Tech Briefing: AV in the cloud
Paul Bray, September 24, 2012
Clouds are gathering over the AV industry, but no-one is going to need an umbrella, says Paul Bray.
Cloud services – which enable users to access applications and infrastructure on-demand via the internet or other networks – are enjoying distinctly sunny prospects.
“Any product that needs a network infrastructure to operate has the potential to benefit from the power of the cloud,” says Martin Chambers, a digital media specialist at distributor, True Colours. “Obvious candidates are digital signage, video conferencing and unified communications, but this list could easily extend to control systems, IPTV, presentation systems and just about anything that relies on some sort of networking backbone.”
According to the ceo of digital signage specialist Signagelive, Jason Cremins: “Many AV companies are using content management, scheduling and network and device management tools to provide ongoing services to customers, such as helpdesk support and remote device management.”
Signagelive’s own cloud clients range from schools and universities to airports and global retailers. Applications range from traditional, large-screen digital signage to corporate communications, running as a screensaver on PCs, tablets and phones.
BrightSign’s digital signage cloud service, BrightSign Network, is proving popular with retailers, as well as advertising networks, AV integrators and third parties, says the company’s ceo, Jeff Hastings:
“Content can be hosted remotely on secure servers and readily downloaded on to individual connected players,” he says. “Players can be administered, monitored and updated, proof-of-content reports downloaded and local content libraries managed, all via remote cloud-based applications.”
Video conferencing vendors such as Lifesize, Polycom, Bluejeans and Cisco are offering video-as-a-service, often including infrastructure functions such as firewall traversal, bridging and gateway services. Ad hoc bridging through the cloud enables one-off calls to be established between almost any two devices, also embracing mass-market services such as Skype, says Mike Stephens, UK general manager at Lifesize.
Video specialist Haivision has been streaming major live events – including the Olympics – for more than a year using its live cloud transcoding technology. “The cloud is ideal for streaming and streaming management for events,” says Haivision’s chief marketing officer, Peter Maag. “Resources of virtually any scale can be readily established to assure CDN (content delivery network) connectivity and stream transcoding. Once the event is complete, resources are instantly deactivated and billing ceases.”
Currently cloud accounts for a small proportion of the AV market, but interest and uptake are growing rapidly. It’s still at the early adopter stage so it’s quite small – probably less than 10 per cent,says Wayne Mason, head of group marketing at distributor, Imago Mason. “It’s almost a disruptive technology approach to an existing market,” he says.
Vendors and channel companies will ignore cloud at their peril, warns Maag. “If AV companies don’t extend to provide solutions based on cloud technologies, they will rapidly be relegated to simple – and replaceable – box movers and installation teams.”
From the giddy heights of the boardroom, AV in the cloud can easily be shown to offer the same benefits as other cloud services – on-demand, scalable and cost-effective.
“Customers don’t have to make any initial investment so they won’t have to worry about up-front costs or upgrades,” says Daniel Weisbeck, EMEA vice-president at Polycom. “They’re then charged on a per-usage basis which works out very cost effectively. And as it’s a managed service, customers are relieved of the time, expertise and expense required to operate their own infrastructure.”
In cutting-edge technologies such as AV, cloud can come into its own. “A number of customers are reluctant to invest in technology that’s changing so rapidly,” says Stephens.
And traditional hardware infrastructure can be quite expensive, Stephens adds. A company with 50-100 video conferencing users can afford to spend $100,000, but with four or five endpoints the infrastructure becomes a large part of the cost, so cloud services could lead to a dramatic increase in the use of video conferencing by SMEs.
Cloud’s pay-as-you-go model can enable many user organisations to achieve considerable cost savings, but they need to do their sums, Stephens says. An on-premises video conferencing system that is used several hours a day can pay for itself in six months, whereas if usage is low it may take years – by which time the system may be out of date anyway. Cloud pricing tends to be volume-dependent, so if take-up increases as predicted, prices should fall in future.
The security of multi-access, multi-tenanted systems is also still a concern for some users. “There’s some education to be done around the security of cloud-based networks to give people the necessary comfort factor,” says Mason. “A lot of companies already used cloud technology internally so we have to persuade them it’s secure to do it on the internet.”
However, says Stephens, the cloud is “reasonably secure” and all traffic is encrypted, which is good enough for 90 per cent of transactions. Very sensitive sessions can still be run in-house.
Reliability seldom seems to be an issue, although Weisbeck recommends customers check the service provider’s contract to verify how much uptime is guaranteed and that this matches their business requirements.
Not so long ago the idea of putting high-bandwidth video applications across the internet would have seemed decidedly optimistic. But increasing broadband speeds, the advent of mobile broadband, and improved compression standards such as H.264 High Profile, mean that bandwidth is seldom an issue except for high-quality applications, such as live HD video streaming.
The main limitation is often the slow return path on ADSL, which may necessitate a leased line for two-way communications, such as high-quality video conferencing.
Cloud is unlikely to replace internal AV systems, at least for large organisations and perceived high-risk functions, but it is not necessarily a case of either/or. As Stephens points out, customers can evaluate a service in the cloud and take it in-house if projected usage levels or other concerns make this more attractive. And ultimately it will be possible to “burst into the cloud” to cope with demand spikes, opening up new end-points.
Increasing numbers of businesses are evaluating the potential for private and hybrid models, says Weisbeck. “Typically enterprises will implement private-hybrid models to provide more control over service levels, knowing they have in-house resources to manage ‘their’ cloud, while SMEs will opt for using the public cloud to take advantage of lower capex expenditure and not having to invest in resources.”
IMPACT ON KEY AV APPLICATIONS
“As video-as-a-service starts to gain more visibility (which it’s likely to do this year), the video conferencing market as a whole will grow,” predicts Daniel Weisbeck, EMEA vice president at Polycom. This will include many new users, particularly SMEs. Additionally, the cloud’s ability to be end-point agnostic could extend usage to embrace many more businesses and consumers, believes Mike Stephens, UK general manager at Lifesize.
By removing the need to know what the other end-point is, businesses can offer services to consumers without worrying about what technology the consumer has. “This could drive a dramatic increase in AV use in SMEs and consumer-to-business communications,” says Stephens.
“You’ll never replace the experience of doing a big live event,” believes Wayne Mason, head of group marketing at Imago. “But cloud could certainly deliver the content.”
For people who can’t turn up in person, live events managers could provide a value-add service for making events available via live webcast and on-demand viewing, says Martin Chambers, a digital media specialist at True Colours. “Depending on the kind of event this could be kept private, made publicly available or even as a syndicated pay-per-view service,” he says.
Cloud services could enable huge signage networks, says Chambers. “By circumventing the bandwidth bottleneck, content can be sent to a virtually unlimited number of displays anywhere in the world.”
Martine Dodwell-Bennett, sales and marketing director at Steljes, thinks mobile will be a key factor: “The advent of 4G promises to bring a new level of content to networks, including increased broadband, interactivity and on-demand video.”