M+E Daily

AWS, Fox and Alpha Tackle Trends, Challenges, Future of Broadcast in the Cloud

Broadcasters are migrating production workloads to the cloud seeking efficiency, flexibility, scalability, and the opportunity to re-invent their businesses, according to Amazon Web Services (AWS), Alpha Video and Fox representatives who spoke Aug. 31 during a virtual roundtable session that was part of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE)+ event “Migrating Media & Entertainment Into the Cloud: A Real-World Perspective.”

The panelists discussed trends and considerations around moving to the cloud while meeting the requirements of their unique broadcast applications, and gave their takes on the future of live broadcast video processing in the cloud.

We have seen “accelerated adoption” of the cloud by broadcasters, moderator Noor Hassan, a partner solutions architect at AWS, pointed out. Companies are trying to create more “customer-centric experiences” and the COVID-19  “pandemic really accelerated a lot of this and gave broadcasters a big push in terms of adopting the cloud faster,” she said.

Joel Williams, VP of architecture and engineering at Fox Corp., and Bryan Nelson, broadcast accounts manager at Alpha Video, agreed that the pandemic has accelerated broadcasters shifting to the cloud.

When Fox sold most of its entertainment properties to Disney, Fox had “been in the cloud for some time with our media supply chain and content and acquisition and processing and stuff like that,” Williams recalled. “Our CTO’s directive when that happened was to push the limits on how much stuff we can move into the cloud, what made sense, how can we be faster and agile – essentially being like a large start-up company and being able to greenfield a solution,” he explained.

That shift “kind of happened at the same time as COVID hit,” so Fox went from wanting to move to the cloud to having to move to the cloud” as everybody shifted to remote work, he said. Fox needed the cloud “to be able to continue using our normal workflows and delivering our channels to everybody – but from remote locations and make it seem like it’s the same experience for people at home,” he told viewers.

The cloud allows Fox to be “more agile,” he said, explaining: “We can spin stuff up. We can tear it down. We can test small things to make sure it’s actually relevant or not – if it’s going to work or not – without having to invest tons of time and money and energy. So that’s definitely a huge benefit going forward.”

Similarly, Bryan Nelson, broadcast accounts manager at Alpha Video, said “COVID kind of propelled us… I used to say about two years into the future – and I’m thinking it now propelled us maybe three to four years into the future” actually.

“It’s kind of funny that it was a natural progression where we were going to go already but I don’t think everybody knew that” was going to happen, according to Nelson. “If you were to ask people two years ago if they were going to go to the cloud, they’d be like, ‘No, that’s just something that’s not going to happen or so far out we can’t think of it.’ But then COVID happened and now we’ve proved that it can be done,” he said.

“We’re all going to end up in the cloud,” Nelson predicted. “Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we love it or hate it – we’re all going to end up there eventually.”

Advantages of the cloud include the expanded talent pool available to broadcasters, Nelson said, noting Fox, during the pandemic, “hired new people on staff that are around the country, so we have this geographically spread workforce” now.

“Now we’ve got this taste of our talent pool [being] global or at least regional – or anywhere in the country that I can get editors [or] production people, and people get spoiled with that,” according to Nelson.

“Now, if I need a graphics person, they might not want to travel. When it comes to remote contribution, if I have a CEO that I have to get in, he used to fly in to do something and now he got spoiled [from] being able to remote in from his office and have dinner with his kids,” Nelson explained.

“So we opened up the Pandora’s box and I don’t think at this point we can put the genie back in the bottle,” Nelson added.

Why Broadcasters are Moving to the Cloud Beyond COVID

The “overarching trend is that broadcasters are moving to the cloud to seek new ways to concentrate on their creativity so they can make great content that reflects their unique strengths, and also to be able to reinvent their businesses to either go seek new audiences, explained Thomas Edwards, principal solutions architect at AWS, who joined the company in January after spending 20 years working for broadcast companies.

Broadcasters also shifting to the cloud “to be able to better connect with their existing viewers” who crave more personalisation made possible by real-time data and analytics, he said.

“Going to the cloud is a natural way of trying to concentrate on the business that you do and how you’re going to re-invent your business in the long term,” he added.

“It’s clear to me that the value of content is maximised the faster you move that content to the cloud,” he said, explaining: “Once content is on the cloud, we process [it] in secure and scalable, elastic fashion, and you can monitor how that content is moving through the supply chain using workload management systems. And the content can then be analysed with powerful artificial intelligence applications to add to its value. It can be tailored with direct ad insertion, transcoded to ADR and then distributed by CDNs to end users over the Internet. There’s really just so much you can do. The faster you can get it to the cloud, the more value you’re going to get out of that content.”

Meanwhile, specifically, “on the broadcast side, broadcast play-out on the cloud is now becoming very mature,” he said, noting “there are over 1,500 channels being played out from AWS today.” At the same time, “encoding on the cloud is getting better and better,” he added.

The Future

Williams “would love to see as an industry standard, or a movement – whatever you want to call it – a better method of monitoring and control for things that are in the cloud,” he said.

Broadcasters can now hire an editor anywhere in the world, send streams in the cloud and do remote production, “but what happens when there is something wrong?” he asked. Noting that it’s hard to even figure out where to start when there is a problem, he said one has to try and figure out if the issue is “in the building, in the cloud or in the software” because of the “ever-increasing complexity.”

There is a need for “something across multiple vendors – multiple companies”— to resolve issues in the cloud, he said.

Licensing models are another issue for broadcasters, according to Nelson. “We put everything into the cloud but the vendors all have to get on the same page [on] how we sell this,” he said.

There are some cloud licenses an organisation can buy in which “it’s a perpetual one-time purchase and you own it and you can put it wherever in the cloud you want it,” he noted.

“There’s other vendors that are doing subscriptions so, even though we’re going to the cloud, we’re not completely getting out of capital expenditures and going to” operating expenses,” he said.

Nelson pointed to another issue: a need for “training customers not to do bad things.” For example, his company had a customer recently  “de-commission their old instances and then they called us up and said, ‘Hey, we want to re-commission and spin these up somewhere else.’ And we’re like, ‘Hopefully you unlicensed the systems before you completely shut down and eliminated that off the face of the earth.’”

Despite lingering challenges, Nelson predicted that broadcast in the cloud “will change the world.”