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The way in which media & entertainment professionals approach their production environments has been evolving over the past few years. Many have discovered not only the limitations of the traditional broadcast setup, but also the alternatives that now exist. Those alternatives are the sorts of things that Imagine Communications and HP are working together to enable for content distributors, aggregators and broadcasters operating in all segments of the industry.
The effort to deliver unprecedented scale, flexibility, performance and reliability to video production and distribution facilities come from an effort to move away from proprietary software. These efforts enable individuals and organizations to figure out what solution works best for them. That’s a topic I’ve previously discussed with the professionals at Imagine Communications, but the recent announcement conveys something that cuts deeper, as this focus on solutions requires a merging of production and IT insights.
Steve Reynolds, CTO of Imagine Communications, has been very involved in with the principles and logistics associated with this philosophy. That made him the perfect person to talk with and find out how this partnership came about, how it changes the business approach organizations can take when it comes to their infrastructure and plenty more.
ProVideo Coalition: Did your partnership with HP come out of a need both companies recognized, or an opportunity that was recognized by both parties?
Steve Reynolds: It really came out of a market driven need. The partnership actually started last year, and I believe we did the first press release around it during NAB. We had started working with HP as part of this broader strategy that Imagine has been talking about which involves the migration of our business toward more of a COTS hardware platform, and certainly toward IP. The overall industry momentum is going toward IP, so our focus has really been to move away from proprietary and monolithic hardware-based systems and more toward a software model that runs on off-the-shelf computing devices which can leverage off-the-shelf storage and off-the-shelf networking.
One of the natural things for us to do at the beginning of that transition was to collaborate with the large players in that IT segment, and there’s nobody bigger or better than HP when it comes to building out those large-scale, high-availability, IT data center infrastructures. They bring everything to the table. They’ve got massive storage arrays, all the networking, hardware and expertise. All of that coupled with their practices around design for security, scale and high-availability made them a natural partner for us to start working with in terms of that transition toward IP.
That’s where the partnership started as we decided that we were going to define the infrastructure for software-based and IT-based solutions for broadcast. What we’ve announced most recently is an extension of that partnership, which is going to give HP the ability to bring Imagine Communication solutions to their customers while allowing Imagine to leverage HP’s experience and specialization in terms of building out enterprise-class data centers. We’re broadcast and video experts. They’re IT experts. So there was a natural partnership to build these infrastructures.
What sort of opportunities does that open up for both sets of your customers?
This transition toward using IP as the infrastructure for broadcasting and media in general has opened up opportunities for both sides. A lot of it is driven by the notion of moving away from the proprietary hardware-based solutions of the past and moving toward this much more open computing environment where the dream of using off-the-shelf hardware systems is achievable.
Moving away from these sort of proprietary systems has been a topic in the industry for several years now, as we’ve seen a real desire to move toward something that is software-based and therefore is inherently more flexible and scalable. Those are the things that are really driving the requests from the customer side. They want an environment that they can scale in the same way they can scale a data center operation. They don’t want to have to rack and stack the monolithic equipment every time they want to add a channel.
We’re working on a project with ABC Disney, and what they basically said was that they wanted a software-only solution for doing channel play-out. They wanted to move away from the channel-in-a-box model where one rack unit equals one channel. And they certainly wanted to move away from the legacy environments of big iron to do automation and play-out and things like that. They wanted us to supply them with a software-only solution, which would allow them to go into a data-center infrastructure to be able to light up a new channel without having anything to rack, stack or cable.
That’s where we’ve seen the real change in thinking from the customer side. They embrace this idea of moving toward that software-only model and the virtual computing model. Our response has been to build software-only products that can be employed in those kind of environments, and also to forge partnerships like the one we have with HP to bring the right kind of expertise to that problem solving domain.
Has or will this change the approach for anyone in charge of or managing the infrastructure of a broadcast or production environment?
It certainly has and will continue to do so, because from the customer’s point of view, the advantages of this approach are enormous. That starts just in terms of what it saves them in CapEx and the efficiency that they get in terms of operations, but even more than just the pure cost basis of it, what the customers are looking at is what it gives them in terms of flexibility around their business model. How much faster can they light up new channels? How can they use these software-based technologies to serve new distribution platforms? Our solution allows them to find out the answers to those questions, and they like what they’re seeing.
