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How to Design an Automated Workflow

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There are also monitoring tools for continual streams. One of these, from a company called StreamGuys, is a clever, cloud-based service named IsMyStreamUp that allows users to configure alerts via a web-based dashboard.

“New customers simply create an account, enter the URL, and configure their contacts for receiving alerts,” a company posting notes. “IsMyStreamUp alerts the specified contacts via email the moment it detects a monitored stream or page has gone offline, and notifies them again when the stream or page is back up.”

Another type of monitoring tool measurement is the number of processing hours—or machines, if you’re doing an in-house workflow automation—required to process video assets. Most home-grown workflow solutions had been designed to measure performance against an hour’s worth of video, but the trend toward shorter or non-standard-length video assets means that your next-generation workflow automation should measure in minutes.

This is especially true if you’re planning to do multiple data rates or resolutions to offer adaptive bitrate (ABR) delivery to a wide variety of devices, since it’s feasible to have eight to 10 different transcodes for a single video asset. Minutes add up quickly, and you don’t want your solution to bog down when it’s trying to handle all of the possible permutations necessary for ABR or even for the different flavors of HTTP-based streaming delivery (Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) or the MPEG Dynamic Adaptive Streaming via HTTP (DASH)).

Clouding Up Your Workflow

While a number of workflow automation tools started out as on-premises products, typically for desktop and eventually for workgroup-sized operations, a more recent advancement has seen workflow options head to the cloud.

Telestream, which has long made the Vantage on-premises platform, now offers transcoding and workflow configurations in the cloud, thanks to a tight implementation with Amazon Web Services (AWS). While it doesn’t appear that Telestream uses the AWS Elastic Transcoder, probably due to the fact that Telestream has industry-leading transcoding software directly integrated into Vantage, the Telestream team uses the virtual domain component of AWS to create Vantage Virtual Domains.

Telestream splits its cloud-based pricing models in to three configurations: OTT, multi-format, and international.

The OTT offering allows Vantage customers to create multiscreen, adaptive bitrate (ABR) transcoding and packaging workflows in the cloud. All in all, it’s fairly simple stuff.

Should a customer desire to use traditional transport streams alongside OTT, the next service level (multi-format) adds a transport stream for broadcast, as well as content assembly. Finally, if a customer wants to deliver in an international market, the highest service level (international) “Adds frame rate conversion and DVB subtitle burn-in to Multiformat for European and North American format production from the same source material.”

The beauty of a cloud-based workflow isn’t just the ability to create nodes, sequences, and subsequent processing. Instead, it’s the ability to turn on service levels like the ones mentioned above, without having to stand up to significant complex servers that may also carry with them a sizable capital expenditure (capex). That’s not to say that cloud-based is the only approach, since customers could test features in the cloud before moving to on-premises equipment—either at their offices or even at a co-location facility to provide cloud-like scalability.

Qualifying Quality

Higher-quality output is one expectation that you should rightly have as part of your design and implementation of a workflow management solution. After all, why waste your time automating a solution that will yield poorer-quality output?

Workflow automation often gives you two quality checkpoints for assets that are passed through the workflow: spot checks and overall quality. Overall quality can be measured by human viewing, which is often critical to the first few passes through an automated workflow, or by particular metrics such as PSNR, SSIM, etc.

Beware of the use of a single set of transcoding settings or steps for all of your video assets. For instance, 1080i (interlaced) source content needs to be handled differently than 1080p (progressive) content. Even in 2017, there are examples of poor-quality encoding on the top-end OTT sites, even those that employ title-based encoding, where transcoding settings are customized to a movie title or single episode of a television show.

For live workflow automation, you’ll also want to implement a third type of quality checkpoint: quality of delivery (sometimes also called quality of experience, or QoE).

Video quality is a critical part of the viewer experience, and workflow automation companies are heeding the call to meet the needs not just of content owners but also of internet (OTT) broadcasters. I’ll use Telestream as an example again, since it recently acquired two video quality companies, IneoQuest and Vidcheck, as a way to illustrate the difference between the types of quality spot checks in a workflow automation.

“The recent acquisition of quality control (QC) technology specialist, Vidcheck, extended Telestream’s portfolio of solutions that facilitate the creation of high quality content by its customers,” Telestream stated in a March 9, 2017, press release. “The addition of IneoQuest technologies will enable Telestream to guarantee the quality of content delivered across managed networks or across the Internet.”

In other words, quality needs to be quantified and qualified at multiple points along your workflow, ideally starting at acquisition and ending at delivery.

Conclusion

In any workflow, there are dozens of moving parts.

As I’ve discussed in this article, not every streaming workflow management tool can handle every aspect of your workflow—nor are they designed to, since some focus on file-based assets and others focus on live streams. So I recommend working through your automation options in the sequential order laid out in this article.

At the outset, I highly recommend talking to several vendors and even trying the trial offerings that are easily available, but be careful not to substitute the feature list for your actual workflow design. Designing a workflow can seem daunting, but the good news is that the use of graphical flowchart apps and browser-based design tools allow you to design before testing.

Like the adage carpenters often use—“measure twice, cut once”— you’ll want to walk through at least two designs, and verify each workflow, before spinning up a pilot project or limited test run of typical video assets.

I recommend designing your first key workflow against mainstream use cases, because that’s more likely where you’ll find the biggest benefit in automating previously manual steps or processes. But experience also tells me that testing out several edge cases, prior to putting the workflow into even a pilot project or limited production, is an important and practical way to stress-test your workflow against the possible in-house and vendor-based automation tools currently available for VOD or live event streaming.

The beauty of trying out a cloud-based solution, even if you opt to use what you learn to enhance your own in-house solution, is that you can test any number of workflows without impacting your main production pipeline. Since these cloud-based workflows are used by a number of customers, you may also find it beneficial to take a hybrid approach: Use cloud-based workflows to deal with newer devices, compression options, or even delivery methods (WebRTC, HTTP, etc.) while solidifying in-house workflows to handle mature codecs and delivery methods.

Above all, make sure your workflow design accommodates quality checkpoints—whether they’re steps that require human intervention or fully automated, algorithmic QC options—so the time and effort put into automation yields not only faster results, but also higher-quality ones.

This article appears in the April/May 2017 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "How to Design an Automated Workflow." 

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