Tech Features

MENA roundtable on the way forward for cloud adoption

While security issues linger and the fear of job losses lurks outside boardrooms, participants at a roundtable hosted by BroadcastPro ME in conjunction with cloud specialist Amagi, agreed that cloud adoption was the way forward in the MENA region.

Opening the discussion on cloud adoption in MENA, moderator KA Srinivasan, co-founder of global cloud services provider Amagi, said: “The intent today is to look at cloud as an opportunity and study the challenges we face transitioning to the cloud… or do we even want to transition to the cloud?” He outlined the potential of cloud for the broadcast industry before throwing the floor open for discussion.

KA Srinivasan, co-founder, Amagi

Faced with the array of cloud possibilities was a stellar group of regional executives at the Kempinski Hotel in Dubai on January 11 for a roundtable titled: Cloud Adoption in MENA. Hosted by BroadcastPro ME, it was sponsored by Amagi, which has cloud deployments in more than 40 countries.

The executives present were Abou Moustafa, VP of Managed Services, Broadcast and datamena at du; Ahmed Bin Afif, Head of Engineering at Al Sharqiya Television; Ammar Hina, Broadcast & TV Production Director at the UAE Pro League Committee; Andrew Carney, Chief Digital Officer at OSN; Bassem Maher, Head of Operations at Discovery Networks MENA; Dave Mace, Cloud Specialist at OSN; Emmanuel Belleville, Head of Media Vertical at Etisalat Digital; Lloyd D’Souza, Broadcast and Technical Operations at Fox Networks Group; Peter Van Dam, Advisor to the CEO’s office at LIVE HD; and Wael M. Ali, Head of DVB at Al Majd Satellite TV.

“Cloud brings amazing agility in terms of delivery and innovation in content” KA Srinivasan, co-founder, Amagi

Srinivasan, a cloud evangelist, got the executives gathered thinking about their tryst, potential or actual, with the cloud. He touched upon the one big driver in the region that should have MENA broadcasters contemplating the cloud – the demographic opportunity.

He observed: “As a television community, we have seen more change in recent years than in the entire life of the industry. A number of changes in distribution models – direct-to-consumer models, content creation, blurring of roles between programmers and operators, and now huge opportunities in terms of the demographics across the region have driven this change. With 67% of the population being under 30 in Saudi Arabia and 50% in Egypt and the UAE under 30, among other countries, a phenomenal demographic opportunity presents itself. How does the broadcast industry cope with the radically different media consumption habits of the millennials and the younger generation?

“With technological innovations such as artificial intelligence allowing us to do things we thought were not possible, such as reducing time in terms of delivering content to the consumer from months down to weeks and days and possibly hours, cloud brings amazing agility in terms of delivery and innovation in content. As they say, you can fail fast and fail cheap with cloud.

“Obviously, OTT is a big disrupter with 15 odd services in the market. With FAANG (Facebook/Amazon/ Apple/Netflix/Google) coming in a big way, how is that affecting viewership? How is it changing the consumer view of paid content? The past in the region has been dominated by FTA, with some pay TV. Will there be a shift to SVOD, or will AVOD prevail? Will studios produce and deliver directly to consumers? Most of you in the room are primarily linear operators. Will there be more linear channels, or will it disappear?

“From content coming into the building to content being played out, we want to move the whole ecosystem and leverage the advantages of cloud services” Dave Mace, Cloud Specialist, OSN

“Also, the big question for broadcasters is: should I go more niche or more mass? What is the right way, and is there a right way? Overall, due to technology, we are seeing content production and distribution costs coming down – does that mean we can experiment a lot more?

“From a challenges perspective, the biggest challenge is the unknown future. Can cloud enable that future?”

Dave Mace, Cloud Specialist, OSN

Dave Mace, Cloud Specialist at OSN, which has taken its first steps into the future with cloud, took the lead and outlined the broadcaster’s approach.