It also gives them the ability to test out new business models. Disney has talked about the concept of pop-up channels, which means their programming people want to be able to experiment with channels that have a limited duration. Maybe they want to do something around a specific sporting event or one of the big award shows. They now have that ability. They can light up a set of channels for a period of two weeks, or 30 days, or whatever period of time is required. They can do that just by creating those software instances. It’s not like it was even a couple years ago when lighting up a new channel meant commissioning an entirely new broadcast chain with cabling, operators, multi-viewers, etc. Now, if you have enough compute, storage and memory, you can easily light up a new channel.
That’s what the people on the content creation and delivery side see. They have flexibility like they’ve never had before to be able to find new ways to grow their business.
The release mention the fusion of the media and entertainment and IT industries…has that been a fusion in terms of people or in terms of technology?
It’s really both of those things. Getting the technology sorted out was the necessary first step, and that’s something we’ve been working on for over a year now with HP. It involved building the proof of concept systems and doing the integration to make sure that our software could be deployed into these kinds of virtual machine types of environments.
That’s on the technology side of things, but the people piece is even more important. When I talk to customers and speak at industry events, someone will always ask about the biggest challenge when making this migration. They’re often surprised to hear it’s not really a technical challenge. It’s about the people who are involved with it.
Most of the technical issues have been solved at this point. The real challenge is making the cultural change towards this kind of environment. You’ve got to make sure you have people who understand the technology side and the operations side. That means you need people who come from a broadcast background who understand how the workflows were designed and what the execution is supposed to look like, but you’ve also got to bring in people who understand things from the IT and data center side. The people on the IT side understand how to design for high availability and how to design for security. That’s a big topic, because you’ve got to follow the right protocols to ensure the system is secure, otherwise you’re exposing your business to a whole new set of threat vectors.
It really comes down a fusion of the two skills sets so that you have a single set of skillsets, culture, best-practices, etc. that drive and define the organization. When all of that comes together you’re able to make the very powerful changes that we’ve been talking about.
When you run into those sorts of challenges with people or the culture in an organization, what’s the biggest hurdle to get over?
What we encounter more often than not are the proof points. There’s a real need to do proof-of-concept and performance testing to help people from the broadcast side of world understand that these systems can be just as robust and reliable as what they’re accustomed to. And rightfully so.
The systems that have been built since the beginning of the television age are highly reliable systems. Most broadcast chains are built with 1 plus 1 redundancy so there’s a hot standby in the event the primary system goes offline. If that happens you can switch immediately to a backup, which ensures you won’t ever go off-air. That’s of critical importance to any kind of ad-supported network, because any kind of outage has a direct impact on revenue.
With that in mind, when you make the transition toward an IT platform, that’s one of the questions the chief engineer and station operators are going to ask. They want to know what the backup plan is and how they handle recovery. They want to know how to handle disaster recovery. They want proof these new systems work just as well as what they have in place today. That’s why the systems we’ve built are designed to be highly available and engineered around the concept of redundancy.
By and large, what they’re starting to see is that these IT-based platforms offer a level of reliability that’s superior to what they were getting off a big iron system, but the costs of being able to offer that are reduced. With these new systems, you have the ability to use pooled resources within in the data environment to do more than one thing. You don’t have special purpose hardware that’s operating as a standby system. What you have is a pool of resources that provide the capability of a disaster recovery system.
That’s all stuff that has to be proven though, and that’s really where we’re at in terms of the transition. The results we’re seeing are highly encouraging, and it’s really just a matter of showing the right people those results.
How do developments like this change the M&E landscape, and what does that means for content creators?
What a lot of people seize upon first is the fact that it’s cheaper. The CapEx goes down and the OpEx goes down, and those things are true and will become more true over time. We’re at a point now where we can really take advantage of Moore’s Law, so the costs of all these pieces will just continue going down. We can take advantage of the incremental power that gets added to servers and storage every year. But it’s not the whole story. It’s not just about moving to a lower cost basis hardware platform, it’s really about moving to a more flexible and more scalable architecture for doing content origination.
What are you most excited to see develop or change as the approach around infrastructures continues to evolve?
I have a tendency to talk more about the technical underpinnings, but the changes that this is going to enable on the business side are what’s really interesting. The ability to support different business models, hyper-localization of the streams and advertising, new channel deployments and new delivery platforms is really incredible. All of those things start to be much more easily enabled and deployed when you move toward a flexible software-based platform.
That’s really the bigger story in terms of how this can change the business landscape of M&E than what it’s going to do on the technical side. The ability to move faster and move with more scale than we’ve ever been able to move with before is really exciting. The logical outcome of that is a true acceleration of some interesting new business models that people can experiment with and grow the entire industry. And I can’t wait to see what people are going to come up with.