Cisco: Moving the Media Industry to All-IP, Cloud-Native Apps

Thirty-two years after its start in San Francisco, Cisco Systems has gone on to become the largest networking company in the world. Now located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cisco specializes in many technology areas, including video, Internet of Things (IoT), network automation and security.

Cisco is also helping to move the media industry towards all-IP, cloud-native apps running in data centers optimized for media workflows, Dave Ward, CTO of engineering and chief architect at Cisco Systems, told the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA).

Old broadcasters liked to grumble that IT people didn’t understand the nature of TV — that great video had more to it than just moving files around. But the IT world “has a much better understanding of broadcast technology now,” Ward said, adding: “It’s no longer a mystery — but there’s a healthy respect by IT for how a broadcast operation really works. You can’t just throw new technology into a TV studio and hope for the best. The expertise, workflows and creative direction involved in media production is so critical that any technology change must be able to support what exists today. 

“Now on the broadcast side, I think there is recognition that there really are some advantages to this IT stuff, you know? Automation and orchestration of traditional workflows has always been synonymous with the media industry. Many companies have made it their business in fact. Once you’re able to launch media applications on-demand and orchestrate services in any kind of data center — cloud or otherwise — things get really interesting.”

Several of Cisco’s customers are now “bringing broadcast and IT together and we’re seeing these new positions of ‘hybrid’ engineers that have a solid and complete understanding of both worlds,” he said, noting that’s “a good role to have right now.”

Cisco has been a key supplier to Hollywood studios and national broadcasters for several years, Ward went on to say. For example, last summer it helped NBC Sports “deliver more digital and online content than ever for the Rio Olympics and it’s a massive operation delivering that kind of spectacle to a truly global audience,” he said. Cisco provided the Internet Protocol (IP) infrastructure, data center and encoding that powered the distribution of 24/7 video from 26 venues and it also made certain that content was “secure and protected at every point in the network,” he said, calling that a “big responsibility.” He noted that Cisco had engineers on-site for three months as part of the NBC team.

“Where we are with the technology is significantly ahead of the industry’s timeline. The entire decade-long trend of software-defined networking at Cisco has happened. We have the technology to deliver end-to-end workflows over the network for live sports, TV news, or sitcoms, or whatever to become an essentially push-button orchestration.”

Cisco’s Media Blueprint is presented as a set of IP-based infrastructure and software solutions that help media companies on-ramp to cloud and to produce more content in higher resolutions. Ostensibly it’s about using Cisco tech to automate video programming and delivery.

On board with this approach (and recently announced at IBC 2017) are outside broadcast provider Arena TV (which has based its IP-only UHD trucks around a Cisco IP switch); BBC Wales (which is building the corporation’s first all-IP broadcast hub in Cardiff around Cisco fabric); Sky New Zealand; CANAL+; Fox Networks Engineering & Operations; and NBCUniversal.

The latter is transitioning from SDI to IP with Cisco’s IP Fabric for Media, managing video distribution over terrestrial IP with the Cisco Virtual Digital Content Manager and the Cisco D9800 Network Transport Receiver platform, and virtualizing media workflows in NBCU’s Media Operations Centers based on Cisco solutions.

“By pushing decisions to the edge of the network, service providers can improve feature velocity, reduce operational costs, and deliver more personalized experiences to the consumer,” Ward said. “Format decisions for the subscriber device can be made at the edge of the network, freeing up bandwidth.”

Supporting this initiative, a new training program is being designed. Its aim is to meet the needs of media and entertainment companies and broadcasters by equipping engineers and technicians with the skills needed to migrate video production to IP. Cisco will introduce a two-day foundational training and a five-day technical deep-dive training in spring 2018.