How Live Cloud Production Will Transform Broadcasting: The View of an Industry Leader

September 15, 2023
6 min read
live cloud production

Live cloud production has become increasingly integral to broadcasting solutions, but it’s a relatively new option whose fast-developing capabilities can create more questions than answers for non-experts.

The fact that Alpha leverages years of experience in cloud production is a distinct asset for clients and industry peers alike, such as attendees at SVG’s 2023 inaugural Sports Cloud Production Forum, where Alpha Broadcast account manager and cloud evangelist Bryan Nelson participated in a panel about cloud production and software as a service (SaaS).

“What’s remarkable is how effectively cloud production meets the evolving needs of broadcasters in a wide range of industries,” says Bryan. “During the pandemic, it became the only option for broadcasting in sectors ranging from sports to corporate events, and in today’s hybrid world virtual production is only becoming more pervasive.”

After all, notes Bryan, cloud platforms provide scalable and flexible resources that reduce the need for on-premises resources while making it easier to handle the considerable data processing requirements of live events. “Using IP networks, video feeds can be transmitted to the cloud, where a wide variety of producers, technicians, engineers, and others can produce content remotely.”

Alpha demonstrated the promise of live cloud production back in 2020, when, in response to COVID restrictions, it helped pioneer the first use of cloud production with the NFL draft. So successful was the event that Alpha quickly gained additional commissions to provide remote broadcasting production solutions across industries. Since then, key Alpha team members like Bryan Nelson have become sought-after thought leaders.

What the cloud means to your business and your customers

“Cloud production is a real game changer for broadcasting, and it came along at just the right time because of the restrictions imposed by COVID,” says Bryan. “Moreover, the cloud has become increasingly relevant as the technology evolves, the economy has tightened, and hybrid events become the default. Today we’re experiencing 50% more production than in 2019, but the industry’s seeing staff reductions of about 10%.” Those forces have propelled the development and adoption of cloud tools, particularly as a means to supplement traditional production.

live cloud production

“Say you’re a customer that has five on-premises SDI/2110 control rooms, but you need 20 more for a 30-day large-scale event. Or maybe you’re a large event customer who needs eight master control rooms, but only for two weeks, once a year. Cloud production allows you to scale out horizontally without the CapEx investment,” says Bryan.

The cost savings enabled by cloud production appeal to customers of all sizes. For large broadcasters who produce major events like the NFL Draft or a political convention, the cloud makes production more flexible and efficient. For smaller entities like a niche sports league (say, pickleball or disc golf), its impact is even more profound. Cloud production makes broadcasting possible without a large upfront investment.

One of cloud production’s most attractive features, after all, is the way it enables remote production workflows, removing the need for extensive on-premises infrastructure and the people to run it. In addition, cloud computing allows broadcasters to pay only for the resources they consume during the live event.

How the move to software as a service (SaaS) will affect customer relationships

For the time being, one force putting the brakes on cloud production is uncertainty among customers, and even technology integrators, about how to price for software as a service (SaaS).

“It can be a challenge,” explains Bryan. “A $5 million control room is easy to understand, but in a complex environment with multiple vendors in your Virtual Production Environment (VPE), everybody’s subscription models are different. Some licenses are daily, others monthly and yearly, while some are perpetual. Figuring out how many quarters to put into the jukebox to keep the system running can be very complicated. And then there’s the cost of your CPU usage – which is prone to change and can be hard to calculate correctly vs. a typical five-year cycle to build, break down, and rebuild a physical facility.”

Education is needed, says Nelson, to optimize instance usage, shutdown processes, and content migration to lower-cost storage. “At present there’s a real challenge to understanding the true cost of ownership.”

Challenges involving third-party integration and interoperability

Integrating with third-party technology in a SaaS world can present significant challenges to broadcasters.

 “Look at NDI and SRT,” says Bryan. “They’re great open protocols we use in the cloud all the time, but everyone’s implementation can vary. Just because something supports NDI, you can still run into problems because someone’s NDI is a little different than someone else’s.

One common misconception is that cloud production is easier than on-premises production. “There are customers who think it should be sold like ordering a pizza on your Domino’s app. But we’re not there yet,” says Bryan. “In designing a system, we still need to figure out signal flows, workflow, validation, proof of concept, etc.”

