Working In The Cloud
By Tom Inglesby
In the beginning, there was film. Images captured on light-sensitive material that could be shared among many viewers. Later came magnetic material called “videotape” and it was good for many things. Then a revolution! The computer and digital charged onto the field.
First, there was the mainframe computer; and it was good – and really huge and really, really expensive. Then came the mini computer and it was pretty good, too – and a lot smaller. This was followed by supercomputers, desktop computing, client-server computing, distributed computing, and a whole bunch of other platforms for data generation, manipulation and storage.
And then along came the Internet.
Meanwhile, film kept plugging along as the medium of choice for capturing images, storing them, and distributing them for many to see while sitting in the dark – in theaters, at least. Aided and abetted by video at first, then slowly replaced in both production and distribution by the upstart, film kept fighting the good fight. It made pacts, some say with the devil itself, to fend off its eventual retirement by merging video and then digital (CGI) into its traditional strengths.
But the museums started to have more film equipment than the production companies, and production companies started to have more computers than video cameras. Pretty soon, distribution was all that film had left.
And then along came the Internet.
CLEAR is a tool for producing and delivering live and Video on Demand (VoD) productions.
Hard drives and solid-state storage media have increased in capacity to the point where new-to-the-masses prefixes have entered the lexicon. Qualifiers that only die-hard mathematicians cared about a few years ago are common today. In 1984, kilobyte was a big number; in 1994, megabytes ruled; in 2004, gigabytes were becoming common. By 2014, terabytes will be considered a starting point for ordering storage hard drives. What’s next, petabyte flash drives?
No, the next step is already here and it’s called Cloud Computing. There is no need to learn a new way to count because clouds are infinite, scalable, flexible and expandable to cover everyone’s needs. Or so the proponents claim.
In many ways, the cloud concept dates back to the idea of grid computing – computers at multiple locations working in unison to solve a problem and connected through a fast network that may or may not include physical connections. While the term grid computing was popularized in the early 2000s, the idea goes back to the space alien search from 1999.
SETI@home is hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley. SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Its purpose is to analyze radio signals, searching for signs of extraterrestrial life. Computing power is supplied by thousands of home and business computers that are volunteered to the project, using their excess processor capacity or downtime, and connected through the Internet. This creates a grid-like infrastructure, a virtual supercomputer distributed in tens of thousands of geographic locations.
The same concept is the defining idea behind the cloud. Companies such as Amazon.com offer their spare capacity in processor power and storage to clients. These virtual machines give the customer supercomputer capabilities with near-zero investment up front and no maintenance. Those functions are taken care of by the hosting company and amortized over their usage and the number of clients they serve.
CLEAR’s fully redundant cloud architecture ensures availability of the service at all times.
But what do you do in a cloud? There are several opportunities for production companies to benefit from using cloud computing. One is called Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), which allows servers to be created in a virtual computing environment without the same restrictions that using physical hardware imposes on you. As an example, CloudSigma (www.cloudsigma.com) is a pure IaaS provider with server farms in Zurich, Switzerland and Las Vegas that provides high-performing and reliable virtual servers. You can instantly create, start, stop and delete servers as and when you need them.
IaaS helps to handle unlimited content flow and maintain scalable infrastructure. Reliable and secure infrastructure resources in a cloud environment that possesses massive processing power, secure network connections, and scalable storage capacity enables media companies to simplify their data and storage challenges.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) providers specialize in creating purpose-built, standardized environments where developers can upload code without having to take into consideration operating systems, resource usage, et cetera. Salesforce’s Force.com is an excellent example of PaaS.
The PaaS model can be used to build a robust digital supply chain. Media companies require consistent services such as authentication, connectivity to consumers, content aggregation, and multichannel distribution. PaaS enables them to build an efficient layer over IaaS for content management, aggregation and distribution to clients and customers.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers offer applications directly to end users and build on the environments provided by Iaas and PaaS layers. SaaS has many advantages for end users such as pay-as-you-go models, constant software development with instant availability of new versions, lower maintenance costs for users and more.
A customized SaaS model provides cost reductions in hardware and software procurement because there is no need for IT resources and in-house IT maintenance. There are various options available, like multi-tenant IT architecture owned and managed by your cloud vendor, or internally developed hosted solutions that are later hosted on the cloud provider’s servers.
CLEAR provides a digitization platform and digital content services to broadcasters, studios, advertisers, and others.
Up in the cloud
Mark Overington, president of Aframe North America, Burlington, Mass. (www.aframe.com), points out some ways his cloud can be used. “Aframe is a great tool for the independent producer because they don’t have to invest in major computer equipment, storage systems, or software that they have to run or manage. By using Aframe, they have the ability to take their content, put it into our cloud service, and manage it directly over their Internet browser from anywhere they choose. It really eliminates the challenges of what we call data wrangling.”
