APRIL 19, 2021

Making the Media S1E08: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Cloud?

Mohamad Fares on Making the Media

Other industries have been using the cloud for years, but broadcasters have been reluctant to embrace it—until COVID-19 forced the issue of enabling remote work. Still, it's an uneasy embrace, and misconceptions about and mistrust of the cloud still linger in the industry.

In this episode, we ask: Are attitudes toward the cloud finally shifting? Where is—and where isn't—cloud feasible for broadcast workflows? What fundamental misunderstandings still need to be cleared up? And how can leaders who see the promise of the cloud get started?

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Listen to Hear:

  • Where Qatar TV sees the biggest opportunities for cloud-based workflows
  • What obstacles still challenge wider cloud adoption
  • How the last year has changed broadcast technology's relationship with information security for the better


Our Guest This Episode

Mohamad Fares currently leads broadcast technology at Qatar Television. With over 20 years of experience in the technology field, he works with a team of engineers and workflow consultants to deliver and support best-of-breed broadcast technology solutions and workflows. Under his leadership, the broadcast technology team looks after post production, archive, and playout.

You want to stay ahead of the curve, but at the same time you don't want to be too early an adopter that you may take a misstep and then decide that, 'Oh no, we have to roll back. This probably isn't the best use of our time and our money.' To me this is the biggest concern. It's a decision I struggle with on a constant basis.

Mohamad Fares, Head of Broadcast Technology, Qatar TV

Mentioned in This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, and welcome to the Making the Media podcast. My name is Craig Wilson. I'm delighted you've taken the time to join me for the latest episode.

If you ask most people in the news and entertainment industry, I think they would all tell you that the cloud is the way ahead in enabling greater collaborative workflows. There's no doubt that the pandemic has prompted a rethink about the cloud. With industry surveys going from the position around two years ago, where companies would say it was important to them, but not quite yet, to a position where some sectors are now saying, "How can I get there as fast as possible?"

That's posing challenges for broadcasters and vendors alike as they race to define and qualify solid, repeatable workflows that also deliver cost benefits with trusted security. This is an issue we're going to be talking about for a long time, I'm sure, as the transition from on-prem to hybrid and fully cloud-realized workflows develops in the coming months and years.

But where are we now? To begin the discussion, I spoke with Mohamad Fares, head of broadcast technology at Qatar TV, based in Doha, a city which has seen a massive expansion in media provision in recent years. So I asked Mohamad first of all to describe his role and to talk about Qatar TV's programming output.

Mohamad Fares: So at Qatar TV, we are the state broadcaster for Qatar. We're a general programming station, which means we have your standard news bulletins. We have a lot of in-house productions, mainly in the Arabic language, targeted at the Qatari audience in Qatar and overseas.

So you know, as you can imagine, we have a little bit of everything going on. We have a very rigid and solid news workflow, because we need to have the ability to bring stories quickly and efficiently to air. We do our morning show, we have the daily evening show. Again, these are pretty demanding shows, because we try to cover current affairs in the country, social, entertainment, business, so on and so forth.

And my role at Qatar TV is basically, my team looks after the broadcast technology infrastructure from an equipment and from a workflow point of view. So we look at the current business requirements and we translate those to technical requirements in terms of systems and in terms of workflow. And we continuously reassess these requirements and adjust as needed. We try to select the best-of-breed technology solutions to cater to our users. Of course my team also provides the daily support necessary, they provide maintenance, support contracts, as well as the solutions, design, and implementation.

CW: Qatar as a country is somewhere that's seen an incredible amount of growth and development and investment in recent times. And I think Qatar TV is a reflection of that as well.

MF: Absolutely. We've seen government investment grow and media—I don't have a specific number, but investment has grown significantly. We've seen a lot of support from the current leadership, in terms of, you know, for editorial teams, for technical teams.