“We are looking at doing everything, from glass to glass. From content coming into the building to content being played out, we want to move the whole ecosystem and leverage the advantages of cloud services as much as possible. Our archive system is up there and now we are looking at OTT. We will then move to DTH, but essentially, everything will run in parallel for us in terms of what we look to move there. We want to automate as much as possible and let our teams focus on the innovation space rather than manual intensive tasks. “There has had to be a mindset shift within the organisation for us to succeed in this initiative. If anyone asks me should I or should I not go for cloud, my response would be ‘Why shouldn’t you?’ You look around. Everyone is already or has already moved into the cloud for a reason.”

Globally, there are several highprofile use cases for cloud adoption, including Netflix, ITV and now the BBC, where broadcasters have shifted from reliance on traditional IT stacks in owned and operated data centres to the cloud. There was heightened interest around the room in understanding the OSN journey to cloud, and OSN’s Chief Digital Officer Andrew Carney took the cue to explain it further from a business point of view.

“We are bang in the middle of a digital business transformation and we are disrupting ourselves right now, and cloud is obviously a key component. You have to steel yourself for this change. We have overcome the mental obstacle that this is going to be disruptive. We have got to have a laser-like focus on the business objectives as to why we are doing this. Making this move to the cloud calls for a great deal of courage, as it is relatively uncharted territory.

“We are trying to stay well connected to our strategic team particularly when the content world is already in full disruption. The global picture is evolving very quickly and it is fascinating to observe the latest events from both the FAANG community and the recent acquisition that Disney made of 20th Century Fox which suggests change to the content creation and acquisition landscape.

“We are bang in the middle of a digital business transformation … we are disrupting ourselves right now, and cloud is a key component. You have to steel yourself for this change. Making this move to the cloud calls for a great deal of courage, as it is relatively uncharted territory” Andrew Carney, Chief Digital Officer, OSN

“Another important perspective is being realistic regarding the return on investment – it’s fair to say that we are expecting the returns to flow after the first 18 months as we prepare and deliver the building blocks and migrate the physical assets, and re-architect the applications and infrastructure.

“I believe there are a series of clouds – not a single cloud. There are different types of journeys for the existing DTH operator as we try to make that content pipeline glass to glass. We don’t want to over commit or end up on a one-way street. It is intellectually challenging because you are balancing different kinds of perspectives.

“We are doing various small projects as proofs of concept within our technology platform. We are trying to do an end-to-end POC – walk the journey and understand better the cloud component rather than take a universal dive feet-first approach. We talk about critical value. It has got to be in that critical value space where I can go, cap in hand, and say, ‘I need some dollars to do this, now that we have made the general breakthrough.”

Hybrid cloud has proven to be a useful tool for the media and broadcast industry, with many companies using public cloud for tasks such as archiving video files while keeping other media workflow aspects such as production and editing in-house.

Ahmed Bin Afif, Head of Engineering, Al Sharqiya Television

Taking the hybrid path is Iraqi broadcaster Al Sharqiya Television. Iraq’s first privately-owned channel launched in 2004 and a regional heavyweight. Head of Engineering Ahmed Bin Afif described his operations as being number one in Iraq, with an estimated viewership of around 80% of the population.

“We operate two channels currently – Al Sharqiya, which is a mixed genre, and Al Sharqiya News. The channels operate from multiple locations in Dubai, Baghdad, London and Jordan. We are primarily a linear television operator, although we do have an IPTV offering.

“I agree with a lot of points made in the room regarding cloud adoption. Compared to OSN and MBC, we are a comparatively smaller operation. We are not contemplating cloud for all operations. We do some cloud in the areas of network management for security. We are looking to move slowly and study the options investment-wise. And along the way, we need to change mindsets that insist on having something physical in the building in terms of security.”

The route to cloud adoption is definitely not a one-size-fitsall. While some broadcasters opt for the big-bang approach to migration, others such as Al Sharqiya and Al Majd Satellite TV prefer to adopt cloud on a workload-by-workload basis.

Making his opening remarks, Wael M. Ali, Head of DVB at Al Majd Satellite TV, said: “Al Majd TV has been around since 2001. We have 13 channels over Arabsat and we have OTT operations as well. We are one of the few pay-TV operators in the region, with five FTA channels and eight encrypted channels. Our target audience is Arabic-speaking people, especially in Saudi Arabia.

