The cloud for live sports: From blue-sky to real world

Many broadcast experts believe that live sports and news programming have driven much of the broadcast production innovation we see today. The demand for high-quality, low latency video delivered at maximum speed, accelerated ongoing advancements in digital workflows enjoyed by many broadcast sectors.

Now the sheer volume of content – thanks to the wide array of newer digital outlets – in new and more complex formats, is increasing requirements and straining broadcasters’ network capacities and resources. In short, data has never been so large, complex and challenging to transport, store and manage effectively. 

For the past several years, cloud computing has been like a carrot dangling just beyond reach: promising to dramatically improve the transport and management of large amounts of data while streamlining workflows and increasing collaboration but not quite delivering.

The virtually unlimited, on-demand increases in transfer, storage, compute and bandwidth that the cloud could enable, plus the clear cost benefits are undeniable. But the inherent challenges of leveraging the cloud have proven prohibitive.

As contribution broadcasting requires highly secure, high-quality and controllable transport and processing, cloud adoption remained a blue-sky notion and a huge leap for broadcasters. But now, an ultra high-speed transport protocol makes use of the cloud a reality, overcoming the significant technical bottlenecks of the past: transfer performance over the WAN, HTTP throughput within remote infrastructures and the size limitations of cloud object stores chief among them.

The cloud has finally come of age for professional broadcast.

The high-speed transport that provides the backbone for cloud-based digital workflows is based on a proprietary technology entirely different from conventional, TCP-based file transfer modes such as FTP and HTTP, which don’t offer nearly the same speed or protection over long distances.

With this transport technology and integrated cloud-enabled software, it’s possible to move, distribute, synchronise and exchange big data, from any source to any destination. Organisations can transfer files of any size to and from cloud platforms – such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure – at full line speed and independent of distance and network conditions.

With digital supply chains now spanning the globe and the complexity associated with transferring ever-larger file sizes over longer distances increasing exponentially, digital media companies, particularly in sports and news, are taking notice.  

Use of the cloud also eliminates the risk of upfront IT investments and the often enormous resources required to deploy traditional data centres. Cloud models also enable companies to pay only for the capacity they use, allowing the ability to scale out and back as required.

This flexibility is critical to the nature of broadcasters in particular, where bursts of activity and big data transport and production from far-flung locations can be the norm rather than the exception.

A universally accessible cloud-based platform to manage, transport and distribute HD video content provides improvements across workflows, from transport and ingest all the way through Electronic News Gathering (ENG). Cloud infrastructures also eliminate the need for sophisticated IT infrastructures and costly hardware, especially in cases of short-duration events and periodic spikes in activity that can be difficult to predict.

UEFA turns to the cloud for Euro2012

UEFA recognised that the cloud could be instrumental in supporting its end-to-end supply of Euro2012 match video content to international broadcasters. A process that would speed availability of original content and empower those who needed access to view, select and receive specific content required selecting the right provider. Once in hand, UEFA was convinced that outcome would be all gain and virtually no risk.

In fact, a complex content delivery workflow was shrouded in an easily deployed and easily operated system. The process relied on integrated software from start to finish, including on-premise software deployments to power contribution, file-based workflow orchestration and overall management.

Combining on-demand, cloud-based infrastructure with software solutions provided complete flexibility and massive scalability in handling publishing and delivery for the large volumes of data generated. To obtain the same result through a traditional system would have required significant investment in on-premise resources­ that were simply cost-prohibitive.  

A seamless workflow

The process required a vendor who was able to deliver all parts of the content delivery chain – transport, workflow orchestration, storage and management – through the cloud. Ultimately, UEFA’s LIVEX On-Demand digital video service, which relied on the latest high-speed video transport technology, delivered over 3000 near-live in-match and post-match video clips, amounting to nearly 27 terabytes of full HD content to official partners around the world for broadcast to their subscribers.

In order to deliver video clips and its associated metadata to broadcasters in time for them to incorporate the content into programming, UEFA needed to move HD video files from on-site media centres in Ukraine and Poland to UEFA’s International Broadcasting Center (IBC) in Warsaw for processing and on to broadcast partners around the world.

Software enabling users to send files and directories directly to each others’ desktops with manual or automated transfers was installed at Digital Media Lounges at each sports venue and a server at the central facility. This allowed ENG crews to send time-critical video content to the IBC at maximum speed using the high-speed transport technology.

Once received, all content and associated metadata underwent a series of automated processing and publishing tasks centrally managed by an advanced workflow orchestration platform. The platform also handled all progress notifications and created and distributed real-time alerts to UEFA staff when necessary.

The final steps in making the content available to broadcast partners involved automatically transferring high-resolution content to cloud storage and publishing low-resolution proxy versions (thereby saving bandwidth) to an ordering portal and digitally delivering the final video product directly to the broadcaster. Using a server at the IBC, high-resolution content was transferred directly to Amazon S3 storage using high-speed data transfer through the cloud running on Amazon Web Services.

Low-resolution proxy versions were sent concurrently for immediate publishing to the UEFA broadcaster dedicated portal, where broadcast partners were able to browse and select desired content. Once selected, the final content and associated metadata were delivered to broadcast partners around the globe, once again using high-speed transport running in the AWS cloud, with the option for automatic download straight to a computer at the partner’s facility. The high-speed transport protocol helped ensure that packet loss and network congestion didn’t impede transfer speed or predictability.

Finally, to ensure smooth operation for the entire system, UEFA staff, as well as the vendor support team, relied on a centralised, web-based management interface for real-time monitoring and management of all transfer activity and post-hoc reporting.

On the horizon

The UEFA solution illustrates the possibilities and benefits of a cloud solution comprising a hybrid of enterprise and cloud components. Used together, they enabled high-quality content to be served and accessed extremely efficiently even at global distances.

And given the relatively short duration of high-profile sporting events like Euro2012, the use of the high-speed transport protocol in the AWS cloud offers a compelling, cost-effective archive and distribution mechanism for high value, time-sensitive content.

The promise of the cloud has been delivered. Yet, just as it took time for content providers and broadcasters to overcome their fears over the safety, quality and control of IP/IT infrastructures, so too will it take time for large-scale cloud adoption. But the hurdles that shackled cloud adoption are gone.

It’s a whole new world of high-speed data access in public and private cloud environments for highly efficient workflows that are not just possible but soon-to-be preferred. 

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