The Arab States Broadcasting Union demonstrated unprecedented cloud access to MENA broadcasters, big and small at the annual Arab Radio & TV Festival held in Tunis. The ingenious cloud solution is aimed at taking away the headache of capital investment and immediate knowledge transfer. Vijaya Cherian travels to Tunis for a first-hand account.
The Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) has earned huge respect from the MENA broadcasting community, primarily public broadcasters, and with good reason. The non-profit entity has worked tirelessly over the years to produce technically innovative solutions that benefit the broadcast community as a whole.
The Arab Radio and TV Festival, organised annually by ASBU, has often served as the platform to showcase such innovations, from regional players as well as broadcast manufacturers. The 19th edition of the festival, the first to be hosted at Tunisia’s brand-new City of Culture venue in Tunis, was held in late April this year. North Africa’s flourishing broadcast market and declining market conditions in other parts of the GCC have contributed heavily to larger visitor numbers at the festival, which has grown in prominence with each passing year. Proximity of the venue to the city centre saw a large number of residents attending as well.
“This year, we had more than a thousand non-Tunisian visitors and several more Tunisians,” remarks Abdelrahim Suleiman, Director General of ASBU. “These numbers are becoming more challenging for us, both in terms of organisation and visitor accommodations. We will need to rethink the Festival’s format and content to accommodate larger numbers.” He adds that ASBU has now signed a three-year agreement with the Tunisian Ministry of Culture to hold the festival at the same venue for the period of the agreement.
The next Arab Radio and TV Festival is scheduled to be held from June 26-30, 2019, again at the City of Culture. Unlike previous editions, it will be held over five days to include the staging of the Arabic Song Festival as well.
While considerable focus was given to both Palestine and Saudi Arabia, with special cultural and music shows as well as seminars being organised around these countries, ASBU used the platform to showcase the upgrade of its MENOS project and an innovative and feature-rich cloud ecosystem designed to benefit all members of the MENA broadcast community, instead of each one building its own.
The MENOS upgrade was completed earlier this year and replaced its predecessor, which had been operational for more than 10 years. The new MENOS+ is based on Newtec’s Dialog multiservice broadcast solution.
“MENOS+ has helped us save up to 50% on additional satellite capacity that will be used to increase the number of HD exchange channels. Additionally, the quality of the Fast News Gathering (FNG) content will be dramatically improved from 1Mbps to 2Mbps and more. All this will be done by using the same space segment on Arabsat 5A. In addition, MENOS+ supports CID (carrier identification) for the reduction of interference on satellite,” explains Suleiman.
The greater showcase, however, was the ASBU cloud offering, born out of the desire to genuinely address a common requirement in the Arab world – the need for a cloud solution. Not every broadcaster has the know-how or the ability to invest in a cloud solution, as the dramatic shift in technology also calls for a radically different mindset at the workplace, a shift in work practices, upgrading knowledge significantly and meeting several other challenges typical of such a migration.
ASBU decided to address this by building a common cloud solution platform with all the necessary apps hosted on it so that members merely had to tap into this instead of building their own cloud ecosystem. The result is the ASBU Cloud Platform (ACP), a cloud-based solution with the second largest geographical footprint in the world after China.
“ASBU has invested in a collaborative content sharing application that has dramatically improved content sharing among its member broadcasters’ newsrooms. We’re also in the final stages of deploying an Archive MAM” Abdelrahim Suleiman, Director General, Arab States Broadcasting Union
“Software-defined solutions are here to stay and, before we know it, hardware-led solutions will be phased out. This will put additional burden on our members to keep abreast of the latest technology. Already, our region lacks a cloud infrastructure and it seemed impractical for us to wait until such infrastructure was introduced. Hence our strategy to lead in cloud enablement in our region and build a platform that can serve our region well and seamlessly integrate it with the global cloud infrastructure,” says Suleiman.
ASBU, therefore, aimed with its cloud solution to unify all the broadcast technologies and general business needs within a single desktop.
