Microservices and the Cloud

What do Discovery Networks, the BBC, VICE Media, Fox Sports, Sky, and Formula One group all have in common?

Apart from producing a wide range of exciting content, all of these corporations are now utilising the cloud for major components in their workflow. 3 years ago, this would have seemed improbable and challenging. 6 years ago, this may have seemed impossible. This blog will take a closer look at the expanding use of the cloud in broadcast, media and entertainment, and share some of BCi Digital’s experience and knowledge of “the cloud”.

Every silver lining has a cloud… but why?

The saying from which this heading is derived is a cliché, but extremely applicable to the benefits that the cloud brings. It is easy to get caught up in the hype that surrounds cloud computing, so we should think about exactly what cloud means for broadcasters, and why it’s continued adoption rains on the parade of the traditional way of working.

On-demand scalability

Probably the most attractive feature of the cloud is scalability. A well-designed broadcast workflow is composed of well utilised hardware, which can deal with day to day load, and have some reserve compute and storage for busy times. However, with this type of architecture there is always some underutilisation, with no means to capitalise on this, or at busy times – saturation, with no room for growth. Using the cloud allows for almost limitless scaling in the event of increased demand. The near future is rocky for traditional linear broadcasters, as every year, younger audiences continue to watch more online and OTT content [1], and the cost of terrestrial broadcast for small audiences becomes unprofitable.
The traditional “hardware-in-house” approach is now becoming ever more difficult to facilitate the demand, availability and variety that modern audiences expect. This is very well explained by the BBC [2] , who use the cloud extensively for scaling including pushing news notifications to mobile devices, testing their infrastructure for peak periods, and running iPlayer day to day.

Easily adaptable workflows

The composition of audience viewing has changed drastically in recent times, particularly in young audiences, and with this comes an increase in viewing devices. As a ‘traditional’ broadcaster, delivering linear, OTT, and VoD to new audiences is a huge challenge.
There are two ways of coping with the new demands. The first is to expand data centres to fulfil today’s formats and keep everything under your own roof. This will work, and you will have lots of system overview and incredibly granular control. However, you have to invest in the capital, and upgrade your system as often is required to cope with new formats. The planning and integration of such a widely encompassing and complex system would in itself be an enormous expense. An expensive approach!

The second and more logical answer to cope with this is the cloud, specifically the public cloud. The scalability that the big cloud providers can provide simply cannot be matched by traditional systems, or on premise private cloud, unless you are willing to work at a loss through constant and immense system upgrades.

A great example of the demand for highly scalable systems is for live events. Take the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The event was watched by an estimated 4.3 billion, and more and more audiences than ever watched on a mobile phone, or a computer, or a games console [3]. Huge increases in viewership from the East also boosted the numbers. The 2022 edition of the tournament could see some of the biggest viewer numbers ever if population centres China and the USA qualify next time around.

Disaster Recovery

One of the best results of cloud computing is that services can be distributed. Amazon Web Services (AWS) have multiple regions and availability zones and offer the majority of their services in each of these. They also facilitate automatic cross region replication and guarantee 11x 9’s (99.999999999%) durability of data. For context; “if you gave AWS one million files to store, statistically they would lose one file every 659,000 years. You are about 411 times more likely to get hit by a meteor” [4]. This is a very compelling statistic and offers broadcasters huge amounts of peace of mind (about their data at least, perhaps less so about celestial events).

The challenges of disaster recovery are most prevalent in broadcast operations – i.e. playout, where time-criticality is essential. BCi Digital have found that this is most true at the frame level when aligning multiple media sources for playout. A redundancy scheme can be configured whereby two different data centres play out media from two continents to reduce the risk of natural disaster taking out a region. This is a great idea, but in practice requires very precise egress timing and timestamps to ensure proper frame alignment. Historically you could lock different playout servers to a station clock, but this is far more difficult on a global scale.

Switching from a main site to a DR site in a timely and clean fashion is also of large importance. Having a backup system is useless if it takes 4 hours to become operational when you are playing out a football game (although you might catch the beginning and end of a super bowl with a 4-hour outage in the middle!).

Micro-services = Macro-success

Anyone privy to the Netflix technology blog will know all about microservices [5]. In essence they can be defined as small tasks that require repetitive processing of data to enable certain functionality. A familiar example is the landing screen you face when accessing a new service on a website which asks you to sign in with Facebook or Google or email. Netflix build much of their operation from microservices, and tens are cascaded and interoperate to provide the slick experience users of their platform receive. The reason they are so great is because typical software approaches rely on bulk installations, which must be upgraded all at once (much like OS updates to phones or laptops). Microservices can be changed as the provider sees fit, so a user sees different things between visits to a platform, or even during a single session.

In the broadcast facility, the same approach of bulk software implementations exist. To add new functionality to a system, often a months-long provider acquisition and consultation period is followed by further months of installation, testing, and finally launch.

As speed to deployment increases in 2018, broadcasters want upgrades to be faster. If a system were built from microservices, implementation of upgrades and changes can be realised in days, or even hours.

Microservices in the cloud

There is a plethora of use cases for microservices for broadcasters, but when combined with the cloud, they present a very compelling solution. Take for example Amazon Web Services’ “Amazon Machine Image”. An AMI is a complete software appliance available in the cloud that can be used immediately. One such use case for something as accessible as an AMI could be an AI microservice which analyses a certain part of the workflow that would benefit from visual metadata creation. In the old-style of working, entire software components would need to be updated, sometimes encompassing many pieces of hardware. In the new, a microservice could be trialled on a live workflow with limited influence on the live system and be introduced and upgraded as often as required.

This approach was tested by Sky during the Royal Wedding in May 2018. To enhance the viewing experience, Sky provided the video feed from the wedding to the AWS Rekognition engine, a cloud-based AI service which was able to recognise the guests and provide viewers with information about them [6].

Cloud SWOT

It’s easy to just see the sunny side of the cloud, so to close out this blog, the whole picture has to be considered:

Why choose BCi Digital?

BCi Digital have provided software, project management, and direction to realise complex cloud solutions working with global broadcasters, delivering content at scale across large and complex networks. We have a long track record in cloud based systems research and have our own internal cloud workflow test and development facility used by clients to test and develop their cloud strategies. These are both examples of a fresh approach to broadcast playout as well as cinema content distribution and security. In addition to being involved in the cutting edge, BCi Digital can draw on decades of combined knowledge and experience of the broadcast, IPTV, and telecoms markets, and it’s cross-disciplinary experts are very well versed in delivering projects on time, on budget, and with minimal risk.

By Alex Snell, Associate Solution Architect at BCi Digital

[1] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/116006/media-nations-2018-uk.pdf
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ7Husc_yZo
[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/14/world-cup-2018-breaks-viewing-records-across-streaming-platforms-as-so.html
[4] https://wasabi.com/blog/11-nines-durability/
[5] https://medium.com/netflix-techblog/netflix-conductor-a-microservices-orchestrator-2e8d4771bf40
[6] https://www.pymnts.com/amazon-innovations/2018/amazon-rekognition-artificial-intelligence-royal-wedding/

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