As we continue to explore what workflow, storage & archive mean for professionals in media and entertainment, it helps to gain some perspective around how individuals and companies of all sizes handle these issues. So we talked with Ian Hamilton, CTO of Signiant, who has been an innovator and entrepreneur in Internet infrastructure and applications for more than 25 years.
For the past decade, Signiant has been focused on moving large media files securely, reliably and quickly over Internet protocol networks, and we wanted to get into what that does and doesn’t mean for organizations of all sizes. We discuss the sort of people who are pushing for change when it comes to workflows and process, the amazing scalability of their software products and plenty more.
ProVideo Coalition: As a founder of Signiant, you helped develop a product that was addressing the problem large media & entertainment companies were dealing with when it came to sending and delivering digital files. Do you still see companies struggling with those same issues today?
Ian Hamilton: There are known solutions with Signiant and with some of our competitors, so struggling might not be the best way to describe their current situations.
Initially, people struggled just to move the huge media files that they were working with over the Internet and Internet Protocol networks. The biggest challenge was that even when they allocated more bandwidth, whenever there was any kind of distance involved, the traditional mechanisms of moving files didn’t go fast enough. Really, their first challenge was simply getting the files over the network in the first place. As they scaled their operations and were managing more and more endpoints, their challenges turned into managing a large number of transfers and transfer endpoints at scale. To address this challenge people turned to centralized policy-based management. This approach also allowed companies to look at integrating the file transfer system with the systems on either end of the transfer, making a tighter connection with the applications that media professionals actually use.
Are the companies you’re talking about in that reference at an enterprise level or more of the small business type? Are there similarities between these scales?
Integration with existing systems was a progression that we saw our large customers going through, but when you get into small and medium business space, often the challenge they have is around simply getting a system up and going in the first place while trying to accomplish everything else they need to accomplish on a day-to-day basis. Across both the SMB level and enterprise level, we see that end users don’t want to have a detailed knowledge of file transfer technology. They want to do their job as media creatives and not worry about file transfer logistics, so we need to make it as simple as possible for them to do that. That’s one commonality we see across this entire spectrum. The similarities boil down to the fact that end users of all types in all different environments want simple solutions.
There’s always that chasm you have to cross when going from one process or technology to the next. You have your early adopters, and then your mainstream market. We’re in that phase of mainstream use of our technology where ease of deployment and simplicity of use is really a critical piece of what we do now.
That progress is key since, traditionally, deploying a solution like an accelerated file transfer solution was not a simple task. You needed to have relatively sophisticated technical support staff to make it all work. Now, because it’s so simple to get this technology up and running, we have everyone from three person post houses up to global organizations like the BBC.
Signiant certainly does have an incredible client list that goes from massive companies like Fox to genuine full service post production companies like Smoke & Mirrors. You already mentioned the big struggle you see across all of them is to make things simple for users, so in what way have you approached that endeavor?
People that work with the technology on a day-to-day basis don’t want to have to deal with complexity. They want to get their creative process complete. They want to get their business process complete. They really don’t want to learn a lot about the file transfer technology that they’re using.
So we’ve borrowed from consumer file sharing solutions in that regard. Steve Jobs once quoted Picasso and said, “good artists copy; great artists steal”, but in the context of borrowing from consumer file-sharing services, all we’ve done is taken the simplicity of user experience and made sure it was translated into a professional solution.
The features or capabilities that professionals need go far and above what your family needs to share pictures and documents. That said, it really should be just as simple for professionals, even though the files professionals are dealing with are orders of magnitude bigger, the bandwidths are higher and the timelines they’re dealing with are shorter.
What kind of role does automation play in that process of simplification?
Cloud technology is transforming every single industry. Media is certainly impacted by this, and it’s impacted in a positive way. When all of your media is in one place with a practically unlimited supply of compute resources available to operate on it, many processes can be dramatically simplified.
The challenge then becomes moving these huge media files into cloud storage, and dealing with them requires special transfer capabilities, but the more it can be hidden in the background so people don’t have to think about it, the better it is for users.
At some of these larger companies, challenges can arise in trying to refine a process, even if a better one is readily available. In that sort of environment, who usually takes leadership?
Traditionally, it’s been the IT groups in these large organizations that lead the process. They have their end users saying they need to be able to do certain things, and in order to do that there are a number of system integrations, software deployments, etc. that need to happen.