We all know that Qatar has been, for the past 15 or 20 years, a media hub. We have Al Jazeera, we have Qatar TV, we have beIN Sports, which used to be Al Jazeera Sports but they chose to rebrand and increase their footprint. Currently they've been moving into other areas, such as not just sports but into entertainment and into news as well. And as Qatar TV, we're very proud to be part of that footprint in the Arab world.

CW: So the topic that we really want to talk about today is looking at cloud-based workflows and cloud applications. Is cloud something that you're already using at Qatar TV in any of the different workflows that you have?

MF: Absolutely, we have been using Cloud. I would say it's pretty limited for now, but we are looking at more uses for cloud. So we've assessed and we've begun using cloud for some DR workflows, for some media delivery workflows. We've also just begun with Avid looking at cloud for AI workflows, which is basically a very smart workflow where a proxy of your media gets uploaded into the cloud, it gets analyzed, and metadata get sent back to your on-prem database.

Some of the barriers we're having right now that are kind of keeping us from fully embracing and fully adopting all of these workflows is, as a government entity, cloud is still a bit of a grey legal area. There's nothing to explicitly forbid us from doing a lot of work on the cloud, but at the same time, there's no sort of legislation that explicitly allows us to go ahead and rely on the cloud as heavily as we rely on our on-prem solutions.

CW: What's data center provision like in the Middle East, or the Gulf region specifically? Because I guess that's something, in Europe and in North America, it's probably something people don't even really think about, because there is a large provision of data centers in different places. But I know in other parts of the world it is definitely something that you have to consider. So what is the sort of provision like?

MF: For us, I'd say we're pretty on-prem heavy. So we rely very heavily on our on-prem data centers as opposed to relying on third-party data centers or cloud data centers. One of the issues we have as well is bandwidth is extremely expensive in Qatar. I lived in the US for part of my life, I'm pretty familiar with what telecom companies charge for bandwidth over in the US. I'm not sure about Western Europe, but in the US I know it's pretty affordable compared to what we pay here in Qatar. And for us, the economics don't really make a lot of sense quite yet to invest in very high-bandwidth connections for off-prem or cloud centers. And this is again one of the barriers that's kind of keeping us from adopting a wider solution and adopting cloud technologies.

CW: What about things like remote access and giving staff the ability to connect from different places? Is that something you see cloud as potentially an enabler to do, or is that something that you think you can do with remote access and sufficient security with your existing systems?

MF: Well, unfortunately we haven't done a lot of work with cloud remote access. But you know, interesting times we live in, and if COVID taught us anything, it's that we can accomplish a lot of the work that we do on-site by being off-site and just giving most of our people remote access.

So part of the exercise that we went through when we started getting all these COVID restrictions and COVID lockdowns—again, we are the official state broadcaster, you know, zero downtime, we had to be available 24 by 7. We separated our teams. We had a team working from home—exclusively from home, not even showing up to QTV.

And we saw a lot of technologies out there that kind of enabled this process and helped us out. Not necessarily cloud, but just remote access technologies, and we were quite happy with the results. I mean, for some people, they did not set foot in QTV for around six, seven months, and they were able to work seamlessly without any major interruptions or any major modifications to the way that they do business.

CW: What kind of implications did that have for your own internal security? Because security is something that's critically important for all stations, even more so I guess for stations which like yourselves are state broadcasters. So how did you handle that kind of transition of people being at home, so being in the office and then working from home, from a security perspective?

MF: Yeah, so there's always this conflict between us as the broadcast technology department and the IT people who have a traditional IT foundation. We're trying to give our users more usability, access to more functionality from home, trying to make it more seamless. And then you have the IT folks who are specialized in security saying, "Listen guys, we need to find a more elegant way to get things done because there are these security concerns."

For us, honestly, it was not a one-time thing that we did, where we just assess the security implications and we implement a solution. It was more of an iterative process. We rolled out the first version, which was extremely restrictive, users weren't able to do much because there were too many security constraints, and then we started working with our information security department to make sure that the solution was secure, but at the same time was a bit more flexible, that it provided more end-user functionality from home.

