ITN advances live cloud-based content production and delivery with AWS
The stakes run high when producing and delivering daily news for UK media stalwarts like Independent Television News (ITV), Channel 4 and Channel 5, making technological innovation a priority at Independent Television News (ITN). The production company services these clients, among others, in bringing live news and events, documentaries, sports matches and other digital media to audiences worldwide.
ITN’s work requires extensive video and data processing and transport across long distances. As demand for remote production began rising, ITN required a more seamless approach to both and began transitioning on-premises workflows into the cloud with the help of Amazon Web Services (AWS) technologies.
“Working with a news organisation, we want internet-based consumers to be able to pick up on what we’re putting out there as quickly as possible, which isn’t always straightforward with on-premises media processing pipelines. As our equipment began showing signs of aging, we seized the opportunity to pivot and take advantage of the efficiency AWS could offer. Now, that we’ve seen what’s possible, there’s no going back,” shares ITN cloud and software development manager Nick Moores.
ITN’s AWS implementation, however, is indicative of a larger ‘lift and shift’ strategy the company is undertaking to reduce its carbon footprint across productions and advance media workflows. The ITN team sees additional value in moving off-the-shelf media equipment off-premises and into a data centre.
He explains: “Reducing our physical footprint in London to ensure more sustainable operations is a priority, and with cloud computing, we can work towards that while also breaking free from traditional, expensive circuits that forge links between sites. With AWS, we can create an alternate, more cost-efficient path between sites with cloud computing.”
Moores’ team is also leveraging AWS and ITN’s GVM platform to uncover new technology integrations for remote and decentralised production applications, such as cloud-based transcoding and editing. The combination of these tools enables ITN to produce low-latency, high-quality media using software, which has opened new doors for live event productions. “We can easily transport media across multiple destinations and bring it into AWS instances; produce shows while maintaining traditional production capabilities like switching, audio mixing and monitoring; and transmit the signal to viewers using VoIP,” Moores explained. “It’s saved us on kit and travel costs and made the production process more durable.”
The sky’s the limit
In addition to helping to reduce ITN’s physical production footprint, the cloud makes it simpler and more affordable to spin up new services on demand. “Increasingly, we’re seeing customers ask for rapid turnaround event support and, with AWS, we’re able to deliver,” added Moores.
Since implementing AWS, ITN has come to appreciate the flexibility its services afford. James Wickes, lead media engineer at ITN, explained: “AWS allows you to achieve what you can dream up in your head fast. There’s no worrying about lead times, a lack of the right equipment or test environment, or finding the right local crew. We’re just beginning to realise its full flexibility, which is priceless.”
Using cloud-based infrastructure, ITN has already launched several solutions for clients, including one that allows third-party clients to monitor a feed; it was created in a few weeks, versus the months and extensive network capacity creating a similar on-premises solution would have required.
Making use of the AWS Marketplace, ITN’s business to-business (B2B) division also delivered a maintenance-free 24/7 video delivery service in a single day. Moores noted: “The clients were blown away by the results, and we were happy it didn’t impact our connectivity. There’s no way we could have replicated it on-premises.”
Taking live video to new heights
Following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II last year, ITN was approached by British Airways to live stream the funeral ceremony to its passengers. Using AWS Reference Architecture, they quickly built a live video delivery solution in under a week that enabled them to stream terabytes of historic live event coverage to in-flight audiences over the internet.
To execute the stream, ITN provided on-premises connectivity to the cloud via encoding hardware on the ground. AWS Elemental MediaLive received and processed the video before it was run through AWS Elemental MediaPackage and distributed via the Amazon CloudFront content delivery network (CDN). The workflow used several other AWS services, including Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to create watch folders and file systems to trigger the media processing pipeline, AWS Elemental MediaConvert for video transcoding, and AWS Lambda serverless compute functions for third-party integrations.
“There’s no way we could have pulled it off without AWS; I can’t even imagine trying to cram the physical equipment to execute this in our space,” Wickes explains. “Using the cloud provided a more cost-efficient approach without introducing concerns about viewer numbers, connectivity, or scale. Being able to pass that video to AWS gave us huge peace of mind.”
An extension of its work on this project, ITN is in the process of moving on-premises folders, and file systems traditionally used to trigger media processing pipelines to Amazon S3. It’s using a combination of S3 features, including S3 step functions, which make it easy to co-ordinate the components of distributed applications and microservices. “The abstraction that S3 provides as object-based storage compared to traditional file systems used on-premises provides unrivalled media processing benefits,” added Wickes.
Innovation without bounds
Continuing to advance its media processing workflows, whether spinning up a few Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances or using AWS Elemental MediaConnect to transport video over long distances for a sporting event or feed sources locally up to its GVM platform, ITN is also experimenting with disaster recovery (DR). “The media processing power of AWS goes far beyond anything we’ve experienced, and we’re always looking for a solid backup solution. AWS gives us both, and we’re not incurring costs on an idle solution,” says Wickes.
The team is currently using AWS services for DR in the Channel 4 news department. Should a power outage take the London studio dark, the setup will allow comms, video and audio to be redirected into a virtual production environment with the click of a button. Nearly anyone from the team could then access the broadcast from anywhere in the world. “As long as they’ve got internet connectivity, they can produce the show for about the cost of coffee,” Moores explained.
“It’s quite the leap forward, a real financial game changer when you think about the investment that goes into a high-end production studio,” adds Wickes. “And the move to a SaaS-based model in recent years means that we’re automatically updated versus paying large upfront investments for hardware upgrades.”
ITN sees every project as an opportunity to evolve its AWS-backed pipeline. “As we’ve refined our best practices, we’ve created a modular AWS template from which we can pull the necessary parts depending for each situation, so we’re not always reinventing the wheel. We lean into what works well for projects, while also keeping an eye open for how we can improve,” shares Wickes.
ITN currently edits video footage on-premises but is looking to the cloud to improve content distribution. Moores said: “The goal is to be able to share our content as broadly as possible in terms of both platform and audience. Moving our editing systems into the cloud is a priority this year, and that ultimately means moving more of our media processing pipelines into AWS.”
Moores, Wickes and the team are also in conversations with transmission partners to determine the best path to signal delivery amid increasing adoption of highly compressed low-latency formats like SRT. This will allow them to bring in content more easily from off-site, control it remotely, and share it more efficiently with geographically disparate team members to deliver a mixed production for transmission via traditional TV. They’ve also begun experimenting with bonded cellular data for audio and video contribution from the field, a process through which on-site servers convert video into a baseband media format that is brought into a cellular data platform. AWS EC2 instances pick up the footage for virtual environment integration.
“This will be key as we work to get more of our newsroom content to customers outside our internal user base,” added Moores. “To this end, AWS Direct Connect is invaluable; it’s helping us move on-premises data and content into AWS. Once it’s all in AWS, the possibilities are endless, and we have the scale to deliver content to whatever consumer base we need to, without any concern about viewership numbers.”
As 2023 progresses, ITN plans to also focus on developing a backbone to support more AWS-enabled applications. Wickes concluded: “Up until recently, everything we’ve done has largely been an experiment, but the ROI of AWS and the cloud is clear. Moving forward, we’re focused on creating a core infrastructure that ties into the cloud more seamlessly.”