Netflix: Edge Computing Can Streamline TV & Film Production

Feb. 19, 2020
Netflix sees an opportunity for edge computing to transform TV and film production, where huge video files are often transported on tapes in trucks rather than over data networks.

HONOLULU – Netflix is interested in edge computing and 5G wireless. But it’s not necessarily to make your streaming video download more smoothly.

Netflix sees an opportunity for these new technologies to transform TV and film production, changing the way huge video files are managed and shared.

“Where (edge computing) is super interesting to me is the production side of the house, and during series production,” said Dave Temkin, Vice President of Networks at Netflix. “As we’re making content, one of the biggest challenges we face is that we can be making content in Mumbai, but have the producers or other creatives sitting in London. A big priority for them is being able to see the content, either as it’s being made, or that evening in a process called dailies.

“The thing that blew my mind is that they’re still writing this content to LTO (data storage) tapes and putting LTO tapes in the back of a van and driving that van to the airport and loading those LTO tapes onto a cargo flight or commercial flight, and then taking them wherever they need to be post processed,” said Temkin. “We need to fix that.”

Edge computing and 5G wireless are often seen as tools to enable low-latency delivery of content, like streaming video. Temkin was among several panelists at the recent Pacific Telecommunications Council (PTC) conference to highlight the challenge of data ingest – onloading large volumes of data. Edge computing can play an important role in accepting data from devices and creating a richer two-way flow of information across the network.

It may be surprising that a streaming media pioneer like Netflix would move content by courier, providing a reminder of the old Andrew Tanenbaum quote – “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.” In fact, the use of couriers is standard practice across Hollywood.

“That’s not a problem unique to Netflix,” said Temkin. “That’s the way all content production still works.”

“We’re one of the few industries that’s utterly not connected to the Internet,” said Ramy Katrib, CEO and founder of DigitalFilm Tree, a Los Angeles post-production house. “That’s one of our biggest pain points. There’s something north of $200 billion of spending to create scripted television, which has more gravity than just about any other part of media and entertainment. But scripted television is different than a live football game. It has never been connected to the internet.”

‘We’re Competing With FedEx’

In entertainment production, the dailies are the unedited raw footage shot during the making of a motion picture or TV series. The video is shot in high resolution, creating large files that are difficult to move across a network. Footage is often transported on storage tape by specialized courier services or even FedEx.

Katrib’s firm has a service to transport and store “cloud dailies,” but says the offering is “really at the early stages.”

“We’re competing with FedEx,” said Katrib. “We’re competing with production assistants that take the ‘treasure’ and drive it from here to there. We want more oversight on those files. We want to do something better than FedEx.”

5G wireless technology is the next-generation standard expected to bring widespread disruption of American business, as low-latency connections enable new services. Some analysts are skeptical about the economics of 5G, which will require new transmission infrastructure, including thousands of cell towers and tens of thousands of antennas known as small cells and DAS (distributed antenna systems).

Advocates of 5G and edge computing say these technologies will unleash entirely new applications, and transform how some industries do business. The PTC discussion of entertainment content management fits the bill.

Netflix VP of Networks Dave Temkin (center) at the recent PTC20 conference, with fellow panelists Joe Weinman (left) and James Staten of Forrester Research. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Netflix has spent years building a global infrastructure for content delivery, including a large core deployment on Amazon Web Services, and a CDN using thousands of Open Connect caching servers distributed across ISPs and data centers around the world. “5G is going to unlock additional bandwidth, and hopefully that solves a lot of contention issues in busy networks,” said Temkin.

But the real gains are on the production side. “I have two places of interest – on the set and on location,” he added. “More and more content has to be reviewed right away. Being able to deliver that quickly is key.”

The Power of On-Location Transcoding

As we noted in 2018 (Data Tonnage: Managing the Coming M2M Tsunami) many of the business benefits envisioned from edge computing will be derived from analytics that help companies improve their products and services. That requires moving tons of data from the consumer onto networks that are optimized for downloads, not uploads.

Edge computing can perform “data thinning” to distill large datasets down to smaller files to be sent across the network for review. In TV and film production, that means transcoding, which converts large files into a format more suitable for digital transport. Edge computing can bring processing power onto remote sets, allowing transcoding to take place on location.

“We are shooting content at 8K, and that’s about 12.5 gigabytes a minute compressed,” Temkin explained. “5g is not going to solve for that. Fiber will, but you can’t always run fiber to the Amazon jungle where we shoot on location. The ability to transcode something quickly on location, to go from 8K down to a daily – which doesn’t even need to be HD – that  you can get off the set or off location very quickly, that’s really important to us.”

The One Wilshire building, the primary data hub in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Rich Miller)

For Katrib, who is often focused on moving large files around the Los Angeles area, 5G could offer some short-term opportunities.

“Hopefully, in the early stages (of 5G) we can wirelessly hop to the wire and cross-connect to places like One Wilshire, which gives us the ability to do BGP routing and interact with 271 ISPs,” said Katrib. “A wireless hop makes a lot of sense in terms of last-mile pain-point relief for productions.”

It’s not an accident that Los Angeles is also the first location for AWS Local Zones, an edge computing initiative which will provide low-latency access to Amazon Web Services in major metros. Local Zones will be deployed at colocation facilities, with AWS leasing space and managing fleets of its Outposts, which are racks filled with turn-key AWS cloud infrastructure.

The AWS Local Zone in Los Angeles targets the market for computer animation and rendering for games and movies. These applications require fast connections between data storage and compute, and the Local Zone allows developers to shift capacity off-premises to AWS and retain low-latency access.

The democratization of video content production has been a driving force for Internet growth. Katrib predicts that bulk data ingest will see a similar phenomenon, as a new generation of creators gains access to high-definition video technology.

“Right now there are camera devices that can shoot 4k and 6K RAW files, and their price has come way down to $2,000 or $3,000,” said Katrib. “Think about the commoditization of big data camera technology, and how this opens up opportunities for people shooting video for social media to shoot in 4k.”

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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