“I am very intrigued by the OSN initiative. Going for cloud glass to glass is indeed a big undertaking. My question is: what happens to the expensive legacy equipment we have? Shifting spend from CAPEX to OPEX is sold as an advantage of cloud computing. So, in the coming years, will the increase in OPEX be compensated? Given that we have legacy assets currently in use, would it be good for us to go to cloud gradually?”

OSN’s Mace stepped in at this point, advising caution: “In your first year of investing in the cloud, your expenditure is going to go up. You need to let your finance and sales teams know that in the 12-18 months, your CAPEX may go up. You will not see any instant savings with cloud.”

Andrew Carney, Chief Digital Officer, OSN

Carney added: “It is another moving part to the equation. We are coming to terms with the disruptions in our financials and investment curves. All of that is beginning to take on a different shape, and we need to understand that better – the flux between CAPEX and OPEX. That model may very well be dead. The concept of cloud is that it will offer scalability and agility and all of that good stuff; it feels more like OPEX.

“Cloud disrupts financial models. The best discipline of all is to look at this as cash in the first instance. Once the cash side is sorted, CAPEX and OPEX can come in due course.”

Amagi’s Srinivasan asked Carney further about “the specific business context that drives cloud as an option”, drawing attention to the two significant disruptions making cloud computing a necessity rather than an option – consumers demanding more choice and fragmented audiences.

Broadcasters need the scalability and flexibility that cloud computing can provide, Carney asserted.

“I previously worked in the music industry, which, in part, chose to ignore the marketplace and we know the disruption the arrival of Napster and Spotify brought. I don’t think the video and media industry can afford to make the same mistake. The marketplace is extremely dynamic right now and this sits uncomfortably with all the media and service providers. There are so many moving parts in each individual country that the diagnostics on the customer value proposition has got to be near perfect.

“I have four kids aged between 13 and 20. The top two consume entertainment differently from the bottom two. Even within that short window, they have different patterns and different demands. They don’t care about micro-billing contracts. They are calling the shots, and this is brilliant because it is a form of disruption and it will sort the wheat from the chaff as to who can come to terms with that market dynamic.

“That is the ultimate business context. Take your eyes off that dynamic and risk exposing your products, services and experiences. It is understanding that food chain as quickly as possible through top-class research and intelligence – and the variability in each country is ridiculously different, so we can’t go in with a universal solution. We have to have country intelligence models to give us a clue as to what works best.

“So, we are taking POCs and understanding KSA versus Jordan or Kuwait, and building our insights so that we have the flexibility and agility to respond, and that is where cloud can come in. It gives us that dynamic agility to respond to short content pipelines, so we are trying to make sure that the discipline of our business context is a guiding light to what we frame and how we move forward. It’s quite challenging, and there’s an awful lot of variables in the mix to figure out.”

Cloud has finally come of age for the broadcast industry; there is little doubt given the large-scale adoption of cloud globally, Bassem Maher, Head of Operations at Discovery Networks MENA, added.

“We have been based here since 2014 after the acquisition of Fatafeat, the cooking channel. We broadcast six channels and as for the rest, we are managing pan-regional feeds mainly coming from London.

Bassem Maher, Head of Operations at Discovery Networks MENA

“We have a deal with Amazon Web Services (AWS). We have now moved all our services on the cloud. All the US-based channels are on cloud, which is a total of about 62 feeds including mains and back-ups and West Coast delays on AWS, with Evertz as the interface. In the UK, we are moving our channels by August. Unlike the US, the feeds from London are going globally to the Middle East, Africa and Europe so it is taking more time in terms of language subtitling, dubbing and continuity issues. The complexities of the channel are causing more time for dual running. Otherwise by end of this year, all our services will be on cloud.”

While experts in the region endorse the high-speed transport protocol that provides the backbone for cloud-based digital workflows that, in turn, make it possible to move, distribute, synchronise and exchange big data from any source to any destination, regional broadcasters remain wary, observed Emmanuel Belleville, Head of Media Vertical at Etisalat Digital.

