Creating an SDN-Managed Service Platform for Next-Generation Broadcasting
The economics of broadcasting are changing. As companies like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video challenge the status quo, broadcasters now need to spend more money generating their own content if they want to stay relevant. That’s a good thing for consumers. But more money for content means less investment on broadcast technology and services. That’s where Red Bee Media comes in.
Red Bee Media is one of the world’s leading broadcast services providers. In essence, we provide specialized managed services for media companies and broadcasters covering the end-to-end content flow from live events to screens in any format globally.
Our core services are efficient production, channel origination, media management, post production, OTT, access services, content enrichment and distribution.
Traditionally, we focused on the top tier of customers in the industry such as leading brands like BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and UKTV in the UK. In France, our customers include Canal+, France 24, and TF1, in the Netherlands we service NPO, NOS, RTL, and FOX. The same is true in other markets around the world: For a long time, Red Bee Media focused on those broadcasters who required a lot of live, highly complex content.
With broadcasters demanding a lower cost for our services, we can no longer afford to only be a tier-one service provider, however to make the economics work, we must deliver our services to the entire market, expanding to tiers two and three. But there’s one problem: The service fees need to be more cost-effective and commercially flexible to allow our customers to invest more in content. To achieve this, we had to rethink the entire delivery chain to determine a new model. One area we had to address was the infrastructure costs of our data centres.
The Unsustainable Model
Previously, we built customised broadcast environments for every customer. Each customer would have their own silo within our data centre space and their own architecture, and none of it would be consistent, multi-tenanted, or shared with any other broadcaster. When customers wanted to scale workloads like the amount of content they processed, we’d have to increase the capacity within the silo, which at times would have very low utilization levels. This is very time-consuming, costly for the customer, and does not leverage the economies of scale of being a managed service provider. To launch large customer services could take as long as 10–18 months.
I’m sure you can see where this leads to. If you come to our European data centres today, we have over 2,000 racks of equipment. You name it, we’ve got it. We have every single broadcast box that does every variety of video processing, and none of it is consistent.
When you custom-build like that for a large number of customers, there are knock-on costs. These disparate technologies balloon the cost of training your teams. You now have some engineers who are familiar with the maintenance of only one technology, and other engineers familiar only with another technology. Even the support is different. The cost of maintenance, support, and the inherent inefficiency of working this way isn’t much of a problem if your customer is willing to support this model, but obviously this setup severely restricts how economical the service can be.
That model simply does not work anymore. We had to get out of the business of buying customised black boxes that deliver specific applications. Our business needed to change and there was no value to our business, or our customers, to continue this way. Our customers not only expected lower costs overall, but on-demand commercial pricing. Our old model depended on broadcasters buying a 5 or 10-year contract with a fixed cost for space and services, but our customers don’t want that anymore. They want to pay for something for a day, an hour, or even a minute.
When I joined Red Bee Media three years ago, it became my mission to drive consistency, re-usability, fast deployment, multi-tenancy, and security to meet the changing demands of our business. That meant reorganizing the business around a new solution.
In a Field of Homogenous Vendors, One Solution Stood Out
Our eventual vision was to build a multi-tenanted environment based on off-the-shelf hardware, where all the intricate parts for delivering our broadcast solutions would be software-defined.
The first questions we asked were: “Could we buy everything as software?” and, “Is the vendor community in the broadcast market ready for that change?” We consulted with the major vendors and identified whose philosophy was similar to ours.
The problem was that we couldn’t put all our services in the public cloud because offerings like AWS didn’t have the processing power or network bandwidth to deal with uncompressed multicast network traffic. It meant we had to build a hybrid solution that could leverage public cloud for burst capacity and stay on-premise for the larger, more complex workloads. People talk about banking, oil, and gas having intense workloads, but they’re not even on the radar in comparison to media. To put it into context, an uncompressed HD video signal runs at 1.5 Gb/s, and that’s for just one channel. If it’s an ultra-high definition channel, we’re talking 12 Gb/s. That’s why the cloud just wouldn’t work for us.
We needed to find a commodity off the shelve ‘COTS’ vendor who could handle our bandwidth demands. We also needed enough compute power to deliver sufficient hardware economics for our industry.
Once we selected the software we wanted to work with, we then had to find a hardware vendor that could handle our workloads. One that provides servers and a network architecture that can deal with media processing? We knew there were a few enterprise COTS providers, but other than managing our high workloads, the other key requirements was a provider that could provide the overarching brainpower to manage and create a hybrid cloud that was elastic and could scale easily.
We assessed the market, and rather than doing a big RFP, we did more of a consultative engagement with our partner, 7FiveFive, who helped us define the requirements for the platform. That consultative process involved workshops with a lot of the big names, like HP, Dell, Cisco, and IBM. What we concluded coming out of those workshops is that a lot of the boxes are comparable: Everyone was similar in terms of life cycle; they’re all using similar Intel chips.