“This will be a game changer within our broadcast community. Our solution provides a virtual PC through a single log-in, and users can access all operational or business applications as well as have their own virtual hard disk, and this can be accessed through any device. Because this is virtual, meaning all the processing and storage are not in the device, IT departments only need to deploy thin clients, i.e. the screen and the keyboard, to maintain their workforce workstation. Users can share workstations; the data traffic is secure because it is mobilised as an image snapshot and not data, and it is continuously backed up. As a result, there are no more risks of data loss. Users can carry out all of their tasks remotely. For our members’ IT teams, this is a revolution in operational efficiency,” explains Suleiman.
In the meantime, ASBU is also working on providing archive storage redundancy to members, with the intention of further bolstering their content exchange capabilities and reaching connected broadcasters.
“Already, our region lacks a cloud infrastructure and it seemed impractical for us to wait until such infrastructure was introduced. Hence our strategy to lead in cloud enablement in our region and build a platform that can serve our region well and seamlessly integrate it with the global cloud infrastructure” Abdelrahim Suleiman, Director General, Arab States Broadcasting Union
A key element of ASBU’s cloud platform is its CloudStore. This runs applications typically used by broadcasters, such as Archive MAM, Newsroom System (NRCS), ingest, video servers, post-production tools like editing and graphics, presentation and playout application and servers, monitoring and control functionalities, codecs, and RF control aspects.
“This removes member broadcasters’ burden of maintaining processing and storage IT infrastructure locally. All they will actually need is a satisfactory internet bandwidth to maintain a connection with the cloud servers,” says Suleiman.
The cloud solution has enabled ASBU to bring the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and Somalia National Radio and TV into the fold.
“With this, our news exchange has started to move to file-based sharing and our members are able to exploit streaming technology well with significant operational cost reductions,” explains Suleiman.
ASBU says its aim is to provide for the broadcast industry and knowledge base sectors, such as e-learning, universities and capacity-building NGOs. It worked with UK systems integrator Mediacast International to develop its cloud infrastructure and integrate the various elements that would make it as useful as intended. Mediacast International served a key role in bringing along an alliance of tier-1 global technology and network providers to provide the necessary starting blocks.
The platform adopts distributed cloud topology, with multiple nodes around the region that synchronise with each other as well as with Mediacast’s main data centre in London. This is where it maintains cross-connections with most of the main broadcast service providers and interconnects with mainstream public clouds providers to maintain hybrid provisioning.
“This means that member broadcasters are able to benefit from our clouds’ network agility when using applications hosted at public clouds such as AWS, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud. ASBU has invested in a collaborative content sharing application that has dramatically improved content sharing among its member broadcasters’ newsrooms. We’re also in the final stages of deploying an Archive MAM,” adds Suleiman.
The platform hosts an array of applications that serve the entire broadcast chain. They are being made available for broadcasters to choose to deploy individually.
Although designing a cloud infrastructure intended to serve a larger community in this way took considerable time, deploying an application on the ASBU CloudStore takes no longer than it does on the App Store.
“We have a main interface and the app developers provide APIs that enable our partners to integrate its functionalities within the interface, and that may take less than a week to complete.
“An added benefit here is that because our platform is of distributed topology, it also ensures redundancy for apps, meaning that we host the applications on all of our nodes,” explains Suleiman.
ASBU’s magnanimous gesture of not just providing the cloud ecosystem but also incorporating all the apps and elements necessary means most broadcasters only need an interface at their end to use the entire system.
“Previously, newsroom system applications were hosted locally as standalone solutions with limited features to remote access. The same is true for post-production tools like editing, where the content is stored in either a local server or in shared storage provided by the developers. With the ASBU cloud enablement, there are actually a number of multiple newsroom systems to choose from, as we try to be neutral about application providers and leave the choices with member broadcasters,” says Suleiman.
“The main benefit our members will see, however, is that deploying an application is simple and straightforward and they can carry out trials and PoCs before reaching a migration decision. We enable them to connect to each other on the data plane and similarly on post-production servers, and leave the choice of application for them to connect through. This, in reality, means that sharing is at a metadata level only and subject to access privilege, since the main asset, which is the video, already resides near each other in the cloud servers beside the on-premise ones.”
