Moving Streaming Production to the Cloud
The first thing to think about when considering a move to cloud production as an alternative to traditional, centralized, on-prem production workflows is, why the cloud? It’s not just because it’s the latest thing out there. It’s because it has specific advantages for certain applications.
Whenever you’re thinking about the cloud, you need to be thinking about how it will benefit you and your productions. Also, you need to weigh the costs, because cloud can get expensive. It’s not all about that $1.25 per-hour-fee for a virtual machine. It can add up. If you’re doing lots and lots of hours, a hybrid or an on-premise approach might be better for you.
Cloud vs. Hybrid
What’s the difference between cloud and hybrid cloud? With a fully cloud-based production, just like it sounds, you would have everything running in the cloud. With hybrid production, it would be as if you were co-locating, meaning that you have a rack of gear that is actually in a co-location or facility data center and is then available to you whenever you need it.
With the hybrid approach, you’d be working with a fixed amount of gear. You’re using the cloud for part of your production workflow to help you spread out your capabilities, but you’re also fixed to whatever that gear happens to be in that rack. So hybrid, while not always the best one, is an option.
Some of the popular cloud and hybrid providers are familiar names like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud.
Advantages of Cloud Production
There are several advantages to cloud production. First is nearly unlimited internet connectivity. I’ve definitely seen some connected machines supporting 3,000–4,000Kbps. It’s amazing to see how much speed you have available when you’re used to being on the ground when your local CDN or ISP is providing you with only a gigabit down or 200Mbps up at most. At 3,000–4,000Kbps, whenever you get into a really large deployment, you’re not worrying about connectivity or bandwidth.
Cloud production also offers easy-to-deploy redundancy options worldwide. This means that whatever we’re using for cloud production can be moved to different locations around the world to minimize some of the problems with redundancy and to reduce the amount of latency between locations, your operators, and your end users.
Redundancy also means that at any given time, you can even have redundancy between cloud providers, which anyone doing larger productions would probably want to think about. Let’s say the West Coast data center of AWS went down (which is highly unlikely, because Amazon has two or three there). But every once in a while, there’s a big fiber cut somewhere. If your West Coast provider did go down, it would definitely behoove you to have redundancy on the East Coast as well. Or if you’re working in, for instance, Bahrain, and you need to move something over to Mumbai, you have that ability with a cloud infrastructure. You’re not going to move a hybrid or co-location setup that fast, nor can you move a truck that fast either.
Another advantage of the cloud is that it enables you to have a distributed workflow for your operators. We’ve all been developing distributed workflows for a year because we had to, because the pandemic pushed us further into decentralized production than we would have gone in five or 10 years.
At my companies, PIZAZZ and LiveSports LLC, we’d already been using remote workflows for 3 years, so this was nothing new to us. We’d mostly been doing remote productions in live sports, and when live sports stopped, we had to pivot to corporate productions’ larger virtual events. But for us, regardless of the type of event we were doing, distributed workflows had become the norm, and it was commonplace to have one person running replay out of Kansas, another person cutting the show from Detroit, and then a third person doing audio from Alabama.
We also use IP-based cameras, which we can control and drive remotely, just as if we were sitting behind them. That is another part of the distributed workflow that has worked very well for us and allowed us to do more events with our team. It means we don’t have to worry about local hires measuring up to our standards or requiring immediate training. Whenever we get on site, we can go out with our engineers and our basic A-team on the ground, but our normal operators—our producers, our directors, our audio guys, even our graphics folks—are familiar with our workflow, know it intimately, and can be working anywhere, doing multiple events. This is much more efficient than having our team spend almost 2 days traveling, another day setting up, a show day, and then another day traveling back. Rather than having to dedicate that team to one event, in the cloud infrastructure with a distributed workflow, we can have multiple people and multiple events happening one after another, day after day, without having to worry about the time and productivity we’d lose with our core team traveling.
Another benefit to distributed workflows and cloud production is the ability to copy and paste complete workflows once you’ve created a template that works for you. You can take the workflow you’ve used for one show and re-create it for another event while using another data center. It allows you to spin up multiple productions and multiple events without having to worry about starting over every single time.
