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Amazon CTO: Devices are a Window to Content in the Cloud
A Q&A with Amazon.com CTO Werner Vogels addressing a future where both broadcast professionals and consumers are connected to the cloud.

Aside from founder Jeff Bezos, Dr. Werner Vogels is the only member of Amazon's senior team to speak on behalf of the internet retail giant. The Amsterdam-born engineer holds a Ph.D. from the Vrije Universiteit and worked as a researcher at Cornell University before he joined Amazon in 2004. Vice President and CTO since 2005, he is the driving force behind the company's technology vision. He gave a keynote today at IBC 2013 Conference on the Power of Big Data, and we spoke with him last week about the topic.

Content producers and broadcasters are gradually shifting more of their resource to the cloud but are they doing it quickly enough and what do you think is holding them back?

We are seeing many content producers and broadcasters moving to the cloud. Matter of fact, broadcasters were some of the earliest companies embracing the cloud, and the advantages it offers, to better serve content to their customers and to offer viewers a richer multimedia experience. A good example is the Watch application from ABC/Disney, which allows their users to watch live television on any mobile device. ABC uploads the live stream to the AWS Cloud where it is transcoded in real-time for each of the mobile device platforms, which advertisement insertion based on the location of the device. Local blackout restrictions are honoured by streaming from a VOD library. By making use of the cloud ABC does not have to worry about scalability and reliability, without having to make massive capital investments in infrastructure.

Another great example is Channel 4 and the work they are doing with Big Data. The company is known for its cutting edge programming, and innovative use of technology, and is currently using Big Data analytics on Amazon Web Services to better match television shows, and other content, to its audiences. Channel 4 is using Amazon Elastic MapReduce to crunch vast amounts of data, taken from hundreds of millions of video views every year, to better understand user behaviour so the company can offer a more personalised experience to viewers as well as advertisers. Research the broadcaster has conducted has also shown that people don’t watch TV in isolation, quite often they will have an iPad or a mobile phone in their hands while in front of their television sets. In the future Channel 4 has plans to develop applications that people can use as they watch TV, such as play along games, to further enhance their viewing experience and will use Big Data analytics on AWS to match these applications to viewers.

Is video-based media different from other industries when it comes to the cloud? Producers like the physical security of media or failing that a server on their own turf. How can you convince them that their content is safe forever in the cloud?

Examining Amazon’s cloud, you’ll see that the same security isolations are employed as would be found in a traditional datacenter. These include physical datacenter security, separation of the network, isolation of the server hardware, and isolation of storage. To ensure we adhere to the highest standards of security for our customers, we also are compliant with a range of internationally recognized standards, such as ISO-27001 and we also meet other industry specific standards such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA has established a set of best practices for securely storing, processing, and delivering protected media and content. Media companies use these best practices as a way to assess risk and security of their content and infrastructure. AWS has demonstrated alignment with the MPAA best practices and AWS infrastructure is compliant with all applicable MPAA infrastructure controls.

Many of our media customers will tell you that their security posture actually improved after moving to the Cloud. Because of the fine grain control mechanisms  a storage system like Amazon S3 (Amazon Simple Storage Service) is actually seen as an ideal tool for collaboration and distribution. From major broadcasters such as ABC, Sony and PBS, to On Demand media services like Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand, to Bollywood streaming companies like Hungama and Eros Now, all have very strict security requirements that could be met with the control tools AWS gives them.

Film and TV companies want to exchange many terabytes of data, daily.  Could you address concerns that the cloud is too expensive for this volume of data?

