The point is well illustrated by a cloud-oriented affiliation between Microsoft and Digital Rapids where steps taken by Microsoft over the past year to optimize its Windows Azure cloud services platform for media services dovetail perfectly with Digital Rapids’ new Kayak enterprise workflow management platform. As reported in March (p. 19), Kayak operates from a pure IT perspective to run workflows for all aspects of enterprise operations, including the processes directly associated with content management, no matter where the processing centers are located.
“Cloud is really a misnomer,” says Brick Eksten, president and co-founder of Digital Rapids. “What we’re talking about is the philosophy of portability, dynamics and scale you can achieve on the fly in the operational environment enabled by Kayak and Azure. It’s not about renting systems. It’s about deploying solutions.”
How a media or cable company views the framework for operational efficiency Microsoft has developed for Azure Media Services depends on whether or not the firm has digitized its operations, says Taras Bugir, worldwide managing director for Microsoft’s recently created Media and Cable group. “We’ve distanced ourselves from the workflow,” Bugir says. “Once you’ve separated the workflow from the processing centers, does it matter whether they’re on the next floor, in another building or in another city?
“As long as you have the tools to create and manage workflows and monetize your business it doesn’t matter,” he continues. “If you’re a digital business you’re a digital business. If you’re not, you’re creating a digital [media] construct for an analog business. You haven’t digitized the business, so your workflow stays the same.”
As previously reported (May 2011, p. 1),Azure is a highly scalable, elastic computing platform that allows enterprises from multiple industries to utilize the Microsoft’s massive storage infrastructure, content delivery ecosystem and SQL database server for an endless variety of applications. Over the past year the company has worked with Media and Cable group customers to better optimize the Azure environment for such entities.
“Most cloud offerings are infrastructure based,” Bugir notes. “They give you storage and computing. We go another step.”
On the one hand, Azure Media Services offers content suppliers of all descriptions a pre-integrated set of fundamental components, including ingest, transccoding, format conversion, content protection and streaming, from sources in and outside Microsoft , including partners like Digital Rapids. At the same time, the framework supports integration of functional components from alternative sources, such as a third-party DRM in lieu of or complementary to Microsoft’s PlayReady, to facilitate seamless integration of on-premises and cloud-based processing resources within any given workflow.
The goal is to provide the most cost-effective set of solutions for media firms’ needs while making it easy to integrate Media Services with tools and processes the customer already uses, Bugir says. For example, a customer may want to encode content on-site, upload to Media Services for transcoding into multiple formats and deliver through a third-party CDN. Media Services can be called individually via standard REST API’s for easy integration with applications and services, he adds.
Whether using the pre-integrated solutions or adding components of their own choosing, customers will be able to leverage the scale of Microsoft Azure’s reach and therefore the lower costs Microsoft can bargain for inclusion of components in the ecosystem, he adds. “Once you’re in the contract you’re riding the economics,” he says. “The more we scale, the more our customers get absolutely disruptive pricing and our partners get global reach. Everyone wins.”
Customers select which components they want to run on the cloud system, resulting in a single bill covering utilization that’s been customized to their needs. “We glue things together for you and shorten time to value,” Bugir says. “We want to enable customers to focus on their business rather than building infrastructure.”
And to focus on the business with less risk as opportunities to create new services and applications arise. “If to build a new service you have to add infrastructure, IT resources, data centers, what happens if no one comes?” Bugir comments. “Why go through that rigmarole? If no one comes and you’re using Azure, you just paid for usage.”
Given the uncertainties of an industry in transition to business models tied to multiscreen service delivery and the dynamic capabilities of an all-IP environment for applications and advertising, this low-cost approach to experimentation and service acceleration is vital, he adds. “The whole industry is in transition, and it’s presumptuous to say how it will turn out,” he says. We’ve created the tools and capabilities to help people make sensible decisions. We’ll be building and adding as we learn.”
Azure Media Services was on display at the recent NAB Show running live applications from several partners, including Arvato’s content collaboration platform; Conciety’s editorial collaboration tools; Decentrix’s business intelligence management system; Digital Rapids’ Kayak; Green Button’s media indexing service; Origin Digital’s Broadcast Cloud solution; Tata Consultancy’s media advisory services, and Wowza’s Media Server 3. Digital Rapids showed Kayak Engines running workflows within the cloud and a preview of how the firm’s Transcode Manager 2.0 can seamlessly bridge on-premises and cloud media processing.
This group represents a small segment of the partnership ecosystem, Bugir says. “We told our partners we wanted them to have live running cloud software in our booth, no demos,” he notes. “We connected a one gigabyte pipe to our cloud and all our partners ran on that pipe.”
Microsoft has now publicized two customers that will be putting Azure Media Services to use commercially, including radio station KEXP in Seattle and, as reported elsewhere, the International Olympics Committee, which will use the platform to aggregate and stream live event content over the IOC’s worldwide online feed. KEXP is developing a hybrid premises and cloud operating environment to provide full redundancy with 99.99 percent availability for all aspects of station operations and to facilitate development of new online services for a global audience, says KEXP application developer Louis O’Callaghan.
“In the past, we had no redundancy for our solution,” O’Callaghan says. “Even though it was extremely stable, we wanted to implement a high-availability and disaster-recovery plan to be sure we delivered consistent service.”
At the same time, he adds, “Windows Azure provides easy-to-use technologies for defining and supporting the services that we want to offer through the cloud. When our solution is fully deployed, we plan to create unique artist pages that are dynamically generated and tied to the metadata in SQL Server 2012. You’ll be able to go to KEXP.org/Artist/Nirvana and see all of the times we played Nirvana, which albums we’ve played, what DJs said about the song and what our listeners said.“
Recognizing the digitization of business would inevitably lead to efficiencies that require fluid workflow management across on-premises and cloud-based resources Digital Rapids built its Kayak workflow management system as an all-encompassing framework that would allow media companies to design their processes to exploit this environment to maximum advantage, Eksten says. Unlike workflow approaches that simply orchestrate between separate applications across multiple workflow stages, Kayak is built on a philosophy of granular modularity with technologies as components – from media-specific functions like encoding, packaging and processing to business-oriented functionality such as analytics, automated intelligence and reporting, he says.
Where its transcoding, streaming and other products are concerned, Digital Rapids can provide customers the cost efficiencies of using them on cloud-based infrastructure without having to provide its own hosting facilities by virtue of the partnership with Azure, he adds. Over the next year, “all our solutions are moving in that direction,” he says. And the company will also be developing new solutions that are designed strictly for use on cloud infrastructure.
“At its most basic level Azure gives us an SLA (service level agreement) environment that’s been tuned to govern usage for Fortune 10 companies,” he notes. “We don’t have to invest in high availability or economies of scale to make our technology solutions available through the cloud.”
The SLA-enforced benefits of scalability and applications flexibility that Azure brings to the market suggests the industry is at an inflection point where use of the cloud is concerned, “because, from an operations cost perspective, it absolutely makes sense,” Eksten says. “It doesn’t make sense today from a core production standpoint, but when you think of distribution and adding things like DRM, support for UltraViolet, fingerprinting, watermarking and lightweight, fast marketing cycles, these are all software components you can implement much cheaper by utilizing cloud scale infrastructure.”
After all, Eksten says, if a workflow system that orchestrates enterprise operations across multiple functions must interact with diverse servers and storage centers scattered across diverse locations, what difference does it make if some of those functions are performed in part or in whole on processors in an enterprise-owned facility and in part or in whole on processing capacity leased from an outside party? The key is workflow integration and complete flexibility to leverage processing resources as efficiently as possible.