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IBC2014: Notes from the show floor – Time to de-cloud the cloud

Time to de-cloud the cloud

If you only take one word away from IBC2014, then that word is almost certainly going to be “cloud”. Which would be fine, if anyone really knew what cloud means in the context of electronic media.

It is very different in the world of IT. If you are a bank, or a bus company, or a government department, then cloud computing has a clear meaning. You sign up to use software as a service, then your computer becomes a dumb-ish terminal accessing processing and storage in someone else’s building.

“That works fine when you are dealing with bus tickets or bank transfers or passport applications,” says the broadcast sceptic. “But we deal with vast files and moving them to and from the cloud takes away the benefits of software as a service.”

Virtualisation

That has some truth. Which is why I think we need to be clear about what we really mean when we talk about the cloud. If not, we risk a really powerful concept failing because of a stigma attached to “cloud”, which is not really justified.  For now, at least, the first instances will likely not be the public cloud, but in fact the cloud-like systems in our own infrastructures. Some call it virtualisation: an eco-system for storage and processing which can be shared across multiple functions.  In simple terms, we fill a rack or two with processors and disk drives, and then we use them for whatever tasks are needed. It is exactly the same concept as the public cloud, except the hardware is relatively nearer to hand, residing in the local IT department.

Elastic

Why do we even want to do virtualisation? I asked someone who is not a broadcast sceptic: Stephen Smith of Imagine Communications. He explained that it is because it makes infrastructures flexible. “Priorities and workflows change in broadcasting,” he said. “In the old days, changing what we do involved capital expenditure, and lots of engineers rebuilding racks and rewiring hardware. In a virtualised environment, we just drag and drop a few boxes on our workflow manager, and maybe re-set the priority rules. That’s it. Job done.”

With virtualisation, even setting up a complete new channel can be done in hours rather than months. The greatest benefit of software as a service is that it is elastically scalable. Peak demands are easily met.  Even better, the media is not restricted to a geography, which opens up a whole new world for monetising the content.

Familiar

“But broadcast operators know how to operate broadcast kit,” says our reluctant-to-change sceptic. “All these IT ideas mean we have to learn a new skill set.”

Well no it does not, or at least it should not. What smart vendors are doing is using virtualisation to abstract the technology from the user. The job remains the same, so there is no reason for the controls to do the job to change. All that happens is that somewhere behind, say, a router control panel, there is a layer which takes the operation that is comfortable for the user and translates it into something the software-enabled virtual device understands.

“Ultimately,” according to Imagine Communications’ Smith, “in a multi-channel playout centre, a single operator will be able to monitor and control channels, some of which will be running on traditional broadcast hardware and some of which will be in the private or public cloud. We are on a journey here, a transition from one sort of infrastructure to another. We are here to make it a pleasant journey.”

by Dick Hobbs, consultant and writer on television and communications technology