More and more now, we’re seeing these initiatives led by the business users themselves. With cloud technology and software as a service (SaaS), they don’t need as much technical integration to go on in the background. Our product is pretty much ready to use from purchase. There’s little software to deploy, and there’s no software to manage or update once you’ve setup your subscription. It’s a very simple step to being productive.
We’re seeing a shift from the IT groups to these users, and they’re getting better tools that meet their requirements through this shift. It’s a better process, because anytime you tell someone something and they tell someone else, there’s a little bit lost in translation. Working with and directly addressing the business users’ requirements is a shift that’s very beneficial.
Are these solutions scalable? Is that three-person post house using the same thing as an enterprise level organization, or are these solutions more nuanced?
Speaking specifically about our cloud-based products or our Media Shuttle product and our Flight product, we have designed them to be incredibly simple to scale.
One of the challenges if you’re a three-person post houses is that you might only need a portion of the server to run your workload, but you can’t really buy a portion of a server if it’s a traditional on-site software deployment. Similarly, if you’re a large organization you might need 100 servers one day and 150 the next day to support your workload.
The elasticity of the cloud and the multi-tenant capabilities of the cloud allow us to easily tailor to different workloads from the people who only need a fraction of the server through companies who need multiples of servers to do what they need. The whole process is also transparent.
On the pricing side, the business model also scales. The more people you have on the system, the lower your price per user.
What kind of cost savings are we talking about when you’re looking at optimizing the workflow for one of these larger clients? Is it seen more in the bottom line, or in terms of the time that isn’t spent doing things like uploading and downloading?
It’s a combination of both. There’s the value proposition of being able to do new things and a reduced total cost value proposition. There are certain timelines that just can’t be achieved using certain tools or processes. If you’re dealing with tapes or sending hard drives, you’re at the mercy of physical limitations. That increased business agility and ability to get things done is something our customers can immediately recognize.
If you looked at something like non-linear editing software and asked whether those tools enabled new business or reduced cost, I think you would say they do both. You can achieve new timelines and meet shorter deadlines that you couldn’t meet with traditional methods of editing and it’s also more efficient and productive. We provide a similar value proposition to our customers.
Even after things like the Sony hack, do you think enough people are talking about and concerned with security?
It has certainly cast a lot of light on the security issue. I can’t speak specifically to the Sony case, but you can’t rely on a single secure perimeter to keep people out. If the security of your organization is based on the assumumption that no one is ever going to get through your perimeter, as soon as they do get in they can go anywhere. So the visibility of that problem has been increased, and people are starting to think about secure design principles like defense in more depth.
Another pet peeve of mine is the question in security surveys that asks, “Is there a single point of responsibility for security in the organization?” That’s all well and good, but unless everyone in the organization is thinking about security to some extent, it’s going to be a struggle. Very simple actions by people that are well intentioned can cause huge problems. Obviously, an organizational advocate for security can help, but the idea that security is a shared responsibility across an organization is something that needs to be embraced by everyone.
So is that sense of responsibility a bigger problem than the specifics of a particular approach/system when it comes to security?
There’s a lot of focus around technical vulnerabilities with things like Heartbleed, Shellshock and whatever else, but the fact is many security issues start with a human being as a point of attack. This includes failings like giving out information or being tricked into doing something that they shouldn’t. It’s often not so much a misplaced sense of responsibility as it is not knowing. The weakest link in any security chain is usually the people in it.
What sort of feedback do you receive from some of your larger customers after they’ve made a needed process change?
Pretty much everyone says they can’t fathom going back to the way things were done before the process change. Digital, file-based, electronic…all the buzzwords about how our tools have changed really do make things easier and more efficient.
One thing that media companies are a bit challenged by is the fact that making it more efficient for them to do business also makes it easier for pirates to do business. That’s where policing and other content protection related topics come in. The Internet is an extremely efficient distribution and manufacturing engine for anything digital. Most of our customers are excited and thrilled to be able to take advantage of that.
Do you have any advice for the folks who know they need to change the way things are done in their organization, but aren’t sure where to begin?
A simple answer is to check out our solutions, but I’m not sure that’s the answer you want!
The best first step for anyone, regardless of what level in the organization they’re at or what they’re specifically trying to accomplish is to become educated on cloud and SaaS solutions. There are really effective ways to work more efficiently, and most of them work at any scale.
I think that we’re going see a huge revolution in the industry over the next few years, and of course we’ve already seen one. There will be many new SaaS file-based solutions that solve all sorts of problems, so it’s important to learn as much as you can about SaaS tools that are and will soon be available.