BSkyB: Cloud, IP and Virtual Playout Are Not Ready for Primetime

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BSkyB director of information technology Colin McQuade says vendors of cloud and IP production technology need to match the exacting demands of current baseband video and SDI protocols before Sky and other broadcasters will invest.

He made the comments on the eve of IBC 2014, where virtualised services from encoding to playout and Cloud production are set to be major themes.

"Sky is an extensive user of cloud in a combination of public and private platforms including Amazon Web Services and Akamai," McQuade says. "We couldn't run our OTT or on-demand business without a cloud platform. But as far as the holy grail of offloading everything that currently sits in an internal data centre or broadcast facility ... I've yet to be convinced there is a service out there that can really do everything for us in the kind of large-scale, complex, customer-grade way we want to do it, at the cost we want."

McQuade highlights virtualising playout as a particular challenge. "It's a case of cloud suppliers coming up with enterprise-grade tech that is as reliable as existing systems," he says. "What is phenomenal about the broadcast industry is that it has built up a heritage of super availability and super quality, and what I would like to see is that quality and that super availability applied at scale to some of these Cloud platforms.

"Gone are the days of 'best effort' video online," he emphasised. "The industry has to deliver quality streaming or on demand to consumers."

He holds a similar position with regards to IP. "More and more IP-based technology and tools are being incorporated, but while the industry is wrestling with standards the suitability of IP is not yet end to end. SDI may well die eventually but it will not disappear in the next three years."

Sky is reportedly developing a next-gen STB capable of serving VOD from the network with a chipset primed for UltraHD but McQuade is, unsurprisingly, non-committal on this.

Sky fields four main technology operations: Central Services for planning, compliance and security; Sky Network Services, which looks after the technology for the ISP and broadband voice business; a Broadcast Services component managing DTH distribution; and Information Systems, which is McQuade's domain. He oversees 2,000 people undertaking an eclectic range of activities from the software development behind Sky Go and Now TV and mobile apps to running Data Centres and CRM.

"In terms of talent and technology, we benchmark ourselves with Amazon or Google," he said. Indeed, McQuade's team comprises staff with classic IT skills (billing, operations, data centre management) as well as those you would recognize from Facebook, Amazon, and Yahoo.

"We've evolved away from the days of proprietary appliances with specialised skillsets," he said. "We have a lot more multi-skilled staff who have grown up with online. We set a very high bar."

Casting wider even than IP and the cloud, McQuade says the macro trend in which computing becomes smaller, faster, cheaper, more powerful, and more ubiquitous "will give us all more headroom to do more things."

For example, he says, "five years ago drones were the preserve of the military and cost millions of dollars. Now they are the size of a dinner plate and you can send back live HD video and audio with control by anybody with an iPad or VR glasses. Soon, when drones cost a dollar and are the size of a thumbnail, you could deploy hundreds at sporting events or for news gathering.

"By 2020 it is predicted there will be 26 billion embedded devices, some with more power than any computing machine we've ever seen," he continues. "The implications are enormous, whether for medical or media. In twenty years we'll be able to render anything anywhere without the need for physical hardware, and people will want to really participate in media. The days of wanting to be passively entertained are ending now. People will actively want to participate in movies and TV shows."

McQuade began his career in the army specialising in highly secure IP networking. It's a skillset that has only grown in importance as he applied his knowledge to Astra in Luxembourg to lead the IT build of Sky Digital and Open Interactive in the '90s, then becoming CTO of Yahoo! Europe, Director of Advanced Services at Orange, and CTO, AOL UK before rejoining BSkyB seven years ago.

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