A+E Networks UK, partners with over 360 operators, and has offices in London, Warsaw, and Johannesburg. A joint venture between Hearst and Sky, the UK team employs 180 staff, with 28 team members based at its technical operations hub in London. The London office handles media operations, engineering, post-production and project management. A+E Networks UK, has a portfolio of popular, high-performing and creative brands such as HISTORY, Crime+Investigation, Lifetime, HISTORY2 and UK free to air channel, BLAZE.
A+E Networks UK has been working with 7fivefive, service-led systems integrator, for over four years to enable a complete redesign of its network infrastructure. 7fivefive’s support has grown over this time to incorporate production IT, storage and post production facilities.
When A+E Networks UK moved to Hammersmith from its previous Sky location three years ago, 7fivefive was the core provider to refit its post-production facility. 7fivefive built a number of edit suites and workstations, but restrictions on physical space were limiting A+E Networks UK’s capacity. After 7fivefive introduced the concept of remote editing, A+E Networks UK invested in 10 workstations and this became a key part of the team’s workflow. Team members could use low powered laptops for day to day work, but when a higher-powered machine was needed, they connected remotely to one of the 10 workstations.
As early adopters of this infrastructure A+E Networks UK found it invaluable. As Matt Westrup, VP of Technology and Operations for EMEA explains; “The editors saw no difference working remotely. When we reached capacity at our facility, they could either dive into a remote edit station on-site or opt to work from home. The whole team adopted it seamlessly, there was no learning curve, because it mirrored the on-premises setup they were used to.”
An Unprecedented Situation
A+E Networks UK was then challenged in a way that no-one could have predicted. As the cases of Covid-19 increased and a UK lock-down scenario appeared more likely, the team started to assess potential options. Understandably A+E Networks UK’s first priority was the safety of its staff but as with many companies, implementing a business continuity plan in unprecedented circumstances was daunting.
The biggest challenge was to ensure the continuity of the existing on-premises post environment, to support compliance & re-versioning, as well as maintaining the creative output critical to A+E Networks UK’s brands. The editors had to continue delivering an extremely high standard of output, but their working from home situations were incredibly varied. Any solution needed to be implemented extremely quickly. Fortunately, A+E Networks UK had a great foundation in place, it was just a question of scale. 7fivefive enabled it to quickly expand the number of users that could simultaneously access higher-powered machines, as well as provide extra capacity for home users to work as they would in the office.
A Quick Solution
No organisation had the business continuity plans to fully manage the impact of a global pandemic. However, A+E Networks UK was well positioned to expand on its existing infrastructure. Having already taken the initial steps towards a remote setup, the team was able to focus on its priorities and swiftly put emergency measures in place.
Within eight days, 7fivefive deployed 16x GPU accelerated virtual machines which provided the same user experience as A+E Networks UK’s existing physical edit machines but only needed one VMware host for four of the GPU accelerated virtual machines.
In addition to this setup 7fivefive deployed 10x non-GPU accelerated virtual machines for users that did not have an editing requirement. This allowed the users to access assets and internal systems from home as they would in the office. The team also made use of companion technology such as Microsoft Teams to recreate an attended edit session and maintain a collaborative working environment.
A+E Networks UK has been operating remotely for the duration of the lockdown and working at the edges of what’s possible. Reassessing the entire nature of the disaster recovery environment.
Westrup reveals how they managed the change; “The key is to take a step back and be pragmatic, no business was prepared for this. This situation didn’t resemble any of the business continuity planning we’d previously undertaken. Ultimately our approach needed to be people focused, there is no point implementing solutions that don’t take your team into account.”
In the space of eight days, 7fivefive had almost quadrupled A+E Networks UK’s capacity, enabling the entire creative team to work from home with a virtual setup. The nature of the unexpected circumstances meant responding quicker than ever before. Fortunately, A+E Networks UK had a clear-sighted approach, ringfencing priorities and supporting their staff during the transition.
As Westrup explains; “The person I worked most closely with internally was the HR director and it was the best decision I could have made. Normally we work within a very rigid booking process, but we had to give our team the flexibility to figure out the timings that worked for them. This meant that they could adapt their working day around their specific needs. Our team was working in all sorts of different situations; some were in flat shares, with only a bedroom to work in, others were working in the kitchen with toddlers or trying to fit home-schooling around their tasks for the day. It’s a uniquely sensitive situation, and we’ve had to be prepared for people who may fall ill or for them to care for ill people in their household. Despite all this, our team has maintained an unbelievable level of professionalism. Our VP of Creative noted that the quality of work actually increased despite these new circumstances and limitations.”
A+E Networks UK continue to operate under the mantra of Reduce, Replace and Rethink – identifying current priorities and the next steps to take. The advantage of a virtualised on-premises infrastructure is that it’s tried and tested. However, if anything happens in the server room and the support team are unable to access the building, then that presents a bigger problem. The next evolution is a purely cloud-based workflow. In the second phase of its remote transition, A+E Networks UK will begin to build in this option, further strengthening its disaster recovery environment. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the team continues to focus on managing technology led change, during these exceptionally unpredictable times.