Waste not, want not


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One of the most interesting comments I heard at NAB this year was from Gary Greenfield, the CEO of Avid. Picking up the topic of making the most of content across multiple platforms, he said “nothing is left on the cutting room floor any more”. That started me thinking about how technology has allowed us to get profligate, and whether we are now at a point when we need to turn back to being parsimonious.
I took a few days off on my way back from NAB this year and stopped off in Florida, where I had a fascinating tour of the Cape Canaveral space station. They have preserved a couple of blockhouses used as launch control for early launches, including the one which saw Alan Shepard and John Glenn sent into space in the early sixties.
What were then regarded as computers lined the walls. Valve powered and programmed by hard wiring circuits, the Mercury space programme boasted a total computer memory of a staggering seven kilobytes. That is a little less than a quarter of the size of this Word document when I send it to the editor.
The blockhouse, incidentally, had to be virtually next to the Launchpad – to my inexpert eye it looked suicidally close – because there was no way of transmitting data any further. To know what was going on in the rocket before launch, the instruments had to be next to it. Things were very different 50 years ago.
But if 7kB was big back then, one of the messages coming out of NAB was that, in memory terms, bigger is better. Aberdeen was showing disk systems with a petabyte in a rack, Avid was talking about multi-petabyte storage, and Quantel came out with a system, modestly called RevolutionQ, which puts effectively infinite amounts of storage online.
Quantel has a launch customer for RevolutionQ, although at the moment it can only say it is a major American broadcaster. I think Quantel probably knows who it is, they just do not want us to know until it is installed and working. Public relations is like that. But we do know – because Quantel’s CEO let it slip – that they are paying more than $10 million for a system capable of storing many petabytes.
At the press event Quantel’s Steve Owen helpfully explained that a petabyte is a million gigabytes or a thousand terabytes. At today’s prices you can buy two petabytes in off the shelf commodity disk drives for around a million dollars. Using a 50Mb/s mezzanine codec, two petabytes equates to 90,000 hours of video. A moment with a calculator tells you that 90,000 hours is more than 10 years. The “US broadcaster” is going for 10 petabytes, or 50 years of content.
The thinking behind RevolutionQ is that you can store everything you have ever shot online. No archive, no clever software for partial recovery, no hierarchical storage management. Just a very clever file system and the benefits of the MXF AS-02 bundle format.
You are not going to want all that data on your premises, though, or in one location anywhere. So we are looking at either remote disaster recovery sites or cloud storage. And that, in turn, means shifting huge amounts of content around.
Now I have a cloud storage service which backs up my desktop computer. That first backup over a home business ADSL circuit, took more than three months. So once again, the need for a huge increase in data communications capacity is staring us in the face.
At the same time there is a growing assumption that content will be delivered to the consumer online in the future. We have been talking for close to 10 years about any programme at any time on any device, and now the technology pieces are all together to make it happen.
But the internet cannot cope. It is struggling today. What happens when broadcasters are shipping petabytes to their cloud stores, while huge audiences are tuning in to the Olympics 100m final or Britain’s Got Talent?
There is no such business as The Internet Inc., which could develop a new business plan and go to market to raise the funding for expansion. The structure of the internet is a bizarre mixture of commercial and altruistic organisations who have built this connectivity system that just seems to work, even if very few people – if anyone – know how.
So just because we can stream content across the internet, and store every frame we own online, should we? And can we make it work practically? Or should we be thinking much more about what to store and why? And should we continue to invest in old fashioned broadcasting?
For me, if I had any money I would be investing in transmitter manufacturers and satellite services. That is still the best way to get popular content to the home.
While I was at Cape Canaveral I was firmly told not to take pictures of one launch pad. On it was a Delta Heavy Lift rocket, its payload “a communications device for an unnamed government department”. In future I think there will be more broadcasting and civilian satellites up there.
(By the way, drop me an email if you want to see my picture of the secret satellite. If you can tell what it is from half a mile away, you are welcome to it)

Tags: iss065 | revolutionq | quantel | avid | N/A
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