Again as someone with a broadcast technology mindset, working in the broadcast technology department for the last 10 years, I found it best to consult with these experts in information security so they can provide us the feedback that we need and the sound advice that we need to get it done in the most secure fashion.

CW: It's a really interesting point that, Mohamad, because I've spoken to other people both in the UK and in the US who have spoken about exactly the same thing, that actually what the whole COVID situation has done is actually given the broadcast team and the IT team a better understanding of what each of them requires to do. And actually, going forward, that's something that could be seen as a benefit for workflows as we progress through the next few months and years.

MF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean again, we've had to rely more on cloud because I told you we do it for some media exchange requirements. We had to work with our information security department to make sure that we provided that platform in a secure manner, in a safe manner, in a manner that—I don't want to say eliminates, but reduces the risks to our internal network and to the end users who are accessing that network from home. COVID was a very big catalyst, because I can't think of any other situation where we would have adopted these technologies so fast, and in the same fashion over the span of a few weeks.

CW: And do you think it's also meant from a staff perspective that they're willing to look at and adopt different types of workflows, because the situation demanded that things had to change very, very quickly?

MF: For us at least, there was a lot of resistance to change initially. You know, people are used to showing up to the office every single day, getting their work done on a Media Composer or an iNews client, having the producer sitting right next to them. So it did take some convincing at first.

I always say, when you want to manage change, you have to go about it in a very diplomatic way. You have to show people that they can still get the same end functionality that they were getting when they were based inside QTV as they're about to do from home. So there was some reluctance and resistance initially, but we dealt with that on a case by case basis. We showed people that they truly did have the tools to enable them to succeed. I would say within a few weeks everyone was happy, except that they were working from home.

CW: When it comes to looking at things like cloud, if you're looking at future workflows that you might want to to develop, What do you think are the areas that cloud is most appropriate to be used for?

MF: One of the difficulties we've had over the past few years is that broadcast workflows in general, they're too rigid, they're too traditional to cater for a VOD requirement. You know, you want to get stories quickly to air. You don't want to have to transcode material, because you know transcoding is time intensive, it degrades the quality of your picture. It's a complicated and messy process. Historically we've had to rely on on-prem transcoders, again because of the bandwidth issues, that Internet bandwidth is too expensive. So we have to really compress that material before we push it up to the cloud and before we make it available to our online viewers.

So one of the solutions we're looking at right now is Publisher, which is quite smart with the way it does things. So it transcodes things on the fly. It segments the media down into small HLS packets and it pushes them up to the cloud faster than real time, which is really great for us. And then from the cloud you can control whatever destination you want to send that material to, be it YouTube, your own CMS, Facebook, Instagram, whatever.

So we're quite excited about that because it will really make the whole publishing to VOD process much more seamless. Plus, our editorial staff will still get to use the same tool, but within [MediaCentral] Cloud UX so that we don't have to train them on an entirely new interface, an entirely new system to use.

CW: So would it be fair to say that you see cloud really as a workflow enabler as much as anything else?

MF: Yeah, absolutely.

CW: And then, when you think of that—and then going back to something else that we talked about—when you think about security, how do you balance those two things out? Bcause I think for some of the cloud providers, the large clouds like Microsoft and Amazon and others, security is so important for them, because if your material is not secure in the cloud then they, to an extent, don't have a business.

So when you think about security in the cloud, do you see the cloud as being secure, or do you see it as something that still has a bit of risk associated with it?

MF: For us, the way I see it personally is, it's exactly the same as an on-prem solution. Do your homework, make sure you lock it down properly, and make sure you have all the proper security protocols in place, and you should be safe.

Of course there are other concerns with cloud that we don't necessarily have with on-prem solutions. Is the data center where your data is stored physically secure, is Microsoft or Amazon or Akamai or whatever that third party is taking the proper precautions? But in most cases this holds true, especially if you're working one of the more reputable providers and other pretty airtight contracts. This isn't that big of a concern for us.

The biggest concern is when you create your cloud solution or your offsite footprint, you have to go through the solution and make sure that it really is secure, just as you would with an on-prem solution.