The fact is cloud production can be just as sophisticated as an on-premises SDI-2110 system. Moreover, it requires additional IT talent to build, maintain and troubleshoot, while still requiring system integrators to design, integrate, and support. “Expertise is needed in remote network monitoring and analysis, as well as rapid multi-vendor deployment using orchestration and scripting tools,” says Bryan. License agreement models differ among vendors, with some vendors only supporting certain cloud providers. “Remember, too, that there’s a mix of OS environments running in VPC, Windows, Windows Server, Linux, Ubuntu, and even Mac. Also, most current solutions are dedicated-instance based, with no widespread support for things like AWS Lamba.”

Where will we be in three years with respect to live events in the cloud?

“Today we’re fixated on the ‘lift and shift’ – that is, what we do on the ground, and how to mirror that exact same system in the cloud,” says Bryan. But this model of technology application is predicated on the idea that innovation occurs first in on-premises environments and is then virtualized in the cloud.

“What we need to think about is what tools will be developed for the cloud and how will they fundamentally change production,” explains Bryan. “That’s where all the GPUs and the AI are focusing. Twenty-four months from now, I think we’ll look back and say, ‘I could never do this production on the ground. Nobody makes anything on the ground that can do this.’”

Bryan’s prediction: “In the next two or three years, maybe tier-2 and tier-3 cloud production will be solidified, but the foundational shift I think is in the three-to-five-year window when the production landscape will completely change.”

What happens next?

One thing is certain: Cloud production is the way of the future, in large part because of simple economics. The industry wants greater efficiency and lower cost. It also wants recurring revenue in the form of software as a service. “We’ll still need hardware, but much of that could also be more of a subscription model,” explains Bryan.

So, when will the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or a presidential inauguration be entirely produced on the cloud? No one is ready to hazard a guess. For simpler, smaller events, the time when cloud production replaces traditional control rooms isn’t far off. For larger, more complex events, however, the cloud’s chief value at present is as a supplement to physical facilities. But as Bryan Nelson stresses, the cloud is going to develop on its own terms, with tools that have increasingly little in common with those used in traditional physical production facilities.

“The key thing to remember is that we’re at the beginning of this journey as an industry,” says Bryan. “We haven’t even fully defined what we mean by ‘the cloud’ yet. It often gets lumped into one production category, but really, it’s several, including live, post, content management and delivery distribution. All we know for sure is that change is happening fast and it’s going to have a profound impact on broadcasting.”

To illustrate the kind of change ahead, Bryan cites services such as Dropbox and Outlook 365 as a reference. “Who uses flash drives and USB hard drives today for sharing Word and Excel docs? Who still operates on on-premises Outlook Exchange server? Video is always last to transition because of file size, but that barrier is fast disappearing, and with AI and GPT tools opening of new ways of producing content, customers have to be ready for what’s next.”


What is the future of live cloud production in broadcasting?

Live cloud production is being embraced by broadcasters, particularly when physical resources and personnel are not readily available or affordable. Consequently, in the near term, it is likely to become more of a fixture for tier-2 and tier-3 events, which do not enjoy the kind of support that broadcasters give to tier-1 events. However, the adoption of cloud production across broadcasting is inevitable due to benefits including cost efficiency, scalability, and flexibility. At present, cloud production is most often used as a supplement to on-premises physical production resources, but that is changing rapidly as computing power increases, data networks evolve to carry ever-increasing information loads, and awareness about cloud production’s capabilities continues to grow.

What are the challenges of live cloud production?

As with any fast-developing new technology, there will be hesitancy to abandon tried and true production techniques, especially by the producers of high-stakes media events. Furthermore, the transition to a new model featuring software as a service (SaaS) and other innovations creates uncertainty about how to develop the economic model for live cloud production. There are also a wide range of challenges surrounding third-party integration, interoperability, and other technical hurdles. The consensus among experts, however, is that all these challenges will be addressed as broadcasters embrace the manifold advantages of live cloud production.

Evan Davis
Evan Davis
Marketing Manager at Alpha