Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How Imagine Communications leverages edge computing and HPC for live multiscreen IP video

The next BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer HPC and edge computing strategies interview explores how a video delivery and customization capability has moved to the network edge -- and closer to consumers -- to support live, multi-screen Internet Protocol (IP) entertainment delivery. 
 
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We’ll learn how hybrid technology and new workflows for IP-delivered digital video are being re-architected -- with significant benefits to the end-user experience, as well as with new monetization values to the content providers.

Our guest is Glodina Connan-Lostanlen, Chief Marketing Officer at Imagine Communications in Frisco, Texas. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Your organization has many major media clients. What are the pressures they are facing as they look to the new world of multi-screen video and media?

Connan-Lostanlen: The number-one concern of the media and entertainment industry is the fragmentation of their audience. We live with a model supported by advertising and subscriptions that rely primarily on linear programming, with people watching TV at home.

Connan-Lostanlen

And guess what? Now they are watching it on the go -- on their telephones, on their iPads, on their laptops, anywhere. So they have to find the way to capture that audience, justify the value of that audience to their advertisers, and deliver video content that is relevant to them. And that means meeting consumer demand for several types of content, delivered at the very time that people want to consume it.  So it brings a whole range of technology and business challenges that our media and entertainment customers have to overcome. But addressing these challenges with new technology that increases agility and velocity to market also creates opportunities.

For example, they can now try new content. That means they can try new programs, new channels, and they don’t have to keep them forever if they don’t work. The new models create opportunities to be more creative, to focus on what they are good at, which is creating valuable content. At the same time, they have to make sure that they cater to all these different audiences that are either static or on the go.

This is a major, perhaps once-in-a-generation, level of change -- when you go to fully digital, IP delivered content.
Gardner: The media industry has faced so much change over the past 20 years, but this is a major, perhaps once-in-a-generation, level of change -- when you go to fully digital, IP-delivered content.

As you say, the audience is pulling the providers to multi-screen support, but there is also the capability now -- with the new technology on the back-end -- to have much more of a relationship with the customer, a one-to-one relationship and even customization, rather than one-to-many. Tell us about the drivers on the personalization level.

Connan-Lostanlen: That’s another big upside of the fragmentation, and the advent of IP technology -- all the way from content creation to making a program and distributing it. It gives the content creators access to the unique viewers, and the ability to really engage with them -- knowing what they like -- and then to potentially target advertising to them. The technology is there. The challenge remains about how to justify the business model, how to value the targeted advertising; there are different opinions on this, and there is also the unknown or the willingness of several generations of viewers to accept good advertising.

That is a great topic right now, and very relevant when we talk about linear advertising and dynamic ad insertion (DAI). Now we are able to -- at the very edge of the signal distribution, the video signal distribution -- insert an ad that is relevant to each viewer, because you know their preferences, you know who they are, and you know what they are watching, and so you can determine that an ad is going to be relevant to them.

But that means media and entertainment customers have to revisit the whole infrastructure. It’s not necessary rebuilding, they can put in add-ons. They don’t have to throw away what they had, but they can maintain the legacy infrastructure and add on top of it the IP-enabled infrastructure to let them take advantage of these capabilities.

Gardner: This change has happened from the web now all the way to multi-screen. With the web there was a model where you would use a content delivery network (CDN) to take the object, the media object, and place it as close to the edge as you could. What’s changed and why doesn’t that model work as well?

Connan-Lostanlen: I don’t know yet if I want to say that model doesn’t work anymore. Let’s let the CDN providers enhance their technology. But for sure, the volume of videos that we are consuming everyday is exponentially growing. That definitely creates pressure in the pipe. Our role at the front-end and the back-end is to make sure that videos are being created in different formats, with different ads, and everything else, in the most effective way so that it doesn’t put an undue strain on the pipe that is distributing the videos.

We are being pushed to innovate further on the type of workflows that we are implementing at our customers’ sites today, to make it efficient, to not leave storage at the edge and not centrally, and to do transcoding just-in-time. These are the things that are being worked on. It’s a balance between available capacity and the number of programs that you want to send across to your viewers – and how big your target market is.

Why not design the whole workflow digital-first?
The task for us on the back-end is to rethink the workflows in a much more efficient way. So, for example, this is what we call the digital-first approach, or unified distribution. Instead of planning a linear channel that goes the traditional way and then adding another infrastructure for multi-screen, on all those different platforms and then cable, and satellite, and IPTV, etc. -- why not design the whole workflow digital-first. This frees the content distributor or provider to hold off on committing to specific platforms until the video has reached the edge. And it’s there that the end-user requirements determine how they get the signal.

This is where we are going -- to see the efficiencies happen and so remove the pressure on the CDNs and other distribution mechanisms, like over-the-air.

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Gardner: It means an intelligent edge capability, whereas we had an intelligent core up until now. We’ll also seek a hybrid capability between them, growing more sophisticated over time.

We have a whole new generation of technology for video delivery. Tell us about Imagine Communications. How do you go to market? How do you help your customers?

Education for future generations

Connan-Lostanlen: Two months ago we were in Las Vegas for our biggest tradeshow of the year, the NAB Show. At the event, our customers first wanted to understand what it takes to move to IP -- so the “how.” They understand the need to move to IP, to take advantage of the benefits that it brings. But how do they do this, while they are still navigating the traditional world?

It’s not only the “how,” it’s needing examples of best practices. So we instructed them in a panel discussion, for example, on Over the Top Technology (OTT), which is another way of saying IP-delivered, and what it takes to create a successful multi-screen service. Part of the panel explained what OTT is, so there’s a lot of education.

There is also another level of education that we have to provide, which is moving from the traditional world of serial digital interfaces (SDIs) in the broadcast industry to IP. It’s basically saying analog video signals can be moved into digital. Then not only is there a digitally sharp signal, it’s an IP stream. The whole knowledge about how to handle IP is new to our own industry, to our own engineers, to our own customers. We also have to educate on what it takes to do this properly.

One of the key things in the media and entertainment industry is that there’s a little bit of fear about IP, because no one really believed that IP could handle live signals. And you know how important live television is in this industry – real-time sports and news -- this is where the money comes from. That’s why the most expensive ads are run during the Super Bowl.

It’s essential to be able to do live with IP – it’s critical. That’s why
It's essential to be able to do live with IP -- it's critical.
we are sharing with our customers the real-life implementations that we are doing today.

We are also pushing multiple standards forward. We work with our competitors on these standards. We have set up a trade association to accelerate the standards work. We did all of that. And as we do this, it forces us to innovate in partnership with customers and bring them on board. They are part of that trade association, they are part of the proof-of-concept trials, and they are gladly sharing their experiences with others so that the transition can be accelerated.

Gardner: Imagine Communications is then a technology and solutions provider to the media content companies, and you provide the means to do this. You are also doing a lot with ad insertion, billing, in understanding more about the end-user and allowing that data flow from the edge back to the core, and then back to the edge to happen.

At the heart of it all

Connan-Lostanlen: We do everything that happens behind the camera -- from content creation all the way to making a program and distributing it. And also, to your point, on monetizing all that with a management system. We have a long history of powering all the key customers in the world for their advertising system. It’s basically an automated system that allows the selling of advertising spots, and then to bill them -- and this is the engine of where our customers make money. So we are at the heart of this.

We are in the prime position to help them take advantage of the new advertising solutions that exist today, including dynamic ad insertion. In other words, how you target ads to the single viewer. And the challenge for them is now that they have a campaign, how do they design it to cater both to the linear traditional advertising system as well as the multi-screen or web mobile application? That's what we are working on. We have a whole set of next-generation platforms that allow them to take advantage of both in a more effective manner.

Gardner: The technology is there, you are a solutions provider. You need to find the best ways of storing and crunching data, close to the edge, and optimizing networks. Tell us why you choose certain partners and what are the some of the major concerns you have when you go to the technology marketplace?

Connan-Lostanlen: One fundamental driver here, as we drive the transition to IP in this industry, is in being able to rely on consumer-off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms. But even so, not all COTS platforms are born equal, right?

For compute, for storage, for networking, you need to rely on top-scale hardware platforms, and that’s why about two years ago we started to work very closely with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for both our compute and storage technology.

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We develop the software appliances that run on those platforms, and we sell this as a package with HPE. It’s been a key value proposition of ours as we began this journey to move to IP. We can say, by the way, our solutions run on HPE hardware. That's very important because having high-performance compute (HPC) that scales is critical to the broadcast and media industry. Having storage that is highly reliable is fundamental because going off the air is not acceptable. So it's 99.9999 percent reliable, and that’s what we want, right?

It’s a fundamental part of our message to our customers to say, “In your network, put Imagine solutions, which are powered by one of the top compute and storage technologies.”

Gardner: Another part of the change in the marketplace is this move to the edge. It’s auspicious that just as you need to have more storage and compute efficiency at the edge of the network, close to the consumer, the infrastructure providers are also designing new hardware and solutions to do just that. That's also for the Internet of Things (IoT) requirements, and there are other drivers. Nonetheless, it's an industry standard approach.

What is it about HPE Edgeline, for example, and the architecture that HPE is using, that makes that edge more powerful for your requirements? How do you view this architectural shift from core data center to the edge?

Optimize the global edge

Connan-Lostanlen: It's a big deal because we are going to be in a hybrid world. Most of our customers, when they hear about cloud, we have to explain it to them. We explain that they can have their private cloud where they can run virtualized applications on-premises, or they can take advantage of public clouds.

Being able to have a hybrid model of deployment for their applications is critical, especially for large customers who have operations in several places around the globe. For example, such big names as Disney, Turner –- they have operations everywhere. For them, being able to optimize at the edge means that you have to create an architecture that is geographically distributed -- but is highly efficient where they have those operations. This type of technology helps us deliver more value to the key customers.

Gardner: The other part of that intelligent edge technology is that it has the ability to be adaptive and customized. Each region has its own networks, its own regulation, and its own compliance, security, and privacy issues. When you can be programmatic as to how you design your edge infrastructure, then a custom-applications-orientation becomes possible.

Is there something about the edge architecture that you would like to see more of? Where do you see this going in terms of the capabilities of customization added-on to your services?

Connan-Lostanlen: One of the typical use-cases that we see for those big customers who have distributed operations is that they like to try and run their disaster recovery (DR) site in a more cost-effective manner. So the flexibility that an edge architecture provides to them is that they don’t have to rely on central operations running DR for everybody. They can do it on their own, and they can do it cost-effectively. They don't have to recreate the entire infrastructure, and so they do DR at the edge as well.

We especially see this a lot in the process of putting the pieces of the program together, what we call “play out,” before it's distributed. When you create a TV channel, if you will, it’s important to have end-to-end redundancy -- and DR is a key driver for this type of application.

Gardner: Are there some examples of your cutting-edge clients that have adopted these solutions? What are the outcomes? What are they able to do with it?

Pop-up power

Connan-Lostanlen: Well, it’s always sensitive to name those big brand names. They are very protective of their brands. However, one of the top ones in the world of media and entertainment has decided to move all of their operations -- from content creation, planning, and distribution -- to their own cloud, to their own data center.

They are at the forefront of playing live and recorded material on TV -- all from their cloud. They needed strong partners in data centers. So obviously we work with them closely, and the reason why they do this is simply to really take advantage of the flexibility. They don't want to be tied to a restricted channel count; they want to try new things. They want to try pop-up channels. For the Oscars, for example, it’s one night. Are you going to recreate the whole infrastructure if you can just check it on and off, if you will, out of their data center capacity? So that's the key application, the pop-up channels and ability to easily try new programs.

Gardner: It sounds like they are thinking of themselves as an IT company, rather than a media and entertainment company that consumes IT. Is that shift happening?

Connan-Lostanlen: Oh yes, that's an interesting topic, because I think you cannot really do this successfully if you don’t start to think IT a little bit. What we are seeing, interestingly, is that our customers typically used to have the IT department on one side, the broadcast engineers on the other side -- these were two groups that didn't speak the same language. Now they get together, and they have to, because they have to design together the solution that will make them more successful. We are seeing this happening.

I wouldn't say yet that they are IT companies. The core strength is content, that is their brand, that's what they are good at -- creating amazing content and making it available to as many people as possible.

They have to understand IT, but they can't lose concentration on their core business. I think the IT providers still have a very strong play there. It's always happening that way.

In addition to disaster recovery being a key application, multi-screen delivery is taking advantage of that technology, for sure.

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Gardner: These companies are making this cultural shift to being much more technically oriented. They think about standard processes across all of what they do, and they have their own core data center that's dynamic, flexible, agile and cost-efficient. What does that get for them? Is it too soon, or do we have some metrics of success for companies that make this move toward a full digitally transformed organization?

Connan-Lostanlen: They are very protective about the math. It is fair to say that the up-front investments may be higher, but when you do the math over time, you do the total cost of ownership for the next 5 to 10 years -- because that’s typically the life cycle of those infrastructures – then definitely they do save money. On the operational expenditure (OPEX) side [of private cloud economics] it’s much more efficient, but they also have upside on additional revenue. So net-net, the return on investment (ROI) is much better. But it’s kind of hard to say now because we are still in the early days, but it’s bound to be a much greater ROI.
Satellite providers are thinking broadly about how this world of IP is changing their game, what they need to do differently.

Another specific DR example is in the Middle East. We have a customer there who decided to operate the DR and IP in the cloud, instead of having a replicated system with satellite links in between. They were able to save $2 million worth of satellite links, and that data center investment, trust me, was not that high. So it shows that the ROI is there.

My satellite customers might say, “Well, what are you trying to do?” The good news is that they are looking at us to help them transform their businesses, too. So big satellite providers are thinking broadly about how this world of IP is changing their game. They are examining what they need to do differently. I think it’s going to create even more opportunities to reduce costs for all of our customers.

IT enters a hybrid world

Gardner: That's one of the intrinsic values of a hybrid IT approach -- you can use many different ways to do something, and then optimize which of those methods works best, and also alternate between them for best economics. That’s a very powerful concept.

Connan-Lostanlen: The world will be a hybrid IT world, and we will take advantage of that. But, of course, that will come with some challenges. What I think is next is the number-one question that I get asked.

Three years ago costumers would ask us, “Hey, IP is not going to work for live TV.” We convinced them otherwise, and now they know it’s working, it’s happening for real.

Secondly, they are thinking, “Okay, now I get it, so how do I do this?” We showed them, this is how you do it, the education piece.

Now, this year, the number-one question is security. “Okay, this is my content, the most valuable asset I have in my company. I am not putting this in the cloud,” they say. And this is where another piece of education has to start, which is: Actually, as you put stuff on your cloud, it’s more secure.

And we are working with our technology providers. As I said earlier, the COTS providers are not equal. We take it seriously. The cyber attacks on content and media is critical, and it’s bound to happen more often.

Initially there was a lack of understanding that you need to separate your corporate network, such as emails and VPNs, from you broadcast operations network. Okay, that’s easy to explain and that can be implemented, and that's where most of the attacks over the last five years have happened. This is solved.

They are going to get right into the servers, into the storage, and try to mess with it over
Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security.
there. So I think it’s super important to be able to say, “Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security, which everybody can see is so important.”

However, the cyber attackers are becoming more clever, so they will overcome these initial defenses.They are going to get right into the servers, into the storage, and try to mess with it over there. So I think it’s super important to be able to say, “Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security, which everybody can see is so important.”

Gardner: Sure, the next domino to fall after you have the data center concept, the implementation, the execution, even the optimization, is then to remove risk, whether it's disaster recovery, security, right down to the silicon and so forth. So that’s the next thing we will look for, and I hope I can get a chance to talk to you about how you are all lowering risk for your clients the next time we speak.

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