Virtual Vaults: the transition from physical archives to the Cloud

Cloud platforms and the Internet in general continues to drive change in the way all businesses and organisations operate. At Imagen Ltd, with our enterprise video platform Imagen, we are in a great position to see both the opportunities and challenges that our customers face. There is no doubt, the cloud is where it’s all heading and it’s going to change everything for people who are involved with media and video archives. We are not the only ones with this view; industry analysts have been producing reports for years highlighting how big the opportunities are. For example, Frost and Sullivan’s 2014 report on the Future of Cloud Computing Technologies in Enterprises in the United States and Europe found that while the Devoncroft Big Broadcast Survey 2014 showed that “Cloud Technology” is one of the highest priorities to producers and broadcasters. Behind all the marketing hype and enthusiasm from the tech community, what it really comes down to for the media, archiving, production and entertainment industries is a choice between operational expenditure and capital expenditure. The cloud is very much pay-as-you-go and just like your energy bills it’s based on consumption. For many, like us, who create technological solutions to the problems of managing large quantities of media content, this new cost model is a very welcome change. Gone are the days of having to spend £250,000 ($370,000 or €348,000) for a 4TB SAN only to find that in less than three years it’s basically worthless. (Yes, that did happen to us at least once.) This should not come as a surprise to anyone - we all know that technology gets cheaper and faster. Now, because of cloud services, we are freed from the up-front cost of having to buy infrastructure. This is a big shift for anyone involved in archiving media content. But even though the technology is ready, there is another less tangible problem to overcome: our own psychology.

Under the mattress?

Where do you keep your money? Is it in a brown envelope in the back of your wardrobe? Maybe it’s in a shoe box under your bed? No, you keep it in a bank. Anything else would be considered positively unusual these days. But in a world where film and video content was predominantly recorded on film and tape, anyone with a large collection of material is used to the idea of having shelves stuffed full of tapes, film cans and cassettes. Traditionally, anyone with a serious archive or collection built vaults to hold it. These climate- and humidity-controlled environments, temples to the physicality of an archive, have defined best practice for decades. But these old ways of looking at archiving are at odds with new technology. Most new video material is created and recorded digitally now. There is no native tape format, no physical artefact to put on a shelf. Yet collectively, we as an industry are very hesitant about moving to a new world where the new analogue of our vaults exist in the cloud. We do not know where they are, we cannot hire a security guard to stand in front of the door. This makes us nervous, but this is really a symptom of us hanging onto the past. After all, on the whole we do not question that banks are safe places for our money. Even though we do not know where it is physically.

Comfort in the past

It’s natural to cling to the safety of the past. After all, the things we have always done are time-tested. We know they worked and we take comfort in the belief that they will continue to work. This is why, even in the age of 100% digital media, those vaults and shelves have not yet disappeared. We even cling to tape, though now it’s just as likely to be LTO as it is Digibeta. It all feels reassuringly traditional, but there are problems with these vaults, shelves and even the LTO tapes. They are not very accessible. Physical handling cost should be a thing of the past in the digital age. And creating a geographically redundant copy of your vault and all its tapes is prohibitively expensive. All these issues are easy and relatively cheap to solve with cloud solutions.

Challenges ahead

But the Cloud is not perfect yet. Price and bandwidth are often cited as reasons why people still build out their own physical infrastructure - bandwidth in particular is a barrier for those that regularly deal with very large video files and film scans. So much so that entire sectors have sprung up to alleviate these difficulties, with businesses like Aspera and FileCatalyst helping to get the most out of your bandwidth. These offerings do not give your more bandwidth but do allow you to use what you have more effectively. But equally, just as prices will continue to fall, raw native bandwidth will continue to increase. If you cannot use the cloud today for one of these reasons, will the same be true a year from now?

Bridging the old and new worlds

Perhaps if you were starting a media company today, with no archive and no new content yet, you could choose to go 100% cloud based. This would keep your costs low and you could be up and running very quickly. Starting from a greenfield is a luxury that most of us don’t have. We deal with legacy systems, data and media while still constantly producing new content. The key to survival in the cloud age is to pick a technology today that provides a roadmap to the cloud. Our own Imagen StorageService offers one such solution, allowing you to replicate your locally managed media files easily to either the Microsoft Azure Blob or the Amazon S3 storage platforms. Microsoft also has a similar, less media focused offering called StorSimple. Regardless of the specific infrastructure, if you feel that right now you simply must have a local enterprise video management and storage solution, but you recognise that the future of your operation is in the cloud, then make sure that your software has a simple configuration that could be brought into action to provide the best of both worlds. Ultimately it will free you from having to maintain your own local ‘vault’.   NAB  

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