“In the UK, we are moving our channels [to the cloud] by August… the feeds from London are going globally to the EMEA so it is taking more time in terms of language subtitling, dubbing and continuity issues… by the end of this year, all our services will be on cloud” Bassem Maher, Head of Operations at Discovery Networks MENA

“I have been meeting with a number of TV channels to understand their needs of connectivity and beyond – not the big broadcasters such as MBC, OSN and so on, but the smaller operators. Most of the TV channels have managements that come from the world of traditional old-world broadcasting. My sense from speaking to the management of the TV channels is that cloud is something akin to the internet, and from the consumer point of view, they see issues of latency, buffering and so on.

“They don’t see cloud as a 100% satisfying experience yet, to watch traditional linear TV. That is why cloud adoption will still take time. Something that is not satellite-based is still not easily accepted. We also have issues with access to audience measurement for such TV channels. While bigger channels can put in the required investments, TV channels that are currently losing advertising revenues because of viewership shifting to other platforms, including the internet, are not as keen. I don’t believe they are considering new investments to shift from satellite-based broadcasting to cloud solutions in the very short term.”

Another challenge peculiar to the region was highlighted by Ammar Hina, Broadcast & TV Production Director at the UAE Pro League Committee (PLC).

“Broadcasters need to look at the critical issues of skill sets and training” Lloyd D’Souza, Broadcast and Technical Operations, Fox Networks Group

“We are responsible for the production of approximately 300 matches a year, and we are working on a future plan to have some form of archiving system and connect all the entities and clubs working under the football league. We are currently focused on the storage side of cloud. Three years ago, the idea of having content stored outside the country would not have been entertained. Everyone now understands the benefit of having content on the cloud, knowing that in the long run, cloud will be cheaper.

“A big challenge we face is partners changing each year, wanting results in the current year. An investment in cloud storage will not yield immediate results, and that is another issue we will have to deal with. At the end, I believe it is all about culture, where our partner broadcasters work together towards mutually beneficial goals.”

Lloyd D’Souza, Broadcast and Technical Operations, Fox Networks Group

Another, deeper anxiety about cloud adoption, far removed from management and technology issues, is the real fear of job loss, explained Lloyd D’Souza from the Broadcast and Technical Operations division at Fox Networks Group (FNG). The channel has shown initiative in the MENA pay-TV ecosystem as well as having recently launched purely IP-based channels.

“I have been with FNG for the past seven years. We are handling up to 18 channels at the moment. While the move to cloud is inevitable, broadcasters need to look at the critical issues of skillsets and training. As we move away from traditional linear broadcasting and look at cloud options, building in-house cloud skills and expertise will be necessary to optimise ROI.

“As your data centre shrinks, the staff that builds, maintains, and troubleshoots your data centre network, servers and applications aren’t needed. You also need fewer people to manage workloads, security and vendor contracts. Retraining is critical to ensure the broadcaster can optimise the new workflows.”

“They [broadcast engineers] push back against change because they fear job loss” Peter Van Dam, LIVE HD

Everyone concurred that the fear of job loss was at the heart of the resistance to cloud adoption in the region.

“The massive differences I have observed, compared to Europe, is that here a job loss affects family and visas and education, and that implies an extra layer of risk taking,” Carney commented.

Peter Van Dam, Advisor to the CEO’s Office, LIVE HD

With characteristic flair for citing the most appropriate illustration to drive the point home, Peter Van Dam, Advisor to the CEO’s office, LIVE HD, said: “In Belgium, a major broadcast station recently appointed a CTO who was previously the head of corporate IT. When the old broadcast CTO moved out, the IT head took over the technology division of that TV station. This is perhaps where matters are moving.

“It is most surprising when you talk to broadcast engineers. They push back against change because they fear job loss. What we don’t realise is how much IP is already deployed in broadcast. While the broadcast IT department in Abu Dhabi Media was a small team at the start, today it is manned by a department of 10. Similarly, the broadcast maintenance team had 10 persons in the past and today, the department has around four persons.”

