Moving workflows to the cloud has been a journey of discovery and ultimately peace of mind for Mike Kralec, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Kralec recently sat down for a chat with Kevin Riley, Avid’s Chief Technology Officer. The discussion focused on “Cloud Production Reality and Futures.” Kralec shared the successes and challenges Sinclair has experienced in its cloud operations.
As the largest television broadcasting company in the United States with 185 television stations in 86 markets and 21 regional sports network brands, Sinclair has fully embraced the cloud. There were multiple reasons Sinclair entered the cloud space. The cloud provided solutions for optimizing workflow and increased productivity with reduced operational and maintenance costs.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of cloud strategies for many companies, including Sinclair, as they were forced to go remote and come up with ideas for how to keep employees connected, engaged, and productive in the new offsite world. But Kralec stressed that Sinclair was already deploying innovative cloud-based technologies for automation and playout. He credits Sinclair’s television station engineers with developing new operational workflows so that they could continue operating despite the forced pandemic quarantine.
“Being able to be there quickly changes things more rapidly,” Kralec says. “Cloud can enable more business agility.”
As Sinclair began moving workflows to the cloud, there were successes, pivots, and adjustments needed. Fortunately, the cloud allows for experimenting without great financial risk.
While core broadcast knowledge, media management, and news technology capabilities remain fundamental, extending those areas of knowledge into the cloud requires subject matter experts who understand how cloud technologies affect each of those spaces. To be truly successful with this technology, companies need to invest in training their people in how to operationalize in the cloud.
As Avid has continued its journey to delivering cloud solutions, Avid brought in people with cloud knowledge, including from industries other than media. It’s a competitive market for that skillset but necessary in order to operationalize media workloads to the cloud and complement existing staff experts in audio and video.
“It’s different than running a traditional data center,” says Kevin Riley, Avid’s CTO . “You have to be able to figure out how workloads run in the cloud most efficiently. Having a few people that can help introduce those technologies has been a big win for us within Avid.”
When Sinclair acquired Bally Sports Regional Networks in 2019, the company inherited a legacy system. Rather than revamp the networks, specific workloads were transitioned to the cloud where it made sense, and where the company had either trained staff or vendors to do it. For example, nine petabytes of long-term archive were moved from LTO storage to the cloud. The company hopes to create data-driven workflows for news, syndicated programming, copy, promos, and other areas of the Sinclair ecosystem.
“We’re seeing the media converging,” Kralec says. “It is all coming together, driven by automated workflows that are enabled by the metadata that travels with all of the media. And that is enabled because we’re adding flexibility through the cloud.”
Why a hybrid model makes sense for news
To determine what workflows should be on-premises, in the cloud, or hybrid, Sinclair carefully analyzed each need. Kralec points to news production as a hybrid model example. Some components of news production don’t work in the cloud because of the need to scale requirements of the news throughout any given day. Of Sinclair’s 77 markets, the peak of simultaneous news production within those stations is 37—less than half of the total Sinclair stations. Then there is election coverage, breaking news, and other scenarios that require production on-site.
“It is a give and take,” Kralec admits. “It is absolutely hybrid, and I don’t think we’ll ever get away from hybrid because hybrid, being hybrid, is what’s enabling us to move at all.”
Making workloads portable and even moving them from a data center to the cloud or running them through a hybrid model is part of what the industry still has to learn about to maximize use of the cloud.
“It’s all about options, the way you optimally place elements of the workflow and your workloads, and how to get the best ROI or best performance,” Avid’s Kevin Riley says.
A significant increase in security
Keeping workflows safe has been a concern in the industry but for Sinclair, the cloud has actually increased security. Each of its 185 stations has its own operations, internet connections, and processes, and each distributes its own media. Bringing all of that media into one central repository—including automation, playout capability, and eventually news production—has improved security. Rather than losing control, the cloud actually creates a harmonized, standardized model with a central point to drive consistency, Riley says, and Kralec agrees.
“I sleep better knowing that I have the tools that exist in the cloud that enable me to secure my operations better,” Kralec reveals.
Price tag is offset by savings
Cost has been a concern for companies considering switching their workflow to the cloud. There has been much discussion in the industry about OpEx vs. CapEx on-premises models. While acknowledging that making the change is “a heavy lift,” Riley says cloud service allows for pay as you go, reducing the amount spent on operations, maintenance, infrastructure, storage, networking, and security.
At Sinclair, leaders found that the cloud enables them to be precise in delivery and, as a result, in cost. They understand what a particular piece of media has to do next, where it has to go, and whether to scale up or down. Kralec attributes Sinclair’s success in realizing savings to expertise inside the organization around operational workflows.
“Once you’re in the cloud, you start to see all the intangible things, the savings from operational costs, synergies with your cloud technology, whether or not you need to shift,” Kralec explains. “Cloud gives us an opportunity to get out of some of the technical debt that still exists in legacy broadcast operations. When you get there, you solve it once, and then it evolves.”
More uses for the cloud in the future
Sinclair continues to explore ways to use the cloud. The company delved into splitting out a channel in days to create another linear stream as well as opportunity for commercial ad insertion, and livestreaming at a high-quality level.
Kralec is excited about the possibilities that ATSC 3.0 Edge computing brings and how it can complement the cloud. Sinclair is a leader in the adoption of this emerging delivery methodology and is studying possible capabilities to enhance streaming and boost interactivity. ATSC 3.0 is the next-gen broadcast standard technology that is expected to significantly improve sound quality, picture resolution, offer more channels, increase availability on mobile devices, combine broadcast television and the internet, and no longer require a big antenna. “It’s a digital focus on innovation and creativity,” Kralec says. “We've got a fairly clear vision for how we transform our company into a more cloud-based operating model.”