Interview: Appear CTO Andy Rayner on R&D, security and future growth

As Appear celebrates its 20th anniversary, CTO Andy Rayner speaks to Jo Ruddock about the company’s R&D priorities, the importance of security and where future growth opportunities may lie.

What trends are you currently seeing when it comes to media processing and content delivery solutions?

Basically, what I call location agnostic or distributed production is really coming of age. That’s where the people resources, the equipment resources, don’t need to be co-located with where the acquisition event is happening. That’s transformational from a workflow perspective for content creators, because it means they can make better use of their people, make better use of their equipment and of all their data facilities, so it’s actually a genuine cost saving workflow and enables them to use their talent over more events.

But to do that you need a massive amount of connectivity infrastructure. So, as an example, when you’re doing what in the US they call REMIs, where you’re actually pulling back every individual video feed from an event, every individual microphone, that’s creating more and more demand for connectivity infrastructure to facilitate that.

What we’re finding the sweet spot with what we’ve done, which I think is quite fortuitous for Appear, is that we have an unbelievably high density, low power and small size footprint for that connectivity interfacing that we provide in our platform. And, as people want to do these massive numbers of backhaul, we’re in a very sweet spot for that, which gives lots of cost savings, but also from an environmental perspective, it gives massive power and space savings as well.

I think the other trend that goes alongside that in live production, which is a real transformation in the last couple of years, is using public internet connectivity on live production. That’s something that was unheard of, but the reality is that if you use the same bandwidth on a public internet connectivity, it’ll possibly cost you 1/100th the cost of renting a private leased line. So, if you can actually do that, that’s a massive cost transformation.

So some of the technology toolkit we’ve got within our platforms in new ARQ technology and ALT technology is instrumental in getting public internet to work to the performance level we need for live production. Public internet connectivity is getting better and better natively in its quality anyway, but that alongside the significant cost saving, and then the ARQ capabilities we have in the platform, that’s a great story combined for enablement. And I think it does two things. Firstly, it means that people can produce an n-camera event for less cost. It’s also an enabler for lower tier sports where a traditional broadcast would be economically unfeasible to actually run and we’re now able to do a live multi camera production, something that was completely unviable previously.

We’ve seen a number of innovations from Appear in the last few years, not least the X Platform. What would you say are your R&D priorities going forward?

We’re continuing to enhance the X Platform, so we’re doing things like further increasing the density of the unit. We’re also introducing new processing capabilities that are required for UHD HD workflows. We’re also just starting on the journey of developing some complementary software tools to complement the X Platform. So the X Platform will continue to be our flagship product, but we’re now developing a suite of software tools, which are actually going to complement that and allow us to increase our share of the production workflow.

On the density increase we’ve also just released a 100G interface, significantly upping the bandwidth and that provides even higher levels of aggregation.

What about sustainability – is this something your customers are focused on and how can Appear help them on their sustainability journey?

I think there’s a limit here on what content producers are being mandated to do, depending on where they are in the world. In Europe, including the UK to a large degree, there is quite a good level of what I will call obligation due to state legislation. I have to say that’s not consistent across all parts of the globe. But more and more, we’re finding that customers are ending up with contractual obligations on their providers, their suppliers, to be more compliant to sustainability agendas.

And I think the way we’ve architected our offering actually plays into that spectrum really well because we’re focused on lowering power consumption and maximising density. We are right in a very sweet spot and with the product family to actually help our customers meet that need. The other thing is, especially for events based, I mentioned that we’re starting to move towards some software infrastructure. While running production capability on compute is not the most power efficient way of doing it, the fact that for events you run on compute, you only spin it up for the period of time when the event’s actually running, that’s a massive saving and therefore a more sustainable approach.

You’re involved with a number of standards bodies. How is that landscape looking when it comes to standardisation in live production?

I think in what I would the call traditional live production world, when we’re talking about appliances and equipment on the ground, I think those standards, the 2110 suite and all of the peripheral standards around those, are maturing really well.

I think the place where standards are still needed significantly is in compute because that’s relatively immature. There are no what I call proper open standards for live media production interconnect in compute yet. I co-chair a standards group in the Video Services Forum called GCCG, which is Ground-Cloud-Cloud-Ground, and that’s all about looking at standardising compute. Some of my team have been some of the first people to look at implementing what we’re hoping is going to become an open standard. But that’s very much in its infancy. Literally, the draft was published for NAB in April, and it’s probably going to take a good 18-months I expect to really bed in. But I’m very excited that we’re one of the first people who are really looking into that.

With rightsholders paying so much for content, how is Appear addressing the issues around security and how do you see this playing out in the coming years?

I think, looking back on the way the media production industry has approached security as we move to IP, and IT, it probably hasn’t been the best approach in as much as it hasn’t been a security first approach overall. That would be my retrospective observation. But I think what we’re starting to do as a media industry now is actually say, ‘the IT industry solved security issues; there are standard ways of protecting both the data and control plane, and those tools are available in the industry.’

What we need to make sure that we do is to design in all of those security capabilities. There’s been a bit of a turnaround, probably in the past three years, where we actually said ‘OK, let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s just do best practice which is based on the bigger IT industry’ because there’s a whole trend in our industry, which is what I call from the bespoke to the generic. Traditionally broadcasters have had bespoke interfaces but now as everything moves to IP, everything is just a standard Ethernet interface. And the same is true in terms of appliances – we used to have bespoke boxes that had very specific individual functions. Now it’s all about bespoke to generic.

Also, as more broadcasters are looking to use public internet connectivity for live production, that obviously creates the need even more so for security because when you used to buy a traditional leased line from your service provider, that was inherently pretty secure. If you’re looking to interface into public internet and then pull it back out, then you have to be absolutely bang on with security because it’s imperative that data is protected.

And finally, looking ahead, where do you see the biggest growth opportunities for Appear in the EMEA market over the next few years?

So, I think, much more roll out of location agnostic production. Lots of places have done it. But there’s lots of places that have not yet rolled that out.

I think also the move to do more and more elements in compute as well, and I think even more focus on sustainability. That’s going to further drive people to look at how they can actually do the same thing for much less power and much less cost and much less space, much less transit. I think all of those things will drive growth for us.

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters