Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Impressions from NAB: production workflows and the cloud

So, day 2 of NAB is over and as everyone's jet lag faded, so the show began to liven up. Having looked at cameras yesterday, I spent today focused on production workflows and in particular the cloud.

It's worth saying that thinking about production workflows is a worthwhile exercise. About $600Mn is spent on production worldwide in a given year. Technology and related services is a good 10% of that.

In that context, most major, developed market broadcasters have already “done” file based workflow over the last five years, reaping the benefits of improved efficiency, particularly in multiplatform distribution. The end of tape is finally in sight in these organisations. With those big ticket projects finished for the time being, it was notable that several of the technology vendors that have historically made good money from them are now looking for service-based models, typically in partnership with more service-oriented companies. As it’s 2012, these models tend to involved the word “cloud”.

By way of example, Dalet mentioned at this morning’s executive breakfast (almost as a footnote) that they are now partnered with IBM and Cinegy has been the technology behind Deluxe’s Media Cloud for a couple of years. EMC trumpeted its acquisition of Isilon, a slightly nerdy technology that enables archive drives to be larger.

These partnerships give media technology vendors a way of accessing smaller producers, who’d traditionally default to Avid Interplay. For the media services crowd (of which Deluxe is the most progressive) cloud based workflow enables them to create a new business in file-based, given that their role is increasingly untenable in the world after physical distribution. EMC’s interest is easy to understand. They’re after BIG DATA. And at 48GB/ hr, data doesn’t come much bigger or more valuable than moving pictures.

In this market they’ll compete with some new entrants. I saw a number here today, but none has yet bettered A-Frame, who recently secured another $7Mn in venture funding and were clearly generating a buzz here. It’s easy to see why. Their simple pricing model ($99 per seat, per month of service and 500GB of storage) is really easy for an independent producer to buy. Furthermore, the platform’s flexibility – rushes can be ingested by FTP or through ingest stations in various cities including London and LA – means that it gets around some of the issues in cloud based management.

What will make or break A-Frame in my view is the ability to scale up to support playout and archiving workflows. If they can do that, then they can really start to attack the Interplay market in the larger producers and eventually in smaller broadcasters. At the moment, the “collaboration” workflows that it is best for are not the ones where the big spenders are focused. Even so, I still think that they had the most compelling business model I saw today. I’d be stunned if they weren’t acquired by one of the bigger players in the near future.

Playout cloud must be an interesting area, but it wasn’t mentioned at the conference. Since content arrives at the playout centre from many different areas and leaves down more than just broadcast channels, it seems silly that broadcasters still have one physical network operations centre (NOC) where things are physically switched with vastly expensive kit from the likes of Harris, Miranda and Digital Rapids. I understand the need for broadcast-level reliability, but cloud services are pretty robust these days.

In summary, as with 4K, there were no whizz-bang announcements to get the pulse racing, but still, some interesting tastes of things to come.

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