Imagine Communications – During the transition from ground to cloud, a hybrid approach to playout offers the best of both worlds
Brendon Mills, General Manager, Playout & Networking, Imagine Communications
While the shift from ground to cloud playout is well under way, there are several roadblocks on the path to a fully cloud-based infrastructure that will leave the broadcast industry in a transitional phase for years to come. Here, we delve into those obstacles and propose a hybrid approach for this interim period that allows broadcasters to continue utilizing their existing on-premises equipment, while reaping the benefits of cloud technology.
A quick primer on traditional on-premises and cloud-based playout
With traditional on-premises video playout, dedicated software and hardware — servers, storage devices, controllers, and other equipment — are installed and maintained within a broadcaster’s facility. These components handle the various aspects of content playout, including ingest, storage, merging multiple video feeds into a single stream, ad insertion, scheduling, encoding, and transmitting media content via terrestrial, satellite, or the internet. The entire playout workflow, from content preparation to transmission, requires an extensive physical infrastructure and a large team of dedicated staff to operate it.
Conversely, with cloud playout, the functions traditionally performed by physical hardware are virtualized and hosted in the cloud on platforms like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud. By leveraging the cloud, broadcasters can streamline their playout workflows, dramatically reduce infrastructure costs, and easily scale their operations to accommodate changing demands — all while enjoying the benefits of remote collaboration, enhanced accessibility to content from multiple locations, and exceptional efficiency in content generation.
Cloud-based playout isn’t without its drawbacks
With the introduction of cloud technology — and the considerable excitement it generated — it’s easy to see why many in the broadcast industry assumed that playout would quickly transition to the cloud and render on-premises systems obsolete. However, while cloud-based playout systems offer numerous advantages over their ground counterparts, they aren’t without their own drawbacks.
One area of particular concern is the increased latency associated with cloud-based operations. Transmitting data over networks introduces latency, as does processing at remote cloud servers, encoding and decoding processes, and the monitoring and feedback loop. And for broadcasters that require seamless live feeds, even a delay of a fraction of a second is considered unacceptable.
Another issue is that cloud-based playout systems rely heavily on stable and reliable internet connectivity. Any disruptions or outages in the internet connection can impact the ability to access and control playout operations. Especially in regions with unreliable internet infrastructure, this dependency introduces a level of vulnerability. Also, cloud-based playout systems often come with predefined features and configurations, which limit the level of control and customization that broadcasters have over their playout workflows.
Additionally, while cloud playout reduces infrastructure costs, it introduces other costs — primarily related to cloud service subscriptions and data transfers. Video content, especially in high resolutions like 4K, requires a substantial amount of data for transmission — a typical compressed channel operates at 15Mbps. To meet broadcasters’ standards for delivery without interruptions or glitches, service providers like AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure have to provide a flawless data pipeline, which comes with a hefty price tag.
Finally, most cloud playout offerings are based on OPEX-oriented subscriptions or SaaS cost structures. While it is possible to procure and capitalize the software licenses for cloud infrastructure, the compute, storage, and ingress/egress charges for cloud services are an ongoing and costly expense, especially for UHD content. On-premises infrastructure commercial terms are much easier to capitalize, and the software licenses tend to be perpetual as opposed to subscription or SaaS. In times of global economic stress, broadcasters can feel more comfortable with capitalizing infrastructure costs and limiting ongoing OPEX charges.
The solution: taking the best from both worlds
For cloud playout, the technology to replicate all the critical requirements of on-premises systems is still evolving. So instead of trying to make the switch to a completely cloud-based infrastructure now, Imagine Communications recommends that broadcasters take a hybrid approach that combines on-premises equipment for essential channels and cloud technology for less complex operations. Enabling a gradual transition from one operational world to the next, this concept allows broadcasters to optimize their existing capital investments in on-premises infrastructure — taking advantage of the low latency, high reliability, and full operational control provided by ground playout.
At the same time, they can leverage unique benefits provided by cloud technology, including lowering the costs of disaster recovery. To ensure seamless continuity in the event of equipment failure, broadcasters operate channels with a backup channel running simultaneously. If a failure occurs, the feed is instantly switched to the backup without any noticeable interruption or loss of video frames. When conducted on-premises, such recovery measures necessitate duplicate investments. By leveraging the cloud, however, broadcasters can establish and operate the back channel at a reduced cost while maintaining the necessary redundancy for uninterrupted broadcasting.
Imagine goes one step beyond traditional disaster recovery by enabling pooled backup channels via the Aviator Orchestrator unified management platform and its multi-site capabilities. The ability to pool backup channels lowers the cost of licenses and hardware requirements typically used by traditional disaster recovery. This pooled backup feature is unique to Imagine and offers a cost-effective way to enable hybrid playout disaster recovery.
For free ad-supported streaming television (FAST), which has been the hottest, headline-making acronym of the past couple of years, the cloud offers flexibility in content delivery that far surpasses on-premises systems. With cloud-based systems, all files — including pre-recorded shows and other content — are stored in the cloud, enabling seamless playback directly from the cloud itself. FAST channels can function autonomously with minimal playout monitoring — only requiring sporadic checks every two days or so — and allow broadcasters to extend their reach to a broader audience and increase revenue through additional advertising opportunities.
Cloud-based playout systems also offer broadcasters the opportunity to explore innovative channel concepts and specialized content delivery to provide a more immersive and tailored viewing experience for audiences. For instance, during major events like the Olympics, broadcasters can create pop-up channels that offer alternative camera views and unique perspectives. These channels can be set up quickly in the cloud and have a predetermined lifespan. Once the designated period is over, the channel can be easily deactivated. Additionally, broadcasters can create thematic channels — also known as specialty or niche channels — that focus on specific themes or content genres rather than offering a broad range of programming, providing a dedicated platform for viewers interested in a particular subject.
Eventually, the broadcast industry will complete its transition to a fully cloud-based playout infrastructure — the pieces are already starting to fall into place. For one, the cost of data transmission is decreasing rapidly and will continue to do so. Furthermore, in recent years, technological advancements like adaptive bitrate streaming, advanced video transcoding and compression algorithms, faster and more stable network connections, and more have made significant progress in meeting the broadcast industry’s requirements for flawless video playback. However, the stage between on-premises and fully cloud-based systems is still likely to persist for the next five to 10 years.
One reason for this is that the on-premises solutions already purchased by broadcasters have lifespans that can range up to 15 years, and the gradual depreciation of these existing investments needs to be taken into consideration. Financially speaking, it isn’t practical for broadcasters to simply abandon this equipment overnight when it still meets their needs. Furthermore, it will take time for cloud-based technology to catch up to and align with the full capabilities offered by today’s on-premises solutions. Latency issues alone will require significant technological advancements to overcome. In the meantime, adopting a hybrid approach allows broadcasters to leverage the benefits of both on-premises and cloud solutions, optimizing their operations and paving the way for the future of television broadcasting.