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Into the Cloud: Exploring the Next Generation of Video Services

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The media marketplace is changing rapidly, with many content creators streaming media to a growing spectrum of online, social media, and mobile outlets. There’s a wide variance in video quality, file sizes, and compression codecs; the sheer volume of media assets are simply exploding, leaving media professionals struggling to maintain a competitive edge.

As these pressures collide with other technology trends -- such as widespread internet connectivity, ever-increasing bandwidth, and powerful data centers -- the thunderclap has given way to the cooling rains of video cloud computing services.

By moving their video workload to the cloud, media entrepreneurs can hit the ground running and pay as they go for processing-intensive services such as encoding, transcoding, asset management, and storage. End users might pay per transaction, monthly subscription, or an annual fee. With a solid internet connection and web browser, the workplace can be the nearest cafe or virtually anywhere in the world with colleagues collaborating via the cloud.

The value proposition is that rather than having to make huge up-front capital investments in on-site hardware, such as servers, storage arrays, networks, and expensive, specialized software -- or constantly expanding or upgrading on-premises infrastructures -- end users can now just reach for the clouds.

What’s the Public Cloud?

To understand the topology and ramifications of the cloud for video, it helps to first become familiar with terms such as public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid cloud. A public cloud consists of computers, networks, and bandwidth resources -- based on the standard cloud-computing model -- which a few prominent service providers offer to the general public via the internet.

Public cloud providers -- such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Rackspace -- offer customers a way to use their global data centers for their storage or computing needs. In terms of cloud computing, the cloud services include Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) and Rackspace’s Cloud Servers. In terms of cloud storage, there are services such as Amazon S3, Rackspace’s Cloud Files, Microsoft's Windows Azure Storage, and Dropbox. Encoding.com, which offers a cloud-based video-encoding platform, has integrated its services with all of the services mentioned previously.

“If customers already uploaded their source video into the Rackspace cloud for storage, and they ask us to encode it, then we’re going to process it on the Rackspace cloud. If they’ve moved source video to Amazon S3, we’ll process it on Amazon, at the same data center,” says Greggory Heil, CEO and founder of Encoding.com.

“Customers are concerned about how long it’s going to take them to get their content from their premises into the cloud,” Heil says. “If customers have already migrated their media library to a particular cloud provider, for example Amazon, then they’re very apt to use our [Amazon-based] service. Then they don’t have any speed concerns about transferring large files to us because our cloud compute is very close to their cloud storage location,” he says. Cloud customers often use software such as Aspera, which optimizes the high-speed network transfer of large data files to facilitate cloud workflows.

Encoding.com user Revision3, which produces video programs including The Young Turks (seen on YouTube and other outlets), turns to Encoding.com to generate seven output renditions for each source video, including four .mp4 files ranging from 1280x720 down to 160x90, a .wmv rendition, a custom MPEG2 rendition for TiVo, and one audio-only version.

“Working with Encoding.com has enabled our production team to focus its energies on generating superb quality output while eliminating the cost and headache of managing encoding infrastructure in-house,” says Jim Louderback, Revision3’s CEO.

Revision3 uses Encoding.com to generate seven output renditions for each source video for shows such as The Young Turks.

Encoding.com also has a private cloud that is, itself, a small entrant into the cloud transcoding market. Encoding.com’s director of marketing, Brandon Goldberg, says, “The Encoding.com private cloud offers a unique value proposition in terms of speed, highly customized services, and an alternative to processing jobs via the cloud processing behemoths. Also, unlike Amazon or Rackspace, the Encoding.com Private Cloud is not publicly available for processing jobs other than those associated with our services as managed via an Encoding.com account. However, we are providing our customers with a third cloud processing option rather than requiring the involvement of a third party.”

What Are Private and Hybrid Cloud Models?

Many public cloud customers already have a private cloud, a proprietary group of servers, storage, and network devices they control for their own purposes. Private clouds were already performing encoding, transcoding, and other processing-intensive jobs before clouds came along. (Before the buzzword “cloud,” private clouds were virtual private networks (VPNs) and other such installations that allowed internet access.)

Hybrid clouds are ideal for managing burst capability. “The whole concept of cloud compute is that you can turn up high-volume computing capacity on demand -- with elastic capacity to burst to the cloud -- and be billed only for that time,” Encoding. com’s Heil says. When burst demand is there, that overflow can spill over to the cloud to manage workflows and productivity. And when demand hits a lull, customers don’t have the frustration of paying for costly capital equipment that’s just sitting idle.