CW: You mentioned some DR workflows that you look at as well. Is that something you could talk a little bit more about, about why you would look at cloud for a DR workflow as opposed to how perhaps things have been done before?

MF: Yeah, absolutely. So we've been looking at a DR workflow on the cloud for playout, which is actually quite elegant, quite unique, how it does things. So what you would do is you would get a subset of of your media, upload it onto the cloud, transcode it into a lower bitrate, something that's a bit lighter than your full resolution on-prem media. upload that to the cloud, spin up a virtual machine on the cloud with playout capabilities with, you know, graphics, branding, all that stuff. It's usually pretty easy, not very demanding. And then over IP you can send the transport stream into any uplink station you want anywhere in the world.

With some of the solutions nowadays you can have a parallel playlist running on the cloud, sharing the same media, and have it frame accurate, and within a split second if your main carrier signal drops, your uplink station will have instructions to switch to your DR feed and no one will notice that you're running from a cloud DR solution.

CW: So as you begin to look forward to the next year or 18 months or so, Mohamad, what do you think the future holds for Qatar TV?

MF: So I would say that definitely right now we're starting to look at UHD technologies and IP technologies. I think the industry is mature enough in these two specific areas for us to seriously start investing and building solutions based on UHD and for IP SMPTE 2110.

We've done some work so far with UHD. We've gotten our entire system UHD-qualified: storage, the production environment, our editing suites. But it's just a matter of deciding when we want to start producing material in UHD.

For IP, I think we still need a bit more work. We still need to decide on vendors, standards, system architecture, but these are our priorities for the next 12 to 18 months, I would say.

CW: And then a final question, Mohamad, and this is actually something I'm asking everyone who's doing the podcast: Is there anything that keeps you awake at night?

MF: That's a curveball question. Well, there's a lot that keeps me awake at night. Honestly, to me the biggest fear is the balance. You want to stay ahead of the curve, but at the same time you don't want to be too early an adopter that you may take a misstep and then decide that, "Oh no, we have to roll back. This probably isn't the best use of our time and our money." To me this is the biggest concern. It's a decision I struggle with on a constant basis.

CW: I guess that's what the difference is between leading edge and bleeding edge.

Now what do you think about the cloud? Let us know via email at [email protected] or you can contact me on social media. My Twitter and Instagram username is @craigaw1969.

Thanks to Mohamad for taking the time to talk to us. As I mentioned earlier, the journey to the cloud will be a big topic for the industry to address and I'm sure we will revisit it again here on the podcast.

To find out some more on the subject, take a look at the show notes to check out the Journey to the Cloud white paper that provides road maps for migrating workflows over time. There's also a link to an article discussing changing security models and information regarding MediaCentral | Publisher, a cloud-hosted solution from Avid for integrated social media publishing.

On the next Making the Media episode, we're going to investigate how broadcasters are making attempts to tailor content for different platforms as they attempt to find new audiences and revenue streams. Matt Goldberg from NBCUniversal joins us for that. Let's hear a little preview.

Matt Goldberg: When we take a story, we will create a different component of it that is a way to tell it on Instagram with a call to action to potentially drive you to our website, to YouTube, to watch the deeper, more cinematic-looking version of it. And I think it's the same thing for TV.

So you know, I think a lot of what is happening is, I think, early on we saw news outlets sort of take the product and just put it everywhere. And it's a terrible experience. But I think what is happening now is creating different versions and then on top of that, being comfortable in saying, "You know what? This doesn't work on Twitter because, well, you can't really tell this in 140 characters." Kind of being platform cognizant of what you need to do.

CW: And we'll also hear from Philip Bromwell from the Irish broadcaster RTÉ as well, so lots of good information to come.

Now don't forget, you can leave a review, subscribe, and share the Making the Media podcast with your friends and colleagues, and let's continue the discussion on the key issues the industry is facing.

Thanks as always to our producer, Rachel Haberman. My name is Craig Wilson. Thanks again for listening, and join me next time for more chat about making the media.

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