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Cloud playout: A win-win for costs and carbon footprint

Andy Warman, senior vice president of product, Imagine Communications, details how leveraging cloud infrastructure can reduce operational costs and help the planet at the same time!

The public cloud offers media companies new business opportunities and a chance to radically rethink some of the foundational choices in television distribution. At the same time, many media organisations — driven by remote workforces and workflow simplifications — are looking to consolidate broadcast centres or transition to smaller facilities, also enabled by systems modernisation. These two forces are conspiring in a way that has the potential to improve broadcasters’ bottom line, while also improving the carbon footprint of the television industry.  

Reduction in facilities and infrastructure

One lasting effect of the global pandemic is the sea change in workplace presence. Television production and operations teams learned to work remotely, in many cases from home, and the productivity was good. Many media enterprises were already in the process of reducing physical real-estate footprints even before the work-from-home trend, but WFH makes the economics even better — reducing the requirements for in-person office space significantly.

A similar transition has been underway in machine room spaces. As Moore’s Law scaling has steadily reduced the size and thermal load of computing and networking equipment, the equipment stack (and related power and cooling) required to produce a finished television channel gets smaller each year. These savings are only realised when operators transition to new equipment, which means the steps of reduction are quite large when they happen. This allows companies, as a byproduct of tech stack modernization, to reclaim and repurpose space once consumed by technology infrastructure — or simply take it off-lease entirely.  

Peak demand and steady demand

Television production and distribution is a combination of peak demand workloads and steady-state workloads. Linear channel playout is historically a 24/7 operation, requiring a seamless, uninterrupted solution. Resource consumption for these types of channels is predictable with little variation over time. But during high-viewership hours, it can be worthwhile to create multiple versions of channels with different advertising delivered to different viewers in regional or demographic splits — ramping up the resource footprint temporarily. Regional sports and news breakouts also drive up the number of concurrent playlists temporarily, as does systemic redundancy. 

Traditionally, technical infrastructures have been built to handle the worst-case demand — even though that demand only materialises a few days a year. This seeming inefficiency (or underutilisation) is often cited in making a case for cloud-based operations as a supplement to on-prem. It is easy to see the potential savings in finding the right mix of on-prem and remote/cloud operations if the technology platform allows a flexible mix of the two technologies.  

The goal of most operations teams is to optimise the high-revenue channels with complex advertising and last-moment schedule changes — especially where there is an operational workflow component such as studio and live integration — while using heavily automated, exception-driven (and increasingly cloud-hosted) deployment models for FAST and thematic (non-live) channels.

The cloud is a shared resource — of nearly infinite capacity

The public cloud is built and maintained to serve the largest cross-section of potential customers from a vast array of industries, which all have different needs and goals. It is built to be shared, securely, including sharing enormous amounts of network bandwidth. The public cloud is also inherently “remote” from the users, the content, and the distribution point of view. 

The public cloud gets its operating efficiency from scale. Users leverage the cloud provider’s dedicated teams who deal with maintenance, system refreshes, security and all the other services that would normally require support from local staff. These cloud provider resources are shared by all users of the cloud platform. 

Famously, the public cloud is pay-as-you-use; you do not have to engineer for peak usage — indeed, each day can define a new peak. Being able to use the cloud for peak-demand operations and business continuity means your local plant does not need to dedicate space, power, air conditioning or racks of equipment to the peak demand, but only to the steady-state demand. This provides real, measurable savings in capital, power, and of course real estate.

How much can you save?

How much you can save and how much you can reduce your environmental impact by using the cloud will depend on the mix of channels you plan to run there and what you will continue to run on-prem. Some systems are best left running on-prem, while others are well-suited to the cloud. A growing number of users place their high-value linear channels and critical redundancy systems on-prem, but use the cloud for DR, FAST channels, occasional use, and special and live events.

In practice, you should plan for hybrid environments that let you mix on-prem systems and the cloud in a way that works best for your business. 

For many users, the greatest benefit of the public cloud is the ability to turn resources on and off as needed. Couple this with the fact that you are effectively outsourcing compute, storage and networking to the provider, and the benefits multiply: the ability to quickly take channels on and off line; a reduction in on-prem equipment to manage and run operations, along with the space, HVAC and maintenance savings that go with it; and the capacity to adapt over time to most effectively use your on-prem and cloud resources.

Regardless of your current or future plans for cloud, it is a valuable and effective tool to take up the slack when playout channels need to be ramped up and down. You can use its shared resources and metered pricing to control your own costs. And it opens the door to consolidating multiple facilities to a smaller number of locations — taking a critical step toward reducing your carbon footprint.