What separated Cisco from the rest was Cisco UCS. It would give us the cloud-type behaviour with the brainpower you get from an Amazon or Microsoft when integrated into Red Hat tooling, but on-prem. Another concern was how much it would cost to deploy a service, and who would manage it. UCS in combination with Red Hat answered those questions because it could manage all the deployment tools and the distributional workloads on the compute infrastructure. It gave us the ability to orchestrate, scale up, and scale down as needed. It was also fairly evident from our talks with Cisco that they were building a pedigree in the media sector.
At a high level, there were two big differentiators between Cisco and the other vendors. The first was that Cisco owned the end-to-end hardware stack. The second was the security aspect. Changing economics was the primary driver of our search, but security remained a critical factor in choosing a solution. Who isn’t concerned about security?
Media companies are surround by security threats from foreign governments, cybercriminals, and every other threat. There are people who want to shakedown media organizations. Terrorist groups pose serious threats. And we unfortunately live in the era of multiple groups wanting to disseminate fake news. It’s critical given this context that Red Bee Media’s environments are impenetrable.
We’ve bought Cisco Firepower and are looking at some similar Cisco products. It’s clear why Cisco is a leader in the security space. Having that tied-in, end-to-end ecosystem means we have only one environment to secure from a hardware perspective.
With Cisco, we could achieve our vision of one hardware stack that looks and behaves like a private cloud, with the elasticity to scale. But it would be on-prem, secure, standardized, and multi-tenanted.
The Value of a Knowledgeable Partner
We’ve worked with our partner 7FiveFive in different ways in the past, but they were crucial for this project because they understood our mission. They helped us finesse our story and translated it to Cisco. 7FiveFive brought in a more IT-centric broadcast knowledge that was the glue between Red Bee’s broadcast expertise and the commodity compute industry.
I now realize how badly we needed 7FiveFive as that go-between, because in hindsight I see how much we still had to learn. We underestimated the level of complexity, and Red Bee Media probably started with better economies of scale than most media companies globally.
This is what I would tell a CTO or CIO thinking about embarking on a similar journey: Don’t think you can transform yourself unknowingly. It’s a big investment that requires a vision and ambition to change. It takes a huge amount of expertise and planning to merge an agile cloud-deployment micro-service philosophy with a commodity compute vendor. Focus on the problems you are trying to overcome and what new ways of working that would overcome the problem, and then drive your teams to consider what tooling they should use to have a consistent agile deployment pipeline.
The broadcast sector is already complicated before we add this additional layer, so you will want to consider the underlying complexity of your industry as well. Even from a security perspective, trying to create that pure multi-tenant architecture is complex. Trying to achieve that on your own without a proper foundation would be like doing open-heart surgery without going to medical school. You likely need someone to help you through this.
It was through Red Bee Media, 7FiveFive, and Cisco all working and learning together that we developed something that I think is really next-generation and unique in the media industry.
Leading the Change with a Next-Generation Solution
We’ve launched our new solution and changed the way we deploy and lifecycle manage our environments. It's an astronomic improvement on the old ways of working. With this new system, we are now a cloud-ready business. When I think back to the old architecture that created silos, it was far too complicated to deploy—let alone do lifecycle management of the estate. We had dedicated storage pools and network environments for each customer, which meant hundreds of firewalls in one facility. Managing this was a nightmare. Shifting our network philosophy has been a game-changer for us.
We can scale and adapt to our customers’ requirements in minutes. Where it used to take us 10 to 18 months to put servers in and configure the network for our clients, on the Cisco platform it takes minutes. We now use technologies like Kubernetes and Jenkins. As the cost to deploy drops, that improves the total cost of ownership for our customer base. We’re much more cost effective, which was one of the major drivers of this transformation.
The number of engineers we need to build and manage the platform has also reduced. We’re building in a lot of automation, so in the long run we will need fewer resources to monitor these services. Then we can start bringing in machine learning and analytical data. With these optimizations, we have a platform that helps us continually transform.
We’re able to test new procedures and processes. In the old system, we had to buy hardware and install it, put in all this effort just to try something out. Now we can say, “We like the look of this software. Let’s give it a go for a month, see if it works for us.” And if we do like it, we can pay for it in a different way, like buying the licenses on a consumption pay-as-you-go basis. That’s where we’re headed. Ultimately, we want to be a consumption-based business. We want to pay for what we use instead of paying for technology to sit idle.
Cisco was the infrastructure and the glue for us to build that software-defined managed services platform. We’ve always provided a premium service, but we’re going to add even more value with a business model that makes sense for a wider range of customers. Now, with an agile, efficient platform, we are positioned not react to change, but to lead the change in the broadcast market.