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‘Open Sesame’ for broadcast-quality live streaming in public cloud?

By Shirish Nadkarni

There can be no two opinions that the consumer is king, and will not be dictated to. The market share of traditional cable television is shrinking, and the media marketplace is being flooded with content creators streaming media to a growing spectrum of online, social media and mobile outlets. However, there is a wide variance in video quality, file sizes and compression codecs; the sheer volume of media assets is simply exploding, leaving media professionals struggling to maintain a competitive edge.

As these pressures collide with other technology trends — such as widespread internet connectivity, ever-increasing bandwidth and powerful data centres — video cloud computing services are steadily on the rise. Is it about time businesses seriously consider broadcast-quality live streaming in public cloud?

“Consumer expectations are very different today and they demand faster and more stable access to content,” says Dr Derek Wang, Singapore General Manager for Alibaba Cloud Intelligence (ACI). “This translates to a pressing need, especially for traditional media providers like television and radio, to transform in order to compete in the Internet age.”

By moving their video workload to the cloud, media entrepreneurs can hit the ground running and pay as they go for processing-intensive services such as encoding, transcoding, asset management and storage.

End-users might pay per transaction, monthly subscription, or an annual fee. With a solid internet connection and web browser, the workplace can be the nearest cafe or virtually anywhere in the world with colleagues collaborating via the cloud.

The value proposition is that rather than having to make huge up-front capital investments in on-site hardware, such as servers, storage arrays, networks, and expensive, specialised software — or constantly expanding or upgrading on-premises infrastructures — end-users can now just reach for the clouds.

To understand the topology and ramifications of the cloud for video, it helps to first become familiar with terms such as public cloud, private cloud and hybrid cloud.

A public cloud consists of computers, networks and bandwidth resources — based on the standard cloud-computing model — which a few prominent service providers offer to the general public via the Internet.

“Public cloud is the top choice for many media and broadcast players in the industry for its low infrastructure cost, high availability, and elastic and scalable nature,” says Dr Wang. “Users of public cloud do not need to invest heavily in setting up the technology platform before reaping the benefits such as low latency and secure content delivery.

“Public cloud is also flexible for organisations to implement. In Singapore, most broadcast and media (entertainment) players traditionally have opted for an on-premise approach for infrastructure set up.

“With the availability of public cloud, businesses can migrate their mission-critical workloads to public cloud with zero downtime, enabling them to transit into the next phrase of digital innovation with less hassle. 

Public cloud providers — such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Rackspace — offer customers a way to use their global data centres for their storage or computing needs. 

In terms of cloud computing, the cloud services include Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud  (Amazon EC2) and Rackspace’s Cloud Servers. And in terms of cloud storage, there are services such as Amazon S3, Rackspace’s Cloud Files, Microsoft’s Windows Azure Storage and Dropbox.

It is interesting to note that Encoding.com, which offers a cloud-based video-encoding platform, has integrated its services with all of the services mentioned above.

“If customers already uploaded their source video into the Rackspace cloud for storage, and they ask us to encode it, then we’re going to process it on the Rackspace cloud. If they’ve moved source video to Amazon S3, we’ll process it on Amazon, at the same data centre,” says Greggory Heil, CEO and founder of Encoding.com.

“Customers are concerned about how long it’s going to take them to get their content from their premises into the cloud. If customers have already migrated their media library to a particular cloud provider, for example Amazon, then they’re very apt to use our [Amazon-based] service. Then they don’t have any speed concerns about transferring large files to us because our cloud compute is very close to their cloud storage location.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation for many industries, including media and entertainment in utilising public cloud as a solution for business continuity reasons, with more and more consumers and audiences relying on mobile phones or computers for social interaction during the lockdown.

Asked to cite an example, ACI’s Dr Wang says, “KUMU (the popular social app in the Philippines) is utilising Alibaba Cloud’s public cloud technology including live streaming solutions to roll out video services to meet users’ demand to interact and socialise during the [Covid-19] lockdowns.”

