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Inside Microsoft’s Cloud-Based Partner Ecosystem

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One of the bigger pieces of news coming out of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference in Las Vegas last week was Microsoft's announcement that it had created a cloud-based partner ecosystem for media and entertainment companies.

This ecosystem is built on the Windows Azure platform, allowing media and entertainment companies to build complete digital workflows in the cloud. Several partners demonstrated their own Azure-based solutions at the show.

The Azure cloud computing platform includes six massive data centers in North America, Europe, and Asia, says Jake Winett, Microsoft's director of industry solutions for media and entertainment. Each one includes tens of thousands of servers, all built in a modular fashion. Servers are housed in hermetically sealed containers the size of shipping containers. Microsoft handles all the needed patching and maintenance. When a server fails, Microsoft simply removes the whole container and drops in a new one, destroying all the data stored on the old disks. It's takes 24 hours for a new module to spin up, says Winett.

One advantage of a cloud-based system is that customers pay for only the computing power they use. Even for companies that have their own on-premises solution, it's a useful option for when demand spikes.

The Partner-Based Approach

With its NAB announcement, Microsoft is bringing the entire video workflow to the cloud, thanks to more than a dozen partnerships, allowing customers to use only the cloud services they require or string services together. All the partner applications are coded for Azure and can seamlessly communicate with each other. 

Some of the starting partners include Digital Rapids (for encoding and transcoding), Harris Broadcast Communications and Arvato Digital Systems (for cloud-based content management), Aspera (for content delivery), and BuyDRM (for content protection). That's just the beginning, though, says Winett. Look for another wave of partners to be announced at IBC in September.

With this partnership program, Microsoft is targeting the major broadcasters, publishers, and film studios: companies that need to work with large files or a large volume of files. Print publishers now going online is a rich area, says Winett, as they often don't have the resources that film studios do to create in-house solutions.

Naturally, there are cost savings in going online. Winett points to a case study on the Microsoft site that tells how the Tribune Company is saving $1.5 million annually by switching to the Azure platform.

"This brings the power of the cloud, true economies of scale, into our customers' workflows. It lets them think more about the products and services they want to bring to their customers and less about hardware," says Winett.

Digital Rapids

One of the partners, Digital Rapids, sees the Azure partner ecosystem as a way to extend the services of its on-premises solutions. Many of its customers have a significant hardware investment and don't want to give that up, says Mike Nann, Digital Rapids' director of marking and communications. Plus, many prefer to handle long transcoding jobs in-house, to avoid upload delays. For them, going to the cloud is a convenient way to scale up during data spikes.

At NAB, Digital Rapids showed off a pre-beta of its hybrid offering, one that will let customers take advantage of the Azure platform. For Nann, the real benefit of the platform is the way that partner applications work together.

"We're already working with many of these same companies to make sure there's compatibility with our on-premises solutions. By being on the Azure platform there's an inherent compatibility and integration by virtue of the fact that we're working with the same components from Microsoft," says Nann.

The full hybrid offering should be available around IBC. The company might be able to discuss future offerings at that time, Nann hinted. A solution that's completely cloud-based seems like the natural next step.

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