With such a huge infrastructure available and Africa being as weak as the Middle East and southwest Asia in terms of cloud enablement, ASBU has decided to extend the services to Africa as well.
“If you look at the global cloud map, you will see that the Middle East, Africa and southwest Asia are the weakest areas, and this is largely due to the market monopoly by public telcos relating to network conditions. We are now in the final stages of joining hands with the African Union of Broadcasting (AUB) in extending the cloud network there with creating further nodes around Africa to serve public broadcasters there.
“The AUB alone has more than 48 public broadcasters, and boosting their content sharing capabilities between them and among other broadcast union members in Europe (EBU), Asia (ABU), North America (NABA) and South America (UARCA), in addition to ours, will help them significantly. African broadcasters mostly have legacy equipment with low efficiency and moving to the cloud will significantly improve their level of production and delivery, so we expect the impact to be high.”
ASBU has decided to exploit the full potential of its cloud platform, taking its member broadcasters further on the OTT journey as well. Within content distribution services, it already provides a global unified linear DTH platform to members. With content everywhere mainstream in the developed world, the organisation expects OTT to grow in significance in the MENA region as well.
“Currently, there are demands from our region’s diaspora who already consume their media via OTT platforms such as Apple TV, Android TV, gaming consoles and of course apps on mobile devices and pads. They want to be able to access VoD, record episodes on virtual PVRs, listen to podcasts and create their own playlists just like they do now from their mainstream providers. In our region, we see the sale of smart TV screens taking off and this means that TV and radio distribution has to catch up with the technology too.
“Our members continually remind us of the need to improve their presence on social media platforms and in 2016, we adopted a strategy to look at social media as a critical part of the media and have created a permanent committee for it. With all that, it was natural that we seek to exploit content distribution trends within OTT and we are currently running PoCs to address the demands of our members’ viewers in the region.”
ASBU, being a non-profit entity, has taken on the initial investment for its cloud infrastructure as well as its MENOS+ system as it has done previously. While Suleiman does not divulge exact figures, he states that this is a multi-million-dollar investment. With benefiting the broadcast community being its top priority, ASBU will recover its investment slowly, as it has done in previous initiatives, through membership fees.
“Being an organisation of the Arab League, ASBU is a public-sector enabler in the first place and is a notfor-profit organisation. We reinvest all our resources into maintaining public media service evolution. The impact such an evolution creates is, of course, priceless.
“The investment has largely been in the time and resources to carry out R&D and PoCs through our permanent committees and within the ASBU infrastructure in Tunis and Algiers. Fortunately, our executive council has a long-term vision and is not afraid of trying, because ‘they who never try never know’. Once we are positive of the benefits, scaling the solution is the natural way to go. Furthermore, with the upgrade to MENOS+, ASBU will save half of the satellite bandwidth allocated to MENOS services.
“This means a saving of more than one million dollars needed to accommodate the additional capacities to create more HDTV contribution channels,” Suleiman explains.
The main elements that make the ASBU Cloud Platform exceptional
The ASBU Cloud Platform (ACP), developed in conjunction with Mediacast International, is a cloudbased platform built on a distributed cloud topology, meaning it has a meshed network of POPs (Point of Presence) erected in data centres in strategic cities around the world and providing ultra-high internet connectivity (+10Gbps speed). These POPs are directly connected to national nodes, particularly across the Middle East and Africa.
One of the main assets of the ASBU Cloud Platform is its network topology. ASBU has invested heavily to create an ideal network condition in terms of latency and jitter by going with the SDN principle of guiding packets to travel on defined routes. “Like toll-operated highways during rush hours, the fastest routes are available only to those who pay,” explains Yasir Ballal, Managing Director, Broadcast Media – Mediacast International, further pointing out that this cloud platform is unique on several levels.
For one, the platform facilitates content exchange between any two points without recourse to a central server base as in most classic cloud systems. Any two points within the ACP are considered a Wide Area LAN (WLAN) to each other, not a Wide Area Network (WAN).
“This is achieved by a combination of Software Defined Networking (SDN) fabric between the POP-based servers, the national node networks and on-premise servers,” he says.