He adds, “Live streaming in e-commerce is another trend we see. Given that more and more consumers will continue to make online purchases across the APAC region, online retailers will see the need to attract customers through various creative sales techniques, and combine shopping and entertainment in order to secure customer loyalty online.

“Alibaba Cloud has been supporting Lazada’s live streaming sales activities during the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in APAC regions, including in the Philippines and Singapore; and we see great results from consumers in this aspect.”

Indeed, live streaming across all industries has grown exponentially during the Covid-19 pandemic, no less in gaming; and this trend led to the recent acquisition of the US-based tech outfit, Lightstream, by Creative Solutions, a division of the Vitec Group.

Lightstream builds a cloud-native live video platform, broadcast software and creator tools with specialisation in the video game live streaming industry. It has strong strategic partnerships and technology integrations with Microsoft’s Xbox and Amazon’s Twitch.

This acquisition allows Creative Solutions to bring its broadcast-quality hardware, mobile apps, and cloud technology to the gaming market on a global scale, and opens up new creative possibilities for storytellers.

Integrating Lightstream’s creative suite and patented cloud production architecture with Teradek’s IP video technology and the full suite of Creative Solutions production tools raises the potential for live video content creation in every segment in the M&E industry.

“The powerful combination of our unique cloud-native products and Teradek’s market leading hardware, apps and cloud technology unlocks truly limitless creative potential,” says Stu Grubbs, CEO and Co-founder of Lightstream. “We couldn’t be more excited to join such respected brands and a talented group of people just as driven by the power of storytelling.”

A common barrier preventing companies like Preview Networks (a content distributor and syndicate for localised video content in Europe) from leveraging the cloud is knowing that they would have to change their infrastructure in some form to migrate to it. This is particularly challenging with traditional IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) providers like Amazon and Rackspace whose businesses are driven by legacy solutions and only allow for a limited amount of flexibility.

“We evaluated both Amazon and Rackspace, along with a handful of other public cloud providers. However, in each instance, we would have had to change our entire network to migrate to one of those other cloud platforms,” says Patrick Rodies, CTO, Preview Networks.

“After evaluating other cloud providers, the client remained frustrated with the level of inflexibility they continued to encounter. The solution was CloudSigma, which utilises a completely open software layer.

“This eliminates the typical restrictions placed on companies during a cloud migration. Further, it provides complete transparency for public cloud computing. This allows Preview Networks to deploy the applications and operating systems it prefers and is familiar with, while still achieving the same goals, if not greater, levels of availability, connectivity and scalability.”

Even though Europe has witnessed huge growth for online VoD services, a recent study by GlobalData highlighted APAC (Asia Pacific) as the largest online VoD market in terms of subscribers. It is expected to grow at an annual growth rate of 12.7%, from 231 million subscriptions in 2018 to 420 million subscriptions by 2023.

Live streaming is not only the next big thing for e-commerce, but likely for other media applications as well. In China alone, half of the country’s 700 million Internet users have now tried live-streaming apps; and this is likely to see a spillover in the APAC region too.

“A key thing to note is live streaming is not live broadcast,” says Dr Wang. “Live streaming requires a platform to connect users immediately with the talent on screen or on broadcast and with one another, without having to dial-in separately.

“This level of interactivity can only be possible with a robust cloud infrastructure enabling not just the transmission of data to the end-devices, but the information flow between the devices.”

He maintains, “Media is also not just becoming increasingly digital but also increasingly personal. Immersive technology such as virtual reality streaming requires massive amounts of bandwidth and available connectivity for it to be a seamless experience.”

Alibaba Cloud has launched a series of Artificial Intelligence-based solutions to transform and digitalise the way sports entertainment is traditionally organised, broadcast and consumed.

Its Event Simulation Services (ESS) solution helps organisers plan their layout of indoor venues virtually, reducing the expense and risks of physical tests and optimising the position of equipment and facilities without moving a single piece of physical equipment.

“This can be applied to an event broadcasting scenario where broadcasters can simulate and test different camera positions before installing camera tracks and analyse post-event data for more effective future planning,” says Dr Wang. 

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