SVG Europe Analysis: Why Elemental and Sky have teamed up for multiscreen

Last week Elemental Technologies and Sky announced an ongoing partnership to develop Sky’s multiscreen delivery strategy. Sky will be using Elemental’s software-centric playout solutions for its NOW TV OTT service and its mobile TV service, Sky Go. Sky’s OTT service infrastructure is using Elemental Live as the video processing engine in a workflow controlled by Elemental Conductor. During live streaming, Sky channel IP inputs are fed to Elemental Live software, which encode original and aggregated linear content in real time for delivery to mobile devices and the web.

For the Sky VOD workflow, Elemental Server systems transcode content into multiple formats and encrypt it for output to consumer devices, including Apple TV, over the Sky CDN.

At a presentation at Sky’s London headquarters, Elemental CEO and co-founder Sam Blackman, expressed his belief that the broadcast industry is at a peak transition period for software-defined video services and that this transition would be swift and inevitable, one key reason being the growing complexity of video formats.

“Delivering content to the big screen television was relatively straightforward,” he said, “Once you defined the standard, you could build a product pretty rapidly. With multiscreen, the world is changing very quickly. The diversity of devices is growing tremendously. The protocols that you have to support to deliver to all those devices are also growing exponentially. And they’re changing all the time – every time Apple releases an update to iOS, or every time Google releases an update to Android, everything changes.”

Keeping up with these changes is an impossibility in a hardware-centric workflow, asserts Blackman, especially given a broadcast future of uncertain resolutions, frame rates, and colour gamut. He noted the transition would not be possible without great advances in processing speed. Software is at an inflection point, he said, where software is finally faster than dedicated hardware.

“We believe we are at the beginning of the S-curve where software adoption is going to completely take over, and there will not be another generation of hardware based architectures.”

He noted the challenging ripple-effect this creates throughout the industry, with different skillsets being required to build and maintain new workflows: “The engineering team required to build a world-class hardware solution is completely different to one building a world-class software solution.”

Sky’s director of broadcast services, Matt McDonald, said “OTT is critical for Sky. It’s growing in importance all the time.” Traffic on the Sky GO mobile platform is currently at 2.6 billion download streams per year, and Sky’s “pay light” platform, NOW TV, has opened up new markets for Sky content.

Sky is in the process of re-engineering its IP linear head-end, with the goal of having a fully end-to-end IP architecture, with Elemental as the transcode platform.

“We chose Elemental because of balance,” said McDonald, “We needed that picture quality across all bit rates and that speed of processing, and architecturally it was a great fit for us. And we know it’s scalable and it’s an easy API to work with.”

Sky’s Emma Lloyd, director of corporate business development and investments, said that the partnership with Elemental was the result of a conscious effort from Sky to reach out to ‘Silicon Valley’ companies. Sky set up an office on the west coast of California for the specific purpose of scouting opportunities in software-based workflows and infrastructure.

“We’ve always aspired to be at the forefront,” Lloyd said, “We wondered if a deeper partnership would be beneficial to both Sky and Elemental, even more beneficial than a more traditional supplier arrangement. So given how important Elemental’s technology is to our end customer services — and because Elemental was at a point in its life cycle where it was looking for additional investors — we saw it as a really strong fit. It genuinely is a real partnership.”

Elemental’s Blackman noted that unspecified Elemental clients were already using their platform to do primary screen linear playout. Neither Blackman nor Sky would confirm whether Elemental would also eventually provide a linear playout solution for Sky.

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