According to the World Meteorological Organisation, there are 10 different types of cloud, each of which can be divided further into sub-types. They range from the cirrus, the thin floaty clouds which generally serve only to make the sky look beautiful to the towering, all-embracing cumulonimbus which can deliver fearful quantities of rain – the biggest cumulonimbus clouds can contain 50 million tonnes of water.
At one extreme a cloud is not even going to stop you getting sunburn; on the other, you should be running for cover inside a substantial, Faraday cage-like building.
I probably do not need to drag this metaphor out any longer. You will already have worked out I am pointing to the huge variation in what a cloud looks like and what it can do. The same applies to the other, less pretty, type of cloud (the giant data center) - there are many potential iterations for the broadcast and media industry to choose from, and working out the right way forward can be daunting.
I should make our position clear from the very beginning. Support Partners is a pioneer and advocate for cloud applications, and we have a stated aim to get all our customers to the cloud by 2020. But it is really important that everyone understands where in the cloud they want to be – and of course, why – to deliver real operational and commercial benefits.
At the moment there are some M&E organisations which are boldly moving towards the cloud: Discovery and Fox, for example, have moved content supply chains “up there”. Others are moving more tentatively, maybe using the cloud only for archive and storage . But there is reasoned thinking behind what appears to be slow progress.
First, there is nervousness about unknown costs. Storage costs are easily calculated and quite attractive on first look, but there is a significant penalty for what cloud companies call “egress” – getting the content back to premises.
Historically, when the cloud was just a limited storage and compute platform it made sense to bring content on-premise to process but now, with a wide range of cloud-native processing tools available. The solution is simple: only egress when you absolutely have to. Even specialist vendors are moving to containerised architectures which are inherently virtualisable and cloud-ready; others are offering cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) solutions which mean you can do pretty much everything you need to remotely, only moving packaged content at the point of delivery.
A second major concern is around technology debt. Unless you have the rare luxury of starting from an absolutely clean sheet of paper, you will have a substantial existing investment in both hardware and working practices.
Your archive, for example, may well be stored on LTO tapes. Over the years, tools may have been used to archive content in a proprietary way with projects filed across multiple tapes which is so complicated that unpicking it could be a real drain on time and money. Ally that to the capital investment in tapes and drives – and all the other hardware and software involved in running a media business – and the challenge of moving away becomes daunting - to some.
As an industry, broadcast, has got used to the idea of simply layering one solution on another to achieve advances because that was the only option. Need to migrate to HD? Update the router, buy more servers, change the transcoders.
Taking a step back and redesigning the whole way you handle your core business can seem to be too much to consider. Once we move one process to the cloud, goes the thinking, then we have embarked on a road and it will be difficult and costly to turn back.
Part of this is changing the way of thinking. The arguments about capex and opex are regularly rehearsed, but it can be tough to contemplate such a massive change in the foundations of the business. You need an impartial eye to talk about how to restructure, how to genuinely evaluate total cost of ownership, including all the energy, and how to guard against runaway costs.
You also have to set the shift in financial fundamentals against the boost to productivity. Cloud solutions give you agility. That means you can respond to changes in demand, delivering productions far more quickly and beating the competitors to market for new services.
Why is Support Partners – an organisation which is valued by its clients to deliver business change through insight, process, expertise and technology – so convinced that the time is right to migrate to the cloud? My answer is that, given the huge competitive challenges facing everyone in the industry today, you need to get an edge wherever you can. That is measured not just in direct costs, but in the way you add value to everything you do by making the best use of your data.
There is a simple but very important point to keep in mind. Computers are very good at dull, repetitive tasks; people are good at creativity. That is how you should design your workflows. An editor might take a day to create a great promo video, but if she then has to spend another week or so churning out all the different versions, you are wasting talent and demotivating the editor.
Machine learning is advancing the definition of the dull repetitive task. Given sufficient processing power – and in the cloud we have effectively infinite processing power if we want to pay for it – then you can automate a huge range of tasks, allowing you to boost quality while keeping your staff focused on where they are really needed.
Intelligent systems can transform your workflows and your productivity, making your business more agile and adaptable, responding to changes in the market and in the audience as they happen.
You can add these new, intelligent processes by implementing them in the cloud. The challenges of hybrid solutions – with some processing on premises, some remote – are readily understood today. Planning for a managed transition answers the questions around the cost of egress and the appetite for technology transformation. You control the progress towards cloud-centric, at the speed your requirements and available budget dictate.
Remember, too, that once operations are in the cloud you can add functionality that you never had before. You have the resources to analyse the data generated by your operation, recognising trends and generating actionable insights. Whether that is tweaking workflows or balancing revenues against costs for individual services, it makes you a better business.
The automotive industry, for instance, uses predictive analytics to predict the best pricing of car parts against vendor reliability, delivery time and more. That feeds back into future designs, making them cheaper to build, more satisfying to drive and easier to repair. Substitute programmes and advertising for tyres and exhausts and you see how it works.
The route to the cloud will be different for each organisation. It could start with the cirrus solution of simply putting the archive online. But the aim should be the cumulonimbus: the all-embracing multi-service cloud solution that will wash away the competition.