As we reported recently, ‘simply’ virtualizing video processing and workflow software into the cloud (private or public) may not be enough to fully exploit cloud elasticity, scalability, agility and cost-efficiencies. Some leading TV vendors think that only software that has been re-architected for life in the cloud (using a microservices approach, often referred to as ‘cloud-native’) will harness the full potential of cloud-based storage, compute and networking resources. You can read about the growing interest in microservices here or download our full microservices report (including benefits, challenges and likely implementation models) here.
It is still very early days for microservices-based cloud architectures and sometimes the work is behind closed doors. One European IPTV provider told us off-the-record about an ongoing project to migrate its middleware platform into a microservices-based solution. The company is taking the part of the middleware that deals with the business logic and splitting the functions into several microservices. Other middleware processes, like those related to content protection or video streaming, will also migrate to microservices in time, constrained by the speed at which different vendors will re-architect their software.
This IPTV implementation is on the same private datacentre where the existing middleware is hosted. Some of the middleware is already virtualized but virtualization is viewed as only the first step. “Turning a big piece of complex software into microservices is another step,” an executive told us.
They added: “Microservices run independently of other functions, reduce complexity and are highly scalable. They make software more autonomous. They help us become more agile.” Some software development release cycles for the adapted middleware on the IPTV platform are four weeks, down from 6-9 months, and more improvements will be possible.
Another IPTV provider, Orange, talks publicly about its microservices ambitions. The company provides television in multiple territories with ‘fixed-line’ and mobile TV subscribers. The company is determined to accelerate TV deployments and, having adopted a component-based approach to its platform several years ago, is now pushing ahead with a microservices model.
Erwan Nedellec, Senior Expert on TV Technical Solutions at the French telco Orange, explains, “Like many telcos, we invested in a platform some time ago and it would be too expensive and risky to totally change it, so we must take an opportunistic approach. We started to introduce microservices on a subset of the TV service platform and then learn from the feedback from all stakeholders, not just from the developers. You have to start small, by refactoring a subset of your platform.”
The Orange platform already had 40-50 different components, some specific to either IPTV or multiscreen and many shared between both types of service. “Today we are in the process of either refactoring a component by splitting it into several microservices or introducing a new microservice to add a new feature.
“Some parts of our system change more frequently than others so it is important to focus on those first. That is why we first introduced the microservices concept in the mediation layer of our platform, between the devices and the backend system. But we have also applied the concept in the backend system for totally new features that were not too bound to existing components.”
Nedellec advises other adopters to start small, in terms of how much you tackle at once. But the microservices themselves should not be too small at the outset. “Proceed step by step,” he says. “The majority of our components are not microservices yet. They are too big to call them microservices. We work on a value-driven approach [to deciding which functions are refactored]. It is one step at a time – we are not sweeping away the existing platform.”
And what are the biggest benefits of using a microservices-based architecture? “For complex systems, it is a compelling approach because it allows you to deliver software faster, embrace new technologies more easily, and that will allow you to shorten your product lead-times.”
Adding to the evidence that we will live in a hybrid world for some time, Nedellec points out that a monolithic [software architecture] approach still makes sense in many cases. “In my opinion, the microservices approach only makes sense in complex systems.”
Discovery Communications is another microservices pioneer – and one of the biggest champions of the public cloud for broadcast operations. The broadcast group is in the midst of an operations transformation that will at least partly take it out of the infrastructure business so it can focus more on its core competencies (content creation and curation, for example). Public cloud and microservices will also help the company prepare for new distribution opportunities.
The first part of this project sees the linear playout for 150 channels moving onto the AWS cloud. Discovery has transferred its most recent archive content to AWS storage and is now growing the cloud content repository with its new programming. Key processes like transcoding, graphics, subtitling and scheduling are performed in the cloud. Content is auto-replicated to different cloud regions for redundancy. Once the linear broadcast channels have been created, they are transmitted back to Discovery datacentres for satellite uplink.
Last November, Dave Duvall, Senior Vice President at Discovery Communications, told the AWS re:Invent conference that this project was a chance to architect workflows from the ground-up, with two of the benefits being more scalability and more automation. While some of the applications running in facilities were moved to the cloud in an unreformed state, due to time pressures or lack of vendor readiness (for cloud-native software) much of it is now microservices-based. “We worked with our supply chain on cloud-native app builds,” he confirms.
Brinton Miller, also SVP at Discovery Communications, told the same Las Vegas conference: “This is a modern stack – a microservices-based media delivery and processing environment.”
Not many ‘traditional’ platform owners and broadcasters have deployed microservices yet but the few that have are using them across a number of workflow functions. Industry wide, these include: transcoding archive and newly created content, fast live-to-VOD, graphics insertion, subtitle insertion and scheduling, and VOD delivery.
One major Pay TV operator in the U.S. has deployed its whole Pay TV Lite (standalone, subscription online skinny bundle) service in a microservice-based cloud operations environment. Looking at the market generally, metadata management is a process that can move to microservices early.
Discovery Communications is in good company with its public cloud and microservices adoption. As Ian Massingham, Worldwide Lead, AWS Technical Evangelism (at the dominant public cloud provider), points out: “It is well known that Netflix moved to AWS and re-architected their applications. Amazon’s applications are built in this way. Our customers in the financial services sector are building into microservices applications on AWS.
“A microservices-based approach has the highest benefits where elasticity is required or you need high velocity application development,” he adds.
Transcoding is a process that ticks both these boxes. Massingham notes how you can break transcoding out from other functions and then independently scale instances of the transcode service. If there are five jobs in a queue you can run five instances, and if 100 jobs are requested you can start 100 instances of the transcoding. You may also need to support new formats.
Equally, if you have a static operation that hardly changes, there is less call for microservices. Jeff Koehler, VP Solutions Engineering at Harmonic Inc. (the video processing, storage and playout solutions specialist that is building its cloud future on microservices), points out that companies in these circumstances can get by just virtualizing their infrastructure. “If you have a fixed video headend environment and a set number of channels, this is less valuable to you.”
This story is based on an excerpt from the free 8,000 word report from Videonet: ‘How microservices take cloud-based TV operations to another level’. You can download it, free, from here.
Photo credit: iStock/gilaxia