High bandwidth foundations support video company’s two cities approach

CASE STUDY

If ever there is a sector that requires the deepest of digital foundations – communications infrastructure delivering the utmost in bandwidth, low latency and robustness – it is the visual broadcast media.

An hour of 4k (high definition) video ready for transmission is roughly 300GB, but that’s just the tip of the digital iceberg. To end up with that 60 minutes of broadcastable viewing, programme makers shoot between 100 to 1000 hours of material depending on the genre, creating truly gargantuan files.

The task of editing this vast quantity of raw material is often undertaken by post-production companies. These specialists employ highly-skilled people to operate state-of-the-art video manipulation software running on seriously powerful computing platforms to achieve the concise, polished end result. The Farm is just such a company, responsible for the post-production of a string of high profile TV programmes including Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor.

When The Farm decided to establish a facility in Manchester’s media quarter, adding to its home base in London and offices in Bristol and Los Angeles, the issue of digital foundations came right to the fore.

Manchester is fast becoming the UK’s largest film and TV production location outside of London. In recent years the BBC has set up a northern hub in moving to MediaCity, and the creation of the independent Space Studios has provided working space to a whole ecosystem of media-related suppliers.

The driver for The Farm’s primary focus on foundations was the decision to give staff that were to be based in Manchester pseudo-real-time access to key technology platforms located in London. Point to Point Ethernet was the technology chosen, on the grounds that it would be more competitive than dark fibre. The other alternative to a high bandwidth data link would have been to duplicate key pieces of equipment at both sites, but that would have come in at several multiples even more costly.

With a fitting out of the new facility – a redevelopment of part of what was the famous old Granada Studios site – and opening scheduled for the autumn of 2018, five potential suppliers of the high-performance link were identified. There followed an evaