Vive La Cloud!
Moving to a cloud architecture may seem a daring choice for a news organization. After all, media companies are the second most-hacked enterprises after banks. Nonetheless, France’s TF1 television channel has taken advantage of cloud technology and gained security advantages and significant cost savings.
TF1’s progression to cloud technology has been a natural one given the requirements of television news and competition in the news business. To contain costs while expanding capabilities, TF1 has made technology choices that may be of interest to any media company.
Rebranded from Télévision Française 1 in January 1975, TF1 started as a simple channel and has evolved into a multimedia, multi-channel, and multi-platform TV network. TF1 has always led French TV in audience share and intends to maintain that leadership. However, we all know that traditional TV channels face strong competition from digital services, particularly among younger viewers. TF1 thus placed strong emphasis on diversifying activities to improve content creation and monetize capabilities. While enhancing its position as a producer of original content for news, TF1 is also selling content to other TV channels.
How can cloud technology help? The answer comes out of the longterm trends in TV operations. Like any other TV news group, TF1 sends crews into the field with more than 88 pounds’ (40 kilograms) of equipment to gather content for news stories. In the not-too-distant future, we could shoot the same kind of video with a pocket-size smartphone that can transmit content across the planet thanks to the 3G and 4G networks. There is only one condition — you must shoot in landscape mode because TV screens are horizontal.
Software is replacing a great deal of hardware. The processing applied by the smartphone to improve picture quality replaces the big lenses and big image sensors used in broadcast cameras. What’s more, stabilization algorithms are replacing the strength of the cameraman’s weary shoulder.
Another trend has affected video editing equipment. In the 1990s and early 2000s, an entire bank of equipment was required. Today, PC-based systems are easily powerful enough to handle HD video editing. Consequently, videotape has become obsolete. Giving up workflows based on tape and tape recorders was the biggest transformation for TF1. Digital media and servers have dramatically improved the ability to work in groups and collaborate in content sharing.
Now, with software-based solutions, all the elements are in place for an even greater transformation. The adoption of cloud technology in broadcasting infrastructures.
Security presents a serious cloud infrastructure challenge for the media and broadcasting industry. Having safe infrastructure is an absolute necessity for the second most-frequently attacked industry. It is difficult to make a safer infrastructure than the closed system used years ago.
Other cloud challenges are not so much barriers to use as they are issues of scaling resources to meet TF1’s requirements. For example, TF1 typically stores approximately 200,000 hours of content — in the range of a few petabytes. The company has to manage a reasonable number of files, but each file is huge. And remember — these figures are for HD resolution. 4K video quadruples the number of pixels and increases the number of frames per second, making it necessary to quadruple the number of pixels again because Japanese broadcasters intend to launch 8K technology for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Another important specification for TF1’s media cloud is compute resources, which are needed for audio and video processing as well as running the databases used to manage the company’s media. TF1 therefore needs solid general-purpose computing capability as well as graphics capabilities. Some of the company’s video editors have been using high-end laptop computers for this task, which is a cost concern for TF1.
Additionally, the company has rolled out a major upgrade of the technical and editorial system for the 24/7 LCI news channel. LCI (La Chaîne Info) was previously a pay TV channel but earlier this year went free-to-air and is now facing new competition in the free-to-air market. The technical upgrade will make the channel more competitive but requires the use of high-end workstations.
LCI has a team of 150 journalists, and TF1 wanted to avoid investing in 150 high-end workstations when their utilization is not very high over a 24-hour news cycle. At any given time, around 60 journalists are simultaneously working on a video-editing task. Using standard workstations would have been costly and also would have constrained each journalist to a fixed location.
For a long time, TF1 thought that the only solution was to move to an architecture based on Web clients. Unfortunately, significant features of audio/visual applications are still unavailable in such an architecture.
Over the past couple of years, TF1 has performed numerous trials of virtualized infrastructures, which achieved higher density and ease of maintenance. Next, TF1 wanted to innovate in a different way to cost-effectively support the LCI journalists.
With the help of Huawei, TF1 set up a cloud architecture using Huawei’s FusionCloud desktop, which enables end users to access ‘virtual PCs’ using thin clients. This solution encompasses terminals, other hardware, software, network resources, security resources, and consulting services to help adapt the solution to specific requirements.
The solution freed TF1 from depending on both a powerful client machine and a strong back-office capability with a high-performance network to bring high-resolution video streams to the client. The cloud architecture concentrates the computing power in the data center as a set of shared resources.
TF1 limited its shared-resource investment to 60 host computers that are accessible to 150 thin clients, which cost much less than high-end workstations, soft clients via Wi-Fi, and even smartphones. For performance, Huawei’s Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solution offered the best qualities for video playback and other crucial functions, including very smooth video playback and perfect picture and sound synchronization.
Finally, the cloud setup improved TF1’s security. The VDI provides audio/visual tools and office tools on the same user screen that run on separate virtual machines. This setup allows TF1 to separate the office tools and broadcast video tools in the back office, which improved security.
Future plans for TF1 include partnering with Huawei, possibly in the short term, to implement a huge storage solution or extend the VDI solution into other areas of TF1. With the emergence of cloud-compatible TV applications and software-defined infrastructure, TF1 may soon be able to create a complete TV system as easily as a Web system can be created today.
By Guillaume Lemoine, Broadcast Engineering Manager, TF1 Group