Cloud AV: So it Begins

You’ve heard a lot of “cloud this” and “cloud that.” How about the Apple commercials (and others) that tout to average consumers the benefits of keeping their stuff in “the cloud” without ever feeling the need to explain exactly what “the cloud” is? (Admittedly, Apple’s done about the best job of positioning the cloud to consumers in terms they can appreciate.)

But think about it: If your parents or grandparents asked you seriously, “What is this cloud thingy?” the explanation could be more technical than they might want.

“Well, it’s a bunch of servers somewhere…”

“Servers?”

“Well, it’s a part of the Internet where…”

“You mean like AOL?

And unlike in the commercial AV industry, Grandma or Grandpa probably won’t ask anything resembling:

“How will the cloud provider keep my data secure? How will they ensure the quality of service I require?”

But increasingly, AV consultants and integrators are going to have to answer such questions for their clients.

If you’d told me a year ago that certain AV functions would rapidly migrate to the cloud, I’d have laughed it off. The cloud is a great place for applications, enterprise storage, and other resources, but for AV processing? For the type of signal management that AV professionals have devoted racks to? Seemed unlikely, at least in the short term.

But by the time I was spouting off about 2012 tech trends, it was clear that companies were going to try their hand at offering more AV functionality as a service. Because we live in an increasingly visual world, that’s where a lot of the cloud innovation is taking place. There are many companies staking their claim, but I’ll just mention a few.

At InfoComm 2011, I sat on a panel hosted by Vaddio about open platforms for distance learning. One of the major themes was ensuring students could engage in distance learning regardless of their client configuration. Which is to say, if they wanted to patch into a university’s expensive room videoconferencing system using Skype, which they use every day, they should be able to.

Fast forward to last month, when Vaddio — which is known primarly for cameras, not codecs — announced partnerships with a pair of companies, Blue Jeans Network and Vidtel. Both offer videoconferencing services via the cloud in order to bridge the landscape of video calling solutions. It’s a great example of AV in the cloud — if the codecs won’t speak the same language, just toss the stream to the cloud and let it translate for you. I’ve spoken to integrators exploring these solutions, and so far the reviews are fairly positive. We’ll know more as more users adopt cloud-based videoconferencing services.

Cloud-based VTC is similar in concept to what companies such as Haivision and Wowza are now doing. Videoconferencing aside, if a client wants to get into streaming media, it needs solutions for transcoding video and getting it out in multiple streams to users who are potentially all over the world, and who are potentially accessing the video stream on all sorts of devices.

Maintaining all the encoders and transcoders necessary to support multiple end points (and the bandwidth to get all those streams out of the data center) can be expensive, especially for smaller organizations. Haivision announced this week what it calls HyperStream [PDF], which is a cloud platform for real-time transcoding, among other things. It even runs on Amazon’s EC2 (that’s Elastic Compute Cloud) and will automate distribution to Akamai’s content delivery network.

Wowza, which makes a media server product that’s popular with universities, broadcasters, IPTV service providers, and others, recently began offering Wowza Transcoder, which is an add-on to its Media Server 3 solution and enables live, cloud-based trancoding. (It also has add-ons for on-the-fly digital rights management and DVR functionality — very cool.)

Both applications — videoconferencing and AV transcoding — make a lot of sense in the cloud. So what else can we remove from the AV rack? Video conversion? Scaling? Other processing? A combination of several in a single service?

But just as importantly, what can’t we remove from the rack? Or, how will AV integrators and consultants frame their conversations with clients to discover which solution — rack- or cloud-based — makes the most sense in a given situation?

Thoughts? And what cloud-based AV solutions are you exploring and/or developing?

About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is the director of editorial services for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 20 years. For more, visit the Blogger Bios page.

2 Responses to “Cloud AV: So it Begins”

  1. Yes, the revolution occurring in our business as systems integrators will become less hardware centric and more concerned with the human interface details of the presentation/collaboration environment. Brad’s question of what can’t be eliminated from the rack is crucial because it is the control system aspects of the environment that immerses the user in the presentation with the hardware becoming either transparent or completely absent from the premises. As AV system integrators, our job in the future will be to provide intuitive and seamless interfaces between the individual and the technology. The GUI developed by In Focus on their new MondoPad LCD screen collaboration appliance is a good example of intuitive interface design and providing an engaging experience for even those technically challenged among us.

  2. Great article and great points. I think there are certain things that require a significant amount of processing in order to provide a rich user experience. For video and video conferencing, the variable of the computer that is in encoding the video can make or break it. Just because we can connect skype or whatever in the cloud, doesn’t mean it is going to perform flawlessly on the ancient computer that is being used for this purpose.. There are a ton of options out there, but in the end, purpose-built video-conferencing gear encoding the video (hardest part of the whole deal) is the key. Gatekeeping, firewall traversal, and even bridging in the cloud all are fine, but if you are bridging garbage, nobody is happy….