Abou Moustafa, VP of Managed Services, Broadcast and datamena at du

Offering concrete figures confirming the poor adoption of cloud across the MENA, Abou Moustafa, VP of Managed Services, Broadcast and datamena at du, said: “The broadcast adoption within du is at 3%. While we are at a nascent stage, my expectation is we will follow international broadcasters in adopting cloud. Of course, it will need a shift in mindset in terms of being comfortable having your content in a remote location.

“Being in charge of managed services for du, which has a 47% share in the UAE with around 800,000 enterprise customers, I deal with both the broadcast and corporate IT divisions within the same company. At times, it seems like you are addressing two mindsets within one organisation.”

“In the Middle East, cloud adoption is expected to grow from $887.5 million in 2015 to $2.4 billion in 2020 … a 22.1% growth” Abou Moustafa, VP of Managed Services, Broadcast and datamena at du

The UAE telco provides fully managed services, including cloud. Straddling the worlds of traditional satellite-based broadcast services and streaming services on datamena, a regional carrier hub, Moustafa believes the broadcast industry in the region is ideally placed to expand reach and revenues through cloud.

“It is not just about security fears. IT guys have the concept that to manage it, you have to own it and see it and touch it. One of my lectures at Cloud MENA two years ago was titled: ‘Who moved my data centre?’ The keenness to have dedicated firewalls and dedicated chambers within the cloud defeats the purpose of the cost-effectiveness of cloud.

“According to Research and Markets, the Middle East cloud applications’ market is expected to grow from $887.5 million in 2015 to $2.4 billion by 2020, at an estimated CAGR of 22.1% from 2015 to 2020. This is a huge number.

“Almost half of this will be government. It may be used to host the health records of citizens on the cloud. The level of trust shown by the UAE and other governments across the world indicates the acceptance of cloud as a secure platform.”

“We are currently focused on the storage side of cloud” Ammar Hina, Broadcast & TV Production Director, UAE PLC

Srinivasan took up security for further debate in the second half of the discussion: “My usual retort to people is – if you had cash with you, would you keep it in a personal locker or in the bank?” “With security, it is not just the fear of losing money, but losing valuable citizen data. And these concerns are not limited to cloud implementation alone,” responded Ammar Hina, Broadcast & TV Production Director at the Pro League Committee.

Ammar Hina, Broadcast & TV Production Director, UAE PLC

“A friendly hacker once told me that a laptop and USB placed in the toilet of the big firm would give him access to the entire operations of the organisation in under 10 minutes. Security is a big topic and not limited to the cloud. Having equipment in your premises will not make you secure. This is the traditional approach. With the cloud, we are sharing the risks, so this would enable the cloud provider to invest more in security. AWS has not had a single threat to their cloud. Back to your question: I believe money in the bank is much safer.”

“Most leaks are down to human error and incompetence,” Mace of OSN pointed out. “The tools and technology for security on cloud are widely available and far superior by default than most on-premise security solutions. Broadcasters will be a lot more secure having their content on the cloud than on their premises – if they just build correctly and use the tools out there.”

On testing the robustness of the cloud, Srinivasan drew attention to effective public source programmes such as Netflix’s Chaos Monkey.

“We are looking to move slowly and study the options investment-wise” Ahmed Bin Afif, Head of Engineering, Al Sharqiya Television

“This is a resiliency tool that helps applications tolerate random instance failures. You could run the application to test your cloud at its extreme vulnerabilities.” Srinivasan then raised the issue of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

“The two fundamental uses of AI are cost-saving and the possibilities of new opportunities. While the first is a natural driver, the second calls for visionary leadership. How do AI and ML impact your operations?” he queried.

Dave Mace of OSN explained that the broadcaster is deploying AI-powered technology to help with compliance, to offer a personalised experience to the viewer and to conduct security audits on the cloud services.

“When the compliance team watches a programme, it does not have to sit through two hours of a programme but moves to points picked up by the AI programme. It has been phenomenal to watch the programme pick up everything from culturally sensitive content to highly pixellated film posters in the background.”

