How Imagine Communications is Bringing Video Distribution to the cloud and Beyond

At the end of 2014 I declared Imagine Communications one of the companies to watch in 2015, specifically stating:

The video industry is changing rapidly thanks to time-shifting, on-demand and mobile devices. This in-turn affects the whole broadcast chain. The typical broadcast studio has lots of big iron with blinking lights – roughly analogous to mainframes or perhaps carrier class switches – a Class 4/5 perhaps is more like it. While the cable companies have moved to standardized IT and SDN, these companies haven’t made the change.

Imagine thinks the market needs to move to virtualized networks, software defined architecture; networks and workflows which would allow the players to move a lot faster. Moreover, the end-game is all IP multiscreen, multiplatform distribution. Or, succinctly, sort-of what telecom went through a decade-and-a-half ago.

In my most recent meeting with the company this week, there was a bewildering array of news. Perhaps the biggest is a major contract win for the company. Disney/ABC Television Group is deploying VersioCloud, Imagine Communications’ fully IP-enabled, integrated playout in the cloud platform. Designed for a network origination ecosystem, this geo-dispersed platform aggregates national operations into a cohesive, resilient and unified entertainment delivery solution. VersioCloud advances the evolution of longstanding broadcast operations, including master control functionality. Software-based systems enable the integration of formerly discrete, hardware-based functions, expanding the productivity of master control room operations while optimizing workflow.

“By leveraging evolving IP and Cloud technologies we are able to move beyond what’s currently possible with traditional proprietary “Big Iron” broadcast infrastructures,” said Vince Roberts, executive vice president, global operations and chief technology officer, Disney/ABC Television Group. “Imagine Communications’ IP solutions enable us to automate and deliver workflow processes and technologies to a more agile and scalable environment. Our shared vision and close collaboration will enable Disney/ABC Television Group to take a uniquely innovative approach to the next generation of television and media distribution platforms.”

“We are thrilled to extend our relationship with the Disney/ABC Television Group on this groundbreaking project that represents the future of broadcast television,” said Charlie Vogt (see him explain his vision in the video below), chief executive officer, Imagine Communications. “Their transition to cloud-based playout provides a platform to accelerate the expansion of their acclaimed programming and gain freedom from dependencies on geographic content origination and physical playout facilities. We are focused on supporting Vince and his team’s cutting-edge vision with the advanced technologies and on-the-ground professional service experts to support a seamless transition to cloud playout across multiple deployment phases.

Glenn LeBrun VP Marketing told me at the NAB show in Las Vegas that this announcement takes 34 rooms full of different equipment and consolidates it in the cloud. He continued by saying the system becomes fully automated, frame accurate and allows content to be massaged, moved around and ads to be inserted. He went on to say in the future, he wouldn’t be surprised if television groups go all IP in their distribution as well, eliminating the need for satellites.

Moreover, the company made big news, announcing its solutions will work with Cisco hardware. Specifically, their Zenium workflow manager and VersioCloud platform have been certified to run on Cisco’s Unified Computing System or UCS) The agreement also provides media companies transitioning from baseband to IP infrastructures with the ability to manage Cisco’s Nexus IP switches with Imagine Communications’ Magellan SDN Orchestrator which is the company’s software control system for hybrid baseband and IP networks.

Much of what is happening – as you can see, is what we saw in the VoIP space for the last 20 years. Softswitiching and SIP protocols decoupled media and control. Similarly, baseband Coax cables will eventually be all IP. As the move to UHD takes place, the entire video ecosystem has to make changes to their infrastructure anyway. Sure, they can (with some added complexity) run 12 GHz instead of 3 GHz signals on coax, or just move to fiber. In other words, there is a transition happening anyway which means the move to software and OTS hardware makes more sense than ever to complete ASAP. Finally, although this wasn’t discussed in my lengthy meeting, the potential exists to move beyond UHD signals far more easily in this new world of software controlled video.

The company is also making waves in the cloud-DVR space allowing dynamic ad insertion and transcoding for example. One benefit of the former is allowing advertising to be targeted by the date of view. LeBrun said, “If I record a show over Labor Day and I watch it ten days later, I won’t see Labor Day ads. With dynamic ad insertion, the ad is fresh and the advertiser will pay.” He continued, “It enhances the monetization of the ads and lets distributors get their piece of the action.”

The company’s solution also allows for ads to be geotargeted or targeted on a per-user basis, allowing BMW owners for example to see targeted ads close their lease expiration dates.

Much the same way OTT competition is pushing carriers to adopt SDN and NFV to become software telcos, broadcasters have challenges when competing with YouTube, Meerkat and countless video services. They too will have to go digital to reduce their costs. The time is coming. There seems no avoiding it and Imagine Communications seems to be better and better positioned to be part of the evolution. At this rate, they’ll be a company to watch in 2016 and beyond as well.

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