Not Just Another Cloud Story
Cloud computing is one of the biggest shifts in technology adoption of the last decade. Across the globe, millions of enterprises large and small are shifting on-prem applications servers into the cloud and SaaS-based alternatives at a rapid rate. According to International Data Corporation (IDC) Semi-annual Public Cloud services spending guide, global spending on public cloud services and infrastructure will more than double over the 2019-2023 forecast period, growing from $229 billion in 2019 to nearly $500 billion in 2023.
In recent years, adoption of cloud computing has grown significantly in the media and entertainment industry, and notable cloud champions include Netflix, which extensively utilizes the cloud to serve its 125 million subscribers. However, most of the cloud adopters in the media and entertainment industry have tended to be on the content delivery side while traditional broadcasters, production houses, and content creators have been slower to the move to the cloud. So even with the cloud's clear benefits—lower CAPEX, outsourced IT departments, faster implementation, and the flexibility to scale up and down at will—why has content production lagged behind other industries when it comes to cloud adoption?
Color Me Cloud
Part of the issue is that many vendors have jumped on the cloud bandwagon with products that, when you peel back the covers and marketing messages, are not genuinely "cloud native." It may say cloud on the tin, but these legacy platforms do not take advantage of the inherent state of the art technology and flexible business models that the public clouds represent, and as such, offer limited benefits.
Cloud-based video production solutions have been used for nearly a decade across sports and news. Major sports technology providers such as Deltatre, cable networks such as A+E Networks, and even the consumer fitness brand Peloton have all adopted the technology.
Cloud-based video production is all about freedom. Freedom from being in a fixed location, freedom from bespoke hardware and proprietary systems, freedom to work on live or file-based media and freedom to have a cloud, on-prem or a hybrid workflow. The decisions are left up to the customer.
When Blackbird launched cloud computing was barely acknowledged in the M&E sector. Over a number of years, we created an incredibly responsive professional grade video editing platform that scales in a browser. The secret sauce is that we also developed the codec. You can securely log in through your browser and have a fully featured professional editing suite at your disposal. It has always been very bandwidth efficient and requires connection of only 2MBps to deliver a functional, remote editing solution.
Although delivering on freedom and individual choice for our customers is what drives us, a happy by-product of this is the incredible speed generated by harnessing the clouds power intelligently. At launch, the first wave of innovative Soho based post-production customers recognized this. Not only was running a full-scale Avid or Adobe editing suite massive overkill for certain everyday tasks but the Blackbird codec also allowed supervising producers and story-board editors insanely fast access to vast quantities of reality TV content. And our lean approach helped us carve out a niche, picking up a few marquee customers, like ENVY and Halo that grew with us.
Remote Work Surge
Fast-forward to today. The number of customers using cloud-based production is measured in the hundreds and demand has spiked recently as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in editors working from home either by choice or through restrictions. Although the wider market has now swelled, this sector is still split between prosumer tools and only a handful of professional-grade video editing platforms. Of the higher end video editors though, only Blackbird runs in a browser, on low bandwidth, on a laptop.
The "professional grade" tag is earned by a whole host of features such as access to live streams including RTMP, HLS and SDI inputs along with frame-accurate video navigation, complex video and audio transitions and support for tens of video and audio tracks plus multiple output streams. For broadcasters, the ability to generate subtitles and Closed Captions to comply with international standards is an absolute must.
However, feature list compatibility with a traditional editing suite such as Adobe Premiere or Avid in and of itself misses the point of pivoting to the cloud in many cases. For many use cases where speed, user flexibility and cost effective scalability across corporations are important—the cloud should aim to address pain points to offer a more elegant solution.
Best Fit for Cloud
And this highlights the biggest challenge. Although marketers may disagree, the notion that the cloud will benefit every kind of content production workflow is not entirely true. In practice, the cloud is fine for a lot of media workloads, but every time large chunks of video flow in and out of a public cloud there is a delay and a cost for egress.
Many video editing platforms have wrapped themselves in cloud colors and essentially taken existing software designed for on-premise editing suites and virtualized it in a public or private cloud. The software comes with other constraints that can be overcome with their own complexity and cost. In addition, these traditional workloads transplanted to the cloud require a much higher bandwidth to handle what is effectively a file-based process. The result is more preparation time to move assets into the cloud leading to an editing process that is sluggish at best.
Instead, a progressive approach starts with the use case and works to a solution instead of trying to shoehorn technology that does not fit. For example, innovators such as the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) that have access to an array of traditional editing suites choose to use Blackbird instead for tasks such as fast turnaround clips that can be posted on social video platforms during ad breaks as well as the creation of long form highlight reels. In this example, the lightning fast speed, scalable efficiency, and high quality feature sets are where true cloud production really shines.
The other issue is the notion of end-to-end workflow. Every time content needs to leave the cloud to be processed, there is potentially a delay or some associated cost. So increasingly, cloud centric video editing platforms are offering open API’s to enable other innovators such as Zixi, who specialize in transporting live content via IP, to embed more connected processes to work in unison
Yet there is still a challenge breaking through the cloud marketing messages that swirl around the industry. When we talk about cloud, we mean something slightly different than just taking a bit of software and running it in a virtual machine inside AWS. The reality is that almost any software can run in a virtual machine, the value is in the use case. Can you create a broadcast compliant, closed caption supported, fully voiced over news package – that mixes live, archive and graphics – with just a MacBook using basic hotel WIFI? If the answer is no, then you are not really enjoying the benefits of the cloud.
Production as a Service
A real-world example that highlights the potential from technical and business use case is TownNews, a company which offers a Blackbird-based video production service to circa 50 TV stations that output local news across America. The stations are shipped a cloud-edge server appliance that plugs into their network switch and acts as a local cache controller and VPN to offer secure access to Town News production environment that is hosted in the AWS cloud. Affiliates can rent as many licenses as they need, upload any footage they want to use into a cloud-based repository and news editors can now use any browser to capture, edit, voice over and publish broadcast quality video using a single set of tools.
At a technical level, the ingest supports all standard video formats such as MPEG based standards including XDCAM, MPEG2 H264 and other vendor specific formats in various wrapper types and the outputs can be conformed/rendered to multiple outputs, resolutions, frame sizes and aspect ratios to provide maximum flexibility for integration into existing workflows. Under the covers at a technical layer, the "secret sauce" that powers platforms such as Blackbird is intellectual property that includes a set of specialist networking protocols, video encoders and clever software design that allows it to operate at very low bandwidth on even a basic laptop or desktop.
Looking at the wider adoption of cloud within the production and broadcast sector, there is a sense of optimism that the new generation of true cloud native solutions are starting to come to market. Organizations that were unimpressed with the first generation of "cloud-marketing" solutions should really take another look, but it is worth asking the blunt question: How is this better than the legacy, on-premise alternative from five years ago? If response is vague or just focused on licensing costs, then it is probably another outdated product trying to wrap itself in the magical cloak of the cloud.
[Editor's Note: This is a vendor-contributed article from Blackbird. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]
Broadcasting has been behind streaming in its embrace of the cloud, but the rewards of making the switch can be significant. We talk to executives from service providers and broadcasters that have made the leap to learn from their experiences and get their advice.