Final distribution is another benefit of cloud production. If you’re going to streaming destinations, whether overseas or domestic, final distribution is definitely easier in the cloud. You’re already on the internet. You can’t get any closer to it.
Disadvantages of Cloud Production
As for disadvantages of moving production to the cloud, there are a few. Getting familiar with a production workflow based on GUI access, as well as figuring out what your inputs are and how they get there, along with outputs and how to get them out, can be challenging. It’s not as quick or as easy as saying, “There’s an SDI plug, let me plug it in,” or, “There’s an SDI output, let me pull out of it.” Control interfaces are also a bit different.
Root cause analysis, whenever a problem happens, is much harder in the cloud. It’s usually not as simple as, “Oh, that cable is unplugged.”
Likewise, training and operations in this new world are definitely among the disadvantages, simply because not everybody is as a fluent in using the cloud as they are in on-prem production. Not everybody knows their way around TeamViewer. After a year of being in a pandemic, you’ll definitely find more producers and operators who are familiar with distributed workflows, but you should expect to have to spend some time training and teaching better operations.
Finally, last-mile connectivity is definitely crucial. It’s tied in with the training, in that what anyone new to cloud production thinks is great internet for watching Netflix or watching videos on YouTube may or may not be adequate in a situation when you’re trying to maintain a live video feed for confidence monitors and the like.
Complete Cloud Production Solutions
There are several complete cloud production solutions available, including StreamYard, Restream Studio, Grabyo, Shoflo Studio, Grass Valley AMPP, Vizrt Flexible Access, Sony Pro Virtual Production, and Chyron PRIME Live Platform.
StreamYard (Figure 1, below) is definitely one of the most popular, easiest-to-use systems out there. It’s completely web-based and enables you to bring in people through WebRTC or Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) streams and do mixes and graphics—all the basic stuff.
Figure 1. StreamYard’s browser-based cloud live streaming solution
Restream has a new module called Studio (Figure 2, below), which is very similar to the StreamYard approach. Grabyo is another web-based solution. Shoflo Studio is something new in the market, and it’s actually doing very well and adding more and more features, moving the company in a different direction from its roots with the Rundown production flow tool.
Figure 2. Restream Studio
One of the bigger companies in the broadcast space, Grass Valley, offers AMPP, which was initially launched in April 2020 for companies in the esports market, where it’s in continuous use, as well as serving many other customers, such as TV network enterprises and the corporate world. Another large broadcast company operating in the cloud production space is Vizrt. Its Flexible Access solution suites include Viz Vectar Plus and the Viz Engine for graphics. I understand that Vizrt plans to add a replay element soon as well.
Chyron is offering the PRIME Live Platform (Figure 3, below), which is another online, complete mixing, video, and audio solution. A year ago, we had two or three cloud production platforms, but the number of options available now demonstrates that technology companies are definitely paying attention to the growing migration of production workflows to the cloud.
Figure 3. Chyron PRIME Live Platform
Cloud Hardware Control Solutions
Another key part of moving to the cloud is controlling your cloud production. There are several cloud hardware control solutions available, but without a doubt, the Elgato Stream Deck (Figure 4, below) currently tops the list.
Figure 4. Elgato Stream Deck
I never leave home without a Stream Deck. I have two in my backpack now, and I keep another set on my desk. They’re very flexible and easy to use.
I also use X-Keys programmable keyboards, and IP-based controllers from Skaarhoj. They’re very easy to use in the cloud because you can just point those IPs directly to your hardware or through VPNs, if you need to go that route for security purposes.
Another up-and-comer that just appeared a year ago is Central Control (Figure 5, below). Developed by MediaMonks’ Joe De Max, the Central Control software allows you to tie together multiple controllers—even older hardware controllers that you have laying around from previous video switchers and such—and translates the control messages to devices in the cloud.
Figure 5. Central Control from CentralControl.io
Bitfocus’ Companion offers another great way to tie in with a Stream Deck or other controllers. Good old-fashioned touchscreens provide another viable option. Personally, I find touchscreens more challenging to use for cloud hardware control. I can only recommend touchscreens for long-term use in a cloud environment or a master controller-type environment.
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