Data wrangling? “Copying material from camera cards and putting it onto your server inside the facility, managing and backing up all that media, and keeping safety copies of it; that’s what we call data wrangling,” explained Overington.
Many producers are at a disadvantage when their commercial clients or broadcasters require them to index and archive media for a long time. As Overington says, “They put it on disc drives and then put them on a shelf or in a closet, and every six to 12 months they have to take those disc drives out and fire ‘em up because you can’t let a disc drive sit idle for more than 12 months – the head material will corrode. If the data is in the cloud, you can upload it in New York, make a copy in LA, and view it anywhere. We manage that process for you.”
Collaboration is another benefit of the cloud. It’s great to have the ability to share content with the people on your team or with your client, to be able to share it when people are in one location or many locations. “If I’m shooting in Miami and my client is in Atlanta, I just upload footage from Miami to Aframe and the client in Atlanta can see the footage. Compare that with making a DVD or disc drive and sending it to them,” Overington said.
In a real-world example, MarVista Entertainment uses Aframe’s cloud to expedite review and approval of digital dailies as part of a hyper-streamlined workflow. No more waiting for a courier to drive raw footage across town; MarVista’s normal workflow involves sending footage direct from multiple camera types into the cloud. Once there, the original rushes are stored as proxy files that Aframe automatically generates. MarVista avoids the need for transcoding, burning, and distributing 10 sets of DVDs each day, and can simply upload raw footage and send one email with a link to a proxy, to be viewed anywhere and anytime.
Perhaps the most familiar name in cloud computing is Adobe. The company’s Creative Cloud is widely used throughout the world. Recently, Adobe updated Creative Cloud with desktop applications and cross-device collaboration and publishing capabilities. Creative files can be stored, synced and shared on Mac OS, Windows, iOS and Android. Behance, the online creative community, is now integrated with Creative Cloud, so customers can showcase work, get feedback on projects, and gain global exposure.
One rarely mentioned value of using the cloud is that it neutralizes the multiple operating systems and device architectures prevalent today. It can be accessed from any device, desktop, laptop, and from anywhere there is a connection to the web.
And it can be accessed by everyone at the same time. This opens up a new environment referred to as the “second screen” approach. The second screen is where you’re seeing content on television and you have an app on a mobile device that can show you anything from deleted scenes to extreme close-ups. You can go back and see detailed information on something that caught your eye during a scene, or even during a live performance such as a baseball game.
If, as we hope and exclaim, content is king, we want that content to get into the most hands, to be seen by the most eyeballs, to provide the most entertainment and information to the most people. The cloud can help. Think about all the footage “left on the cutting room floor” in the past and the popularity of “director’s cut” versions that supply some of those deleted scenes that had to be cut for distribution length requirements. Using the ambiguity of the cloud, we can post that data where anyone can pull it down, using the right app, and fill in the blanks while watching the content. You can use all those great outtakes you couldn’t squeeze into the distribution copy!
CLEAR users can have clip production and delivery to websites within three minutes of live feed, including metadata associated with the clips.
All content, all the time
One company pushing this approach is Prime Focus Technologies (PFT), London, New York and LA (www.primefocustechnologies.com). Their hybrid cloud environment, called CLEAR, provides a digitization platform and digital content services to broadcasters, studios, advertisers, and others. It is a tool for producing and delivering live and Video on Demand (VoD) productions. Custom VoD packages from live video feeds to new media platforms can be generated quickly. Owners can now make content available soon after the show goes on air and leverage the web and mobile devices for new revenues and additional promotion.
You can have clip production and delivery to websites within three minutes of live feed, including metadata associated with the clips. Graphics and advertising can be integrated into the edited content as pre- and post-rolls. The fully redundant cloud architecture ensures availability of the service at all times. Combined with automation and reporting, the platform enables high-speed content delivery and also streaming to global locations.
Ganesh Sankaran, PFT co-founder and COO, likes to show how this works by using a sports metaphor. “Let’s say I’m at a soccer match or baseball game and I would like to see some of the details that people at home see on their TV. I want to see that on my iPad or tablet while I’m watching the game live. Major League Baseball is sitting on 200,000 hours of content and I, as a user, don’t want the broadcaster to tell me what to see. I want to control that. How do you give the users access to the content anywhere they want?”
He continues, “There’s a whole lot of information there – millions and millions of hours of content. But people don’t want to just see it sitting in front of a TV set. People are spending time on Facebook; people are spending time on Twitter and other media. How do I engage my audience? How do I tap into my archive? How do I utilize outtakes? These are all very key things for producers and broadcasters. Just making the camera work look sharp, just making better storage, just making better graphics is all good. But somebody has to start thinking that the users want more than better graphics, better edits, or better camera views. They want to be a part of that event, that film, that stream. The cloud can help you do that.”
In 1967, singer/song writer Joni Mitchell summed up the whole cloud-computing situation in “Both Sides, Now” – long before the term was coined. (If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.) In many ways, nothing much has changed.