Secondly, ASBU plans to use the ACP on both its contribution and distribution applications. While the contribution app is already unique within broadcasting, the distribution application makes its cloud platform MENA’s first native content distribution network (CDN), according to MediaCast International.
“There are no known native CDN operators in southwest Asia, the Middle East and Africa that can take the ACP to new frontiers like the consumer industry or educational, health and other digital economy empowerment applications. In the years to come, as the ACP matures and expands horizontally with more POPs and vertically with the size of the applications, its uses will differ greatly from what it was originally set out to be.”
But the network sophistication does not stop here. A lot of work was carried out to cross-connect the ACP POPs with all the major legacy and IP broadcasting provider networks on a global scale. This includes major fibre providers such as Vyvex, contribution switching centres and teleports, and DTH distribution operators such as BT Tower in London, Serte in Paris, PCCW in Hong Kong, Softbank in Tokyo, TATA MES and EBU’s Eurovision in Geneva – among 30 other teleports – providing a seamless signal flow without undergoing undue recoding and conversion, thereby making connectivity available at the desktop level.
“Further cross-connections in the MENA region with DMC in Dubai, Eshailsat, Arabsat in Saudi Arabia and Nilesat teleports are being planned to provide seamless backhaul delivery to DTH platforms and to provide virtual downlink capabilities to ASBU members to receive any satellite signal without the need for a downlink antenna at their premises. The ASBU NOC based in Algiers takes care of that,” explains Ballal.
While all this networking effort seems fitting for a community of more than 20 public broadcasters, the inter-connections with public cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Ali Baba Cloud and Oracle Cloud bring hybrid cloud to the region. Both application vendors and users alike benefit, while vendors can host their applications in a public cloud infrastructure and subscribers have faster and secure access through the ACP-optimised and private delivery network within the Middle East and surrounding regions. This is because the core POPs of ACP are housed at the same data centres as the core POPs for tier-1 public cloud providers, where physical multi-gigabit fibre connects with their infrastructure.
Another significant breakthrough for the development team has been achieving a complete virtualisation of the entire broadcast operation chain.
“This means that only the cameras are real. Everything else from pre-production to delivery has now been virtualised. Essentially, all that the user needs is a good connection to the cloud network and commodity IT infrastructure like their screens and keyboards, because the rest of the assets come through a desktop just like you get with Microsoft Office 365. The only difference is that this desktop is virtual and requires no PCs to run on, because it has super powerful servers providing the computing power users may need and video-specific all-flash storage servers,” says Ballal.
Through a single log-in, users can then access all the functionalities as apps on the CloudStore. This is achieved with a combination of on-premise and oncloud servers hosting applications of choice. This not only ensures that the broadcasters’ infrastructure enjoys full redundancy in both the servers and the application plane, but more impressively, it provides complete operational back-up and operational geo-redundancy. In essence, a broadcaster can shut down its HQ and continue to operate from the alternative location, and switch between them seamlessly without interrupting operations.
Video play servers, vision and audio mixers, lighting control consoles and teleprompters to CGs, post-production editing, graphics, MCR functions such as routing, conversion, coding/decoding, ingesting, monitoring, legalizing, presentation, automation, slow motion, DVE and other distribution tools to newsroom systems are now available as apps on the CloudStore, where vendors host their apps and can be used by broadcasters. All this is available with an IT infrastructure in the cloud and accessible from any device at any time.
This all sounds like the future of things to come, and the development team at the ACP has also revolutionised collaborative production with the advent of Active Archive, says Ballal.
“Because ACP has massive, super speedy flash disk storage capabilities in its inventory, it enables full, active archive redundancy capabilities. Member broadcasters can upload their entire archive assets on assigned and secured vaults that are always up and instantly accessible from anywhere with any device. This makes searching, retrieving and copying archives to an editing timeline possible even from mobile phones,” Ballal points out.
One of the things the team is now working toward is a MAM to MAM exchange, which will make it possible for members to offer each other the possibility to search each other’s archive inventory, request a download and even pay for the service based on agreed acquisition policies. All of this will make collaborative production attractive.