Users can install their own private cloud on-premises or at third-party data center. There’s also a very popular option -- hybrid cloud -- where users seamlessly interface their on-premises private cloud service with a public cloud service for moving and managing large data between the public and private clouds with the utmost flexibility.

According to Yoav Derazon, director of product management at Harmonic, “When it comes to media processing in the cloud, many people debate the benefits of private cloud versus public cloud. [The] truth is there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Users may have different requirements that would favor the public cloud over the private cloud or vice versa depending on the workloads to be processed. The best approach is a combination of private and public cloud.”

Harmonic recently launched its ProMedia Carbon MP, a cloud-based service based on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Marketplace. It allows users to transcode file-based video content in the cloud on an hourly, pay-as-you-go basis.

Harmonic’s ProMedia Carbon MP is a cloud transcoding service based on the Amazon Web Services Marketplace; it allows users to transcode file-based content on an hourly, pay-as-you-go basis.

Harmonic’s Derazon says that for those applications where the cloud transcoding model makes sense, “[T]here are massive benefits. Buying fixed hardware and software to process content that is ‘bursty’ in nature is far less economical than the cloud-based model, which enables you to mobilize resources and use a more advanced pricing model tied to the actual use of the resources.”

Improved Productivity in the Cloud

While Dallas Audio Post (a sound-mixing and recording facility) offers specialized digital audio postproduction from its Carrollton, Texas, facility, 60% of its clients -- including producers of feature films, television shows, and commercials, as well as game developers -- are outside Dallas in locations across the U.S. and around the world. Daily, the company needs to send and receive very large files -- consisting of 1080p HD video and 48k stereo audio -- as part of its work to record, mix, and prepare audio tracks that editors can lay back to video programs.

“In the past, we relied on FTP transfers or used cloud-only file transfer services but found they were not easy for all clients to work with and large file transfers were very slow,” says Roy Machado, creative director, president, and owner of Dallas Audio Post. “Today, 90% of incoming files, and 100% of outgoing files, are sent via a hybrid cloud-based product from Signiant called Media Shuttle that efficiently accelerates and manages file transfers and sharing of hundreds of gigabytes of high-value content.”

Dallas Audio Post used to transfer files via FTP, but now it uses a hybrid cloud service from Signiant for 90% of its incoming files and all of its outgoing files.

Media Shuttle interfaces seamlessly with Dallas Audio Post’s on-premises Windows 7 Professional server, so file transfers can be initiated from a Dallas Audio Post website portal and delivered right to the local server without time-consuming uploads, downloads, or inefficient use of bandwidth. The cloud service provides the user interface for transfers and sends email notifications to recipients when files have been sent.

This workflow was indispensable when Dallas Audio Post booked a last-minute audio post session for a London-based production company that was producing several shows for the Animal Planet television network. Dallas Audio Post needed to rush hours of recorded narration for hourlong TV shows that the production company needed to begin adding to the video in time for the airdate.

“Media Shuttle moved the files in half the time that a cloud-only transfer service would have taken, there was no uploading, and files were immediately available for the London production team London to start using,” Machado says.

What About Cost?

When companies shift from maintaining their own on-premises infrastructure to using a third-party cloud service, they’re converting an up-front capital expenditure (CAPEX) to an operating expense (OPEX).

So, instead of buying servers, workstations, networking systems, or software to do a particular job -- such as transcoding, encoding, storage, or multiplatform distribution -- cloud services let companies hit the ground running and pay per-transaction or on a subscription basis.

“Media professionals need to do a cost/benefits analysis of owning, leasing, or renting,” says Jess Hartmann, CEO of Promax Systems, in Santa Ana, Calif. “If they can get three to four years out of their capital equipment, they’ll typically do better making the CapEx investment in terms of total cost of ownership. But if the market is changing, and they need to upgrade every two years, they’ll typically do better paying as they go.”

This was the situation facing Veria Living, a New York-based health and wellness media company that serves viewers across the Americas -- and soon the Middle East and South Asia. “If we built our own infrastructure for high-capacity storage and asset management, we would have had big capital costs to install and maintain the servers and other equipment, as well as high rent for a Manhattan location to house it,” says Unmesh Khadilkar, head of IT and broadcast operations for Asia TV USA Ltd., the parent of Veria Living.

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