Seeing Clearly Through The Cloud

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

by Phillip Neighbour, COO, PlayBox Technology Limited

The world of electronics and telecommunications is neatly summarised by a single phrase: 'Change is the only constant'. This is pretty common currency today but the guy I first heard it from, at an NAB Convention some decades back, either chose or forgot to acknowledge his source. It is much older than our beloved industry and was first expressed by a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, about 2,500 years ago.

Change is something nobody really notices on an everyday basis, apart from the first time you are nearly bowled over by an electric skateboard, but comes into sharper focus at trade shows like NAB and IBC: the annual flood of new products on the show floor, new concepts in the conference discussions, and new buzzwords.

From tape-based playout to file-based servers

My broadcast industry tenure doesn't date back 2,500 years, although it sometimes feels like it, but has certainly embraced its fair share of change – from dedicated panel-per-device hardware and video tape machines through a succession of later product generations culminating in today's wide range of software solutions controlling largely file-based content on 'enterprise' computer platforms. Each successive generation tended to be more cost-efficient, more IT-centric and easier to use than its predecessor, particularly with the great leap forward into browser-based user interfaces.

PlayBox Technology was not the first to recognise the power and potential of IT in a broadcast context but certainly did pioneer its development for television channel playout, offering massive savings in cost compared with contemporary devices. Our first-generation products, a modular range centred on an IT-based server, sold very successfully to broadcasters wanting to operate one or more channels from their own premises.

Defining 'the cloud'

From about 2010 onward, an increasing number of broadcast equipment manufacturers began promoting their ability to operate in 'the cloud'. Few if any elaborated on exactly what they actually meant apart perhaps from their ability to accept purchase orders via the internet. One company went to far as to announce as 'new and cloud-based' a concept which we had introduced in 2008. This enables a television station to control its entire operation in partnership with an established broadcast centre. The actual control process, including scheduling and even near-live inserts. is achieved via the public internet regardless of distance. Obviously no two broadcast operations are alike so each installation is configured to match the customer's specific needs in terms of operating features and desired level of primary/secondary protection. Hundreds if not thousands of customers today use our technology to control playout servers based at data centres and head-ends around the world.

At IBC2015 in September we made the first announcement of a totally software-centric suite of software able to provide true playout with graphics on any enterprise-class blade, rack or tower server. Once the software is installed, no auxiliary hardware is required at all. It attracted a huge level of interest from multinational, national and regional broadcasters, not least as a basis for adding supplementary channels to an existing bouquet. The platform builds has already been selected by a Tata Communications to support its new virtualised broadcast playout service. Established broadcasters in major European countries, the Middle and Far East are also very excited by the potential of this technology, not least its ability to power fast-startup dedicated OTT channels.

Cloud playout, with graphics and branding, allows broadcasters to introduce new channels on an operational expenditure basis rather than investing in dedicated hardware. Established broadcasters who have already bought their own playout systems will naturally want to get the maximum possible life from that investment before considering any change to a new mode of working.

Rapid-startup model

Cloud-based operation completely rewrites the financial model for broadcasters, allowing new channels for tightly specified subjects or regions to be introduced quickly without demanding up-front capital. The cloud model allows entirely new broadcast operations to be activated without the need to configure existing hardware, let alone order new equipment. It was designed to include ad hoc services that may only be needed for an hour or even less. It gives broadcasters the freedom to conduct their entire operation, from content acquisition, refining and archiving, right through to playout, via a single highly reliable media ecosystem which can be accessed and managed from practically any location, at any time. In terms of a 24/7 channel starting on the cloud playout model, an efficient telco should be able to get these live in little more time than it takes to send an email or make a phone call. The most significant costs of running any programme channel then become, as arguably they always have been, the overheads of originating, acquiring or refining content and employing whatever administrative and creative people the organisation needs.

We expect early adopters of cloud-based playout services to be multichannel broadcasters who want to schedule channels with local programming and advertising for specific single or multiple regions rather than using multiple satellite feeds with ad-insertion. Other early adopters will be existing content owners who now gain fast, easy and cost-efficient access to viewers.

Cloud-based playout will also enable vertical niche channels to get established within tighter budgets than was previously possible. Established broadcasters gain the ability to introduce auxiliary channels aligned to specific events or special-interest supplementary programme feeds.

We are also seeing great interest from broadcasters seeking cost effective and reliable business continuity recovery as well as moving existing channels into cloud-based playout. When specified correctly, cloud-based playout allows playout, full redundancy and disaster recovery to be achieved all-in-one.