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Heading Up to Cloud Storage

What you need to consider before making the move.

There is no avoiding it. Most everything these days is gravitating to the cloud. For broadcast and cable providers, moving content to the cloud from dedicated appliances seems to be the current trend, but is now the time to make the move? Cloud storage offers some distinct advantages, but you’ve got to appreciate the scope of what is involved to determine what the pros and cons can actually be.

For broadcasters, “Cloud storage gives users the ability to maintain content and assets from multiple sources in a common repository that multiple users or multiple sites can access, to deliver content to multiple outlets from a single repository, and to deliver content to multiple cloud-based distribution networks or CDNs at once,” according to Alex Grossman, vice president for media and entertainment at Quantum, a San Jose, Calif.-based provider of data storage and cloud solutions.

Alex Grossman, Quantum

“Right now we really see cloud services accelerating,” he says. “It’s not simply the promise of lower costs through the move to a more OPEX-oriented cost model, but also the fact that a greater number of broadcasters will embrace single-point delivery from the cloud, with storage and compute resources working together in an automated workflow. The role of CDNs and aggregators also will change as large-scale enterprise cloud providers move into the media space.”

Cost, Scalability and Reliability

As you begin to dive into cloud storage, several factors immediately come into play. Using dedicated on-premise appliances can cause cost ramp-up when it’s time to expand, and often these solutions need to happen in large leaps. When storage devices are reaching their maximum capacity, the next item is a capital expenditure that can be quite significant. You need to estimate for the future, but scoping out appliance solutions can be a tricky proposition. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of cloud storage is being able to scale up, or even scale down—on a continuous basis—your needs for content production. Archiving and VOD serving can fluctuate widely; cloud storage offers the option to basically pay for what you need.

Another key point is maintenance and backup. Current appliances need to be maintained for reliability and often require expensive hardware repairs or cyclical license costs. Cloud storage can erase a lot of that ongoing complexity. But choosing what type of cloud storage can be tricky.

“There are primarily three cloud models: public cloud, where storage is abstracted to a service such as Amazon/Microsoft; private cloud, where storage is hosted by a customer at their own IT department; and private distributed cloud, where storage is distributed among multiple locations in an enterprise but available to all,” according to Mike Palmer, vice president for the news division at Masstech, a Markham, Ontario-based provider of media archiving, sharing and asset management systems.

Palmer advises that a private distributed cloud is often a better option for broadcast use. “Private distributed clouds offer the benefit of long-term scalability and resilience with the ease of expansion,” he says. “In the current broadcast environment, where stations are more frequently being bought and sold, the ability to keep a station’s content in a discrete storage location is important, as oftentimes this content may be considered part of the assets of a station. Also key is the ability to interconnect a number of these locations in such a way that they appear to be a single larger repository. Local segments of the aggregated, distributed content repository inherently have both greater local reliability and greater local value.”

One factor that needs to be addressed upfront is the pricing model on usage, says Ray Baldock, consultant at Baldock and Associates in Sacramento, Calif., who specializes in broadcast technology strategy. “Remember, pricing models need to be selected based on the expected usage, but this may not be apparent when the content is initially uploaded,” he adds. “Pricing based on frequency of access or I/O bandwidth can all too easily reveal surprises down the road.”

Security is another key element that must be addressed, and even in this instance, offloading that element to a third party can free up a lot of cycles that typically would be handled in-house. Cloud storage security is a primary requirement of all cloud-based services, and often it’s a better and less expensive option than what can be accomplished by a production or broadcast facility.

François Quereuil, Aspera

In fact, many do not see a lot of downside to moving to the cloud. François Quereuil, senior director of worldwide marketing for Aspera in Emeryville, Calif., an IBM company that deals in large amounts of data to and from the cloud, clearly sees the benefits. “I would say that there are no real challenges in the cloud when it comes to security, reliability and scalability,” Quereuil says. “Cloud infrastructures are immensely scalable by nature, security is an absolute requirement, and all providers have the highest standards in terms of reliability, since they are dedicated to operating their infrastructure and nothing else. The uptime is far greater than what any broadcaster could ever achieve on their own. Now the main challenge is data transport to take advantage of all the benefits of the cloud. Large volumes of data need to be moved to and from remote cloud infrastructures in practical time frames.”

But Quereuil believes there are many options now that provide a far greater benefit than in-house technology. “Existing TCP-based transfer technologies [such as HTTP or FTP] do not provide the level of speed and performance required to take full advantage of the cloud’s promise,” Quereuil says. “At Aspera, for example, we leverage the wide variety of cloud storage out there, such as Amazon Web Services S3, Google Cloud, Windows Azure, IBM SoftLayer and many others.”

Computing and Transcoding

While cloud storage is compelling, the add-on of cloud computing may be even more enticing. Some files need to not only be stored but also transcoded/encoded. On-premises devices can do a lot of the heavy lifting, as long as they are upgraded often and can crunch down massive amounts of content.

But what if the processing power were more unlimited? More distributed? Cloud services can be the best place to spread out encoding and decoding over many systems in many different locations. Larry Thaler, president and founder of Positive Flux, a New York-based company that specializes in media strategy, says a lot of the advantages are here today.

“Content is available anywhere and can be shared between suppliers, team members and clients,” he says. “You get freedom from physical infrastructure that is expandable upon request. Many vendors offer transcode and CDN services. We are seeing that the next natural step is simultaneous use by workgroups, which can drive a location-free media production workflow. Perhaps input and output speeds and costs associated with this could stand to be improved for this method, but cloud-based storage and processing will continue to be nibbling at the edge of production/delivery for more distribution and acquisition.”

Decide What You Need

Larry Thaler, Positive Flux

Are there any downsides to cloud storage? The primary one that comes up is lack of control. While cloud storage frees up a lot of resources for broadcasters and cable providers, it does mean giving up a fair amount of control over hosted content.

Quantum’s Grossman says customers should progress slowly. Despite the fact that cloud storage can potentially reduce costs and complexity for broadcasters, there are some drawbacks they should consider.

“The current crop of cloud providers has designed offerings for developers, and most cloud storage services are engineered for long-term storage,” Grossman says. “At the same time, the cloud OPEX model offered by most providers is designed for longer-term archive rather than short-term transactional production, so broadcasters should carefully consider and model with both usage and costs based on a broadcast workflow before jumping into public cloud deployment.”

All in all, security, uptime, scalability, reliability, network speed and many other factors that can be strictly controlled in-house become elements handled by someone else. It could be unnerving, but with the right partner aligned with your core goals, it could really streamline an operation. It would almost certainly prevent many of the headaches dogging providers today, so investigating the offerings cloud storage can provide could be a very smart move.