We have many film and TV companies using AWS for their content, for example, special effects studio Atomic Fiction used AWS to do all of the special effects for the recent Oscar nominated film ‘Flight,’ starring Denzel Washington. We make it easy for companies getting large amounts of data, like special effects scenes, into the AWS cloud and offer customers a number of services. Customers can use a standard internet connection, utilising FTP, they can also use software accelerated transfer protocols like Aspera, Signiant or Attunity Cloudbeam. We also have AWS Direct Connect which is a service that allows broadcasters to establish private connectivity between AWS and their datacenter, office, or colocation environment, by passing the public internet. Another option is AWS Storage Gateway which integrates an on-premises software appliance with cloud-based storage to provide seamless and secure integration between a broadcaster’s on-premise IT environment and AWS’s storage infrastructure. We also have a service called AWS Import/ Export. AWS Import/Export gives film and TV companies the option to ship us their portable storage devices and we will transfer their data directly onto and off of storage devices using Amazon’s high-speed internal network, bypassing the Internet.

Can we expect all aspects of a traditional broadcast/video post-production facility to be virtualised?

We don’t see any limitations on how broadcast and post-production facilities use the AWS cloud. Whether it is Atomic Fiction who uses AWS for rendering special effects scenes or Canal+ that is using AWS to give their viewers content via their mobile devices, the cloud is taking the undifferentiated heavy lifting off in house resources and allowing them to spend their time on generating more creative content for their viewers and not on procuring and maintaining technology infrastructure.

What might a typical broadcaster—currently with HQ offices, studios, post and and playout centres—look like in, say, a decade?

I wouldn’t want to predict the future but what we are seeing is by offloading the undifferentiated heavy lifting of maintaining and procuring technology hardware broadcasters are able to spend more time and money on generating new content and delivering that content to viewers in new ways. Earlier I talked about Canal+. In order to bring a rich multimedia experience to their sports coverage Canal+ launched a football application for mobile on AWS. The application gives Canal+ subscribers the ability to watch a replay of the main action from football games, provides expert analysis of the French Championship games and broadcasts interviews with the coaches and players. Using the cloud Canal+ is giving viewers the ability to watch sports action and follow their favourite team wherever they are. In the near future this type of use of mobile will be far more ubiquitous.

What I can say is we can see more broadcasters using the cloud in the future. There is a natural alignment between broadcast and the cloud. Currently broadcasters tend to have spiky resource utilization that requires them to build for peaks to handle large events, such as for the Football World Cup, Olympics, etc, but goes underutilized the rest of the time. The cloud’s pay-for-what-you-use model and elasticity address these issues and reduce broadcasters cost structures significantly.

What we see the cloud enabling is the rise of smaller, individual broadcasters. For example we see each sports team creating their own dedicated TV station to give fans worldwide a week long engagement with club instead of only the few hours at game day. Take for example a football club like Liverpool FC who make use of AWS to power Liverpool FC TV, an approach that is rapidly spreading to other clubs.

Away from the cloud: I am interested in your thoughts as a futurist—could you share some with us? For example, how will we be consuming media in 10 – 50 years?

I have no crystal ball, but some of the trends we are already experiencing will certainly be amplified in the future: consumers will want to consume content on any device, at any time, at high quality and at reasonable cost. The shift from watching TV at a preset moment to consuming it at a time that the consumer decides will continue.  This is enabled in a reliable and cost-effective manner by shifting to the new resource model that cloud offers.

The improved availability of high-quality production tools at very low cost combined with the internet as a distribution channel, and the cloud as a scalable production and distribution environment will make it possible for many more broadcaster to enter the market. Many of these will be small niche players like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam that streams concerts on a pay per view basis or massive music events like the opening concert of Madonna’s tour streamed by AF83 worldwide.

The shift towards more mobile device access will amplify a different consumption pattern: from long form watching to more byte wise video snacking. Integrate this with real-time access we see a new consumptions patterns arrive; a real-time notification will tell you that your favourite team just score a goal and you will be able to immediate see the replay on your device.

Many more innovations will happen by integrating the digital and physical world. But while we will see many more beautiful devices being built, the core functionally of these devices will all be software connected to services running in the cloud. We already see that with for example the SmartHub of the Samsung Smart TVs that runs in AWS. Where in the past content would be moved to the device, now devices are just a window to content and services that live in the cloud.

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