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Business: SaaS Solutions

Software as a service (SaaS) offers many advantages over server-based applications. Turning to “the cloud” for storage and high-speed file transfer solutions is a growing trend.

By Margaret Craig, CEO, Signiant

Local Hero Post’s Santa Monica, Calif. studio

Local Hero Post’s Santa Monica, Calif. studio

Over the past few years, the first software as a service (SaaS) solutions for accelerating the transfer of large media files—both between people at various locations and into the cloud—have entered the market. They’re not only transforming file-based workflows for media companies of every size, they’re supporting the development of new media-focused SaaS and web applications.

The first media facilities that could reliably handle electronic transfer of large files were owned by the biggest media enterprises. They had the necessary infrastructure and IT teams to install and manage specialized software, developed by companies like Signiant that could move hundreds of gigabytes quickly and securely over IP networks around the world for editing and broadcast.

As imaging technology continued to advance, resulting in incrementally larger file sizes, enterprise file transfer software kept pace and it is still in use by all the top-tier media companies. Even though they work with files just as large, smaller companies did not have the resources to invest in this technology, meaning they often only had access to slower, less reliable solutions like FTP and courier services.

Three years ago, Signiant developed the first SaaS large file transfer solution, Media Shuttle, making enterprise file transfer technology accessible to smaller media companies from post-production houses to boutique studios and up to the largest media brands in the world. Among other benefits, the SaaS model makes Media Shuttle much more affordable and easier to use than on-premises software, and it is now being used in nearly 200 countries by businesses of every size.

Local Hero Post is a good example. Situated in the heart of the Santa Monica post-production community, Local Hero specializes in digital intermediate and feature finishing, working with a global network of clients and partners. “When you’re stepping into the next level, where people are hiring based on ability rather than location, something like Media Shuttle becomes vital for your business,” said Andrew Wahlquist, technologist at Local Hero Post. “Shuttle is surprisingly cost-effective because of the pay-as-you-go model. We looked at [other] services, and they were way out of our price range in terms of what we can pay upfront.”

But why is SaaS so much more cost-effective and easier to manage when compared to traditional, on-premises software? A recent TV Technology article by Al Kovalick, education director of SMPTE, explains the difference between traditional, stand-alone software installation and management versus the growing use of web applications and SaaS for media creation, management, and distribution. “Web apps and the SaaS model are the future of the media facility,” Kovalick concludes. He highlights some of the benefits of SaaS, but also a major obstacle to SaaS adoption that we’ll address later in this article. First, let’s expand on the advantages of SaaS over on-premises software.

The benefits of SaaS

SaaS solutions are fully hosted for users in the cloud, giving customers continuous access to the latest product release without impacting customizations. You don’t have to worry about managing upgrades or maintaining the software. This is the “service” aspect of software as a service; vendors take ultimate responsibility for operation of the cloud environment for their customers, managing and maintaining it across multiple levels of redundancy with multi-tenant architecture.

Image resolution squares

SaaS products also scale according to the load you are generating, automatically spinning virtual machines up or down in capacity and load balancing across multiple instances. This means you won’t have to deal with tracking and managing virtual machines.

Image resolution squares

Image resolution squares incrementally—4K = 8 megapixels but 8K = 32 megapixels—with corresponding leaps in raw footage file sizes. What was already huge in 4K (6000 Gb on average for 90 minutes) is nearly three times that in 8K.

Because SaaS begins and ends on the Internet, users always are connected to the vendor through the product. This allows a lot of labor-intensive processes to be automated through the network. For example, software deployment and upgrades usually require significant downtime. With network automation, this can be handled without any downtime. This not only frees up the time of technology managers, but also on-premises infrastructure space.