Andrew Carney of OSN explained the current plans, still at the whiteboard stage, towards designing a strategic roadmap through the broadcast food chain, keeping the commercial front end in mind.

“The contextual experience for the customer is critical. I believe AI can deliver on hyper personalisation that is needed in this era of promiscuous viewing habits. We are interested in designing a single mindset that follows Hollywood to home.”

“Two years ago, we went through a painful process of archiving,” revealed Wael M. Ali of Al Majd Satellite TV. “I believe AI would have made the process much easier in terms of extracting metadata and saved us many man hours in the process.”

Ammar Hina of PLC agreed that even if 60% of the content currently on tapes was perused by AI-powered technology, leaving humans to analyse and check only for accuracy, precious time would be saved in terms of archiving.

Speaking of ground realities, Emmanuel Belleville of Etisalat Digital highlighted the challenges in an economically diverse region.

“eLife from Etisalat offers around 600 TV channels. The number is so large due to the unique demographics of the country. Also, we have different generations of set-top boxes and middleware that needs to be updated regularly. While 4K has arrived, not all set top boxes are compatible. While we have dedicated teams working on AI and ML, the priority for us is revamping our OTT service as well as enhancing the overall TV experience.”

Regarding the resilience of satellite-based broadcast, the participants predictably said satellite is here to stay.

Wael M. Ali, Head of DVB at Al Majd Satellite TV

Ali of Al Majd TV added: “Internet broadband outside the UAE is not the most reliable. People still prefer linear television to watch matches and programmes during the month of Ramadan, for instance. Satellite-based broadcast is here to stay for a long time.”

As the discussion drew to a close, participants offered forecasts for cloud adoption in the region.

Bassem Maher of Discovery Networks MENA believed that “cloud is a huge opportunity and by 2019, not less than 50% of the channels will be on cloud”.

“Shifting spend from CAPEX to OPEX is sold as an advantage of cloud computing … will increase in OPEX be compensated?” Wael M. Ali, Head of DVB at Al Majd Satellite TV

Urging early adoption, Moustafa of du emphasised: “It would be a risk for companies not to join the cloud. My advice to your technical and management teams is to remove any fear of cloud. One size does not fit all, and depending on your business processes and geographical location, among other factors, you can opt for any number of customised solutions either with shared or dedicated security on the cloud. AI is already a mature technology and will imminently touch every part of the country, not just broadcast.”

Peter Van Dam lauded the initiatives taken by OSN, saying their efforts will help the rest of the industry adopt cloud that much quicker. While Lloyd D’Souza said that satellite will be in the region for a long time to come, he agreed with Bin Afif of Al Sharqiya TV that cloud adoption is inevitable, although initially as a hybrid solution.

Emmanuel Belleville, Head of Media Vertical at Etisalat Digital

Emmanuel Belleville of Etisalat Digital drew attention to the various efforts of TRA to ensure that telcos are cloud enablers.

“Not everyone is aware of it. There is a project by TRA initiated a couple of years ago. Now any consumer in the UAE can choose his ISP. It will soon be available for businesses. By the end of the year, Etisalat will begin to offer connectivity to du legacy areas and vice versa.”

While PLC’s Hina conceded that cloud adoption is difficult given the multiple partners to consult, he agreed with Ali of Al Majd TV that starting as an archiving/storage platform in the present, cloud will be the dominant solution in the future.

OSN’s Carney asked why the region is not moving faster on cloud, given its rich potential.

“Something that is not satellite-based is still not easily accepted” Emmanuel Belleville, Head of Media Vertical at Etisalat Digital

“While we are fully committed to the cloud, I believe cloud is a huge currency in the region with the potential to open up so many more opportunities for the broadcast industry.”

In conclusion, Dave Mace of OSN said there are no excuses not to get on the cloud and urged participants to innovate and fail fast.

He encouraged everyone to tinker with the free and native services on each of the platforms such as AWS and Google.

As for job security, his advice to those who fear job loss is: “Cloud does not mean job loss. One of the things we have done at OSN is ensure that every single person in the technical department is being trained. So, my message is to come on board