX, presenting content owners with a wider scope to monetise their content. This is the beauty of decentralisation via the cloud.”

To better support decentralised workflows, cloud-centric solutions are continuously evolving and according to Neelesh, reflective of how many organisations are migrating their whole production workflow into the cloud. 

“This was unheard of just a few years ago, when the thought of moving traditional hardware [to the cloud] — routers and switchers for example — seemed impossible,” he said.

Today, the cloud allows the rapid deployment of servers, scaling of storage requirements, and the near-real-time processing of terabytes of data. In addition to the cloud, the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are also constantly improving customer experience, Neelesh highlighted, while agreeing that challenges remain.

For instance, latency is still a challenge for live news and sports productions, especially when it relates to remote production in congested or patchy network environments. 

“However, encoding technology has come a long way since the cloud was first adopted, evolving to such an extent that higher quality video can be delivered at lower bit rates, thus reducing latency,” Neelesh countered.

When it comes to the full adoption of cloud-based workflows, connectivity remains a concern, especially for live content, said Dejero’s Smith. 

The key, he added, is the ability to move live content securely and quickly to the cloud where it can be managed, processed, and distributed anywhere. “Network reliability, performance, and latency are key.”

To help broadcasters fully utilise cloud production tools, Dejero is making it easy to stream high-quality video in and out of the cloud, with support for the formats they need to integrate with their preferred post-production tools.

Smith elaborated, “Over recent years, we have formed partnerships to simplify cloud-based live production by integrating cloud video platforms with Dejero’s mobile transmitters and video transport solutions. With this technology combination, users gain access to live broadcast production, live clipping, rapid editing and video distribution tools in the field.

“This system’s multi-platform delivery, which feeds live content to broadcast, digital and social platforms simultaneously from anywhere in the world, also means the event or programme production has a chance to reach wider audiences.”

A common challenge associated with the cloud is security and data privacy — however,  Smith believes that this can potentially be improved due to centralised security expertise and large investments leading to state-of-the-art underlying physical and infrastructure security practices. “This also means that technical expertise in IT departments is needed to manage both cloud and on-prem services and infrastructure,” he added.

As for the perception that cloud or software-as-a-service (SaaS) costs can be high if heavily utilised over an extended period, Smith recommended using on-premise infrastructure for steady-state workloads and extending into the cloud only for peak workloads.

“We see traditional post-production software vendors offering solutions that can either run on-prem or in the cloud via a SaaS model. There are also newer players that provide lighter weight, lower cost solutions that are potentially more integrated and easier to use. However, these lower cost solutions might have trouble integrating with existing workflows because interoperability remains somewhat limited.”

The broadcast and media industry can no longer deny the prominence of the cloud, and how cloud-based video productions are retaining almost all of their creative and flexible aspects, said Grass Valley’s Fletcher. 

Cloud, he suggested, has become a ubiquitous, instead of occasional tool, for many; he also identified a discernible sense of regret among some early adopters of cloud tools. 

Fletcher said, “They’ve noted that not every cloud system delivers equally. Having a cloud solution that is properly structured is vital for cost-effectiveness. It’s not just about migration; it’s about designing software to function optimally in the cloud environment.” 

Is AI and the cloud presenting a new paradigm for live production?

When many organisations look back at 2023, they would find it hard to argue that AI was a dominating factor in how they work; neither are they likely to see the technology’s influence wan significantly in 2024.

On the contrary, can the combination of AI and the cloud eliminate even more borders when it comes to creating content?

AI is a game changer and is already playing diverse and significant roles in Grass Valley products, Fletcher revealed. “We leverage AI for personalised user training, eliminating the need for external manuals. It also aids in image recognition and voice-to-text operations. AI’s potential is vast, and the question now is exploring its myriad of practical applications beyond mere buzzwords.”

AI is already beginning to reshape the media and entertainment industry’s journey of digital transformation, with more live events integrating AI into their broadcast workflows, said Skandha Media Services’ Neelesh, who identified automation as a key driver.

He explained, “When it comes to live event playout, manually importing files and schedules to the cloud is time consuming; it takes up a lot of resources, and human errors are inevitable. But with AI, these processes can be automated, and any errors can be identified and fixed easily. 

“We are advocates of Zero Touch healing which has all manner of positive implications for all stakeholders. At Skandha we’re cultivating our own AI modules to help our clients work more efficiently, including automating the scaling up and down of additional channels and live streams, as and when they are needed, thereby optimising resource cost.”

AI will not replace the creative element of content creation any time soon, suggested Dejero’s Smith. 

What AI will do, he clarified, is to bring efficiencies by automating repetitive tasks, quickly analyse large amounts of data and presenting it in an actionable way to guide decision making, as well as making it easier to index and find content.

Smith concluded, “The power of cloud-based services to streamline and automate manually intensive tasks, including watermarking, localising content with translations, and controlling content permissions for distribution, have the potential to take live production workflows to the next level of efficiency, saving time, and reducing costs.

“Metadata enrichment and tagging, facial recognition, and speech-to-text functionality can be enabled using a cloud-based video indexer that automatically enhances the live content through AI — providing the capacity to add rich metadata to incoming video content so that newsroom teams save valuable time searching and retrieving media assets.”

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