Unlike SaaS, on-premises software often is complex and technologically difficult to deploy because it is designed to accommodate each unique customer infrastructure, including different servers, network technologies, and versions. With cloud-based software, developers work with a standard, unified infrastructure. This unified cloud-based infrastructure results in many of the benefits of SaaS for businesses, including the advantage of economies-of-scale. Being able to serve hundreds, thousands, or even millions of customers on a single cloud infrastructure saves SaaS vendors a huge amount in operational costs, which are passed on to customers through flexible billing.

All of this has a direct impact on the way SaaS can be billed. Often called “pay-per-use” or subscription billing, SaaS programs automatically track how much each customer is using the service, and scale subscriptions up and down in response. Not only does this allow customers to only pay for what they actually use, it frees IT departments from having to provide enough fixed infrastructure to handle peak loads.

No matter where a user is in the connected world, SaaS solutions are accessible and perform consistently. This is especially beneficial to media companies, who often have geographically diverse locations with varying computer systems.

With any well-designed SaaS solution, there never should be any downtime. High-availability means SaaS will switch automatically to standby or redundant servers in case of a failure, creating something of a “self-healing” quality. So, even if something fails, you’ll still have a whole, functioning system.

The media transfer barrier

In the article by Kovalick, he covers the biggest “shortfalls” to SaaS and web app adoption in the media industry. Not surprisingly, just as transferring raw footage from the set to the editing studio has long been a challenge, the time it takes to transfer large files into the cloud inhibits the adoption of cloud-based media solutions. And, it isn’t just a problem for creative teams needing to utilize cloud storage or other cloud services; it’s a problem for the technology companies that want to make SaaS versions of their applications.

“For media apps, constrained access bandwidth poses the biggest problem (i.e. 4K editing). Usually the media is first uploaded to the server location, which could take days for some workloads,” said Kovalick. “So it’s not always practical to use web apps, which is one reason why Avid, Adobe and others do not yet offer full-featured creative apps only via SaaS.”

In fact, getting large files into the cloud is a barrier to adoption for any SaaS solution that works with big data, and why Signiant created Flight, a SaaS solution to accelerate large files into cloud storage.

Flight utilizes the same file acceleration protocol as all of Signiant’s data movement solutions and can be used by third-party SaaS providers as a PaaS (Platform as a Service) solution within their products to address this problem. Or Flight can be independently used as a SaaS solution to move content in and out of cloud object storage.

But why is it so difficult to transfer large files in the first place?

Latency and bandwidth

TCP (transmission control protocol) is the main protocol that moves data from one point to another over the Internet. It forms the foundation for both FTP and HTTP, and works fine for the vast majority of data on the web. However, TCP has a fairly unsophisticated data transfer mechanism that will only send a limited amount of data before pausing for acknowledgement of receipt from the other end. This creates a lot of back and forth, with associated latency for every round trip. With large file transfers over long distances, TCP-based protocols like FTP are very slow and prone to failure. Many companies try to remedy their slow FTP by purchasing more bandwidth, but TCP can only utilize a fraction of available bandwidth, so bigger pipes do not help.

Signiant was one of the first technology companies to develop a data transfer protocol that maintains speed and fairness independent of latency, distance, and loss between endpoints. It is up to 200 times faster than TCP/FTP, largely thanks to the way it deals with latency and loss, and its ability to fully capitalize on available bandwidth.

We are living in an era of exponential data growth. Being able to transfer data of any amount efficiently and securely—whether it is between users or into the cloud—will likely become as essential to some industries as the Internet itself. RadicalMedia sums up well the role data transfer plays in media and entertainment. “We worked with the Signiant sales and engineering team to synchronize critical volumes between our bicoastal facilities,” said Evan Schechtman, chief technology officer of RadicalMedia. “Now, I can say that Signiant’s service has become a public utility for us. I don’t believe we can operate without it.”

Efficient large-file transfer not only is a critical need throughout the production, post-production, and distribution process; it can open the way for new media-focused SaaS and web applications. The future of the media facility is indeed likely going to run on cloud-based software, but only if it can handle the weight of its own data with ease.

November 19, 2015