News that online video providers Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and YouTube take up nearly half of all Internet bandwidth in the United States during peak viewing hours is well known. But while consumer video content is front and center in the IP entertainment revolution, other critical but perhaps lesser-known content service providers have been growing in the background.
Take, for example, Aspera, which has quietly supported television and movie production efforts (as well as sporting events and other large-scale content production) for the past decade. The company's software enables infrastructure-agnostic, high-speed transport of large amounts of data from one location to another.
Aspera's technology was used in the production of the movie Battleship.
Founded in 2004, Aspera set out initially to solve the problem of moving large files over long distances, Richard Heitmann, vice president of marketing, told FierceOnlineVideo. "Back then media and entertainment were moving from tape-based to file-based workflows, and from local to global production," he said. Working on the "ingest side" of the production workflow, the company's software helped M&E companies barrel through IP network bottlenecks.
"We're used in the actual production and post-production of movies," Heitmann said. "Avatar, shot in New Zealand, needed to be brought back into studios. Battleship, Snow White and The Huntsman--post-production was done with our technology."
The software has allowed television and movie productions true geographic independence, slashing costs of getting content back to post-production facilities. "(There) used to be a tradeoff between accessing and storing the content. … Now you have a truly global workflow. 'Mythbusters,' for example is actually shot in the Bay Area. The producer is located in the UK, and the production company, Beyond, is located in Australia. That type of global production where you have key folks on different continents able to collaborate on a project is near real-time. So you have that flexibility of having your data reside anywhere."
Aspera's technology is also used for live newsgathering, with customers using its mobile client to send images back to the newsroom rapidly.
On the distribution side, Aspera helps support live sporting events like the FIFA and UEFA Cups. Customers are able to capture the content, encode it, and distribute it over IP. With its software designed and built into the network core, and its apps built on top of that, engineers can not only deliver content rapidly but also enjoy a degree of rate control.
Not surprisingly, Aspera has grown to 165 employees with more than 2,100 customers worldwide, including Netflix, Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) and Rovio.
"Netflix uses our technology as part of their strategy for transcoding. The content owners actually all have an Aspera license to begin with. So they upload their buckets into Amazon S3," Heitmann said, noting that the company partnered early on with online video providers in order to create an efficient delivery method. From the upload point on Amazon's AWS, Netflix preps its latest content for streaming, adaptive bit rates, and so on. "And when the project is done they can spin down their computers and stop paying for them."
Taking sports live over IP
Aspera isn't the only game in town when it comes to transport, though. EVS and Nevion also have a strong presence in media and entertainment, particularly with live broadcast, and have been in business for 20 and 25 years, respectively.
Nevion develops network technologies for data related to live video transport, such as sporting events and live entertainment.
"It all started with Network Electronics," said Geir Bryn-Jensen, CEO of Nevion. Prior to merging with Delta 8 and California-based VPG to create Nevion, Norway-based Network Electronics was developing video routers and fiber optics transport for broadcasters. "That evolved into more technologies for processing video signals needed for video production in the broadcast environment."
Adding VPG to the mix gave Nevion an entrée to the service provider and telco vertical and their large IP network footprints. The company also recently folded in Norwegian vendor T-VIPS, which enabled Nevion to expand its service to DTB (digital terrestrial broadcast) providers.
"One big difference is (in) broadcast video transport, there is a very specific QoS that has to be maintained. Also there is a need to actually 'burn' IP video to do the editing. You have to maintain the quality even packed into IP," Bryn-Jensen said. "Our niche is media, moving from pure video (including video, audio, and related metadata); media transport across the whole value chain; and covering any kind of network infrastructure tech you might have out there. And we manage all of this. We developed a media management platform that covers all of the complexity."
EVS, meanwhile, has provided live production technology for sports events since the early stages of IP, according to Nicolas Bourdon, senior vice president of marketing. Initially offering a disk-based digital video recorder to capture and edit video some 20 years ago, its technology has evolved to meet broadcasters' needs for on-the-fly editing during games.
While its service involves more hardware-based technologies, EVS feels its editing capabilities help it stand out. "The architecture is unique because we have loop recording," Bourdon said. "The system doesn't need to be stopped to do recording and playback. We record while doing the playback. The level of reactivity of the system is unique. It's at the level of the frame. We can stop the video and go back frame by frame to do a replay."
Grabbing the second screen
EVS' C-Cast supports second-screen viewing.
EVS also offers web-based editing controls via its C-Cast product. "It was initially developed to answer a demand, initially in live sport, to give the ability to broadcasters or professionals, or final viewers, to access exclusive content created on our servers or in our facilities or other venues," said Bourdon. "Viewers can access content as a second screen, and see content the broadcaster didn't provide in the live broadcast. You can do slow motion, special access, things that the director didn't provide at that time."
EVS developed C-Cast a little over two years ago. The technology has been selected by FIFA for use during the World Cup to deliver multimedia content to viewers. With 60 to 100 million viewers expected, EVS sees it as a great opportunity to showcase C-Cast to media and entertainment providers looking for a more compelling second screen option.
While major contracts for C-Cast have been signed in Europe and Asia, it hasn't yet been picked up by large broadcasters in the United States. That may change, though. EVS is currently working with Sporting Innovations to provide an "enhanced" experience for fans attending games at Kansas City Stadium, currently under construction. With Cisco-provided Wi-Fi throughout the stadium, attendees can access different camera angles and exclusive replays on their mobile devices, said Bourdon.
Shifting to 4K
The shift toward 4K HEVC encoding is well in play, and Nevion and EVS are supporting broadcasters as they increase the availability of 4K content.
EVS implemented 4K this summer. "The idea is to offer full transport 4K using [our] current XT3 servers," said Bourdon. "That's now available with the full systems in place in market. The XT3 servers are up to three channels. It's a simple software configuration to manage the upgrade from HD to 4K, so we don't need extra hardware to upgrade."
Nevion's Bryn-Jensen sees sports as the catalyst that will increase the availability of 4K technology worldwide, with communications service providers playing a bigger role in transport. "They do it both for sports and for news players popping up in U.S., the EU, and in Asia. Companies that have come from a more data and IP service provider position, they have infrastructure. Some are providing [service] into stadiums and venues," he said. "I see a stronger trend with specialization where the broadcasters focus on content for their competitive edge, and service providers develop very technical efficiencies to get the cost of transport down."
Ultimately, it still comes down to transporting large, high-quality files over IP networks that are continuously developing.
Data centers as video transport hubs
Aspera is putting renewed focus on the flexibility of the cloud when it comes to moving and managing video content. However, cloud techniques such as PaaS (platform as a service) are still subject to the vagaries of IP networks.
"If you think about what (the cloud) is--take Amazon, for example. It's just another data center and a WAN connects you to the data center," Aspera's Heitmann said. "The same bottlenecks that exist in moving content from one data center to another exist when moving data from your location to the cloud. … Theoretically, the cloud has unlimited compute and storage capacity but you have to get the data there."
Because its software is agnostic, Aspera customers can move their content to data centers that use Amazon's S3, Google Compute, Microsoft's Blob or other object storage using the provider's NetStorage ingest product. "Our customers can now move that data into the cloud very rapidly and then take advantage of everything the cloud has to offer."
EVS' Bourdon sees media types and platforms evolving to make the transport process less painful all around.
"We feel there is a conversion between the different media," said Bourdon. "Online video is key, and there is a clear sign to broadcasters that they need to be able to multiply their offerings and use different platforms to serve the strength (of demand). When it's live--the closer you get and the more relevant you get to live, the higher the value. The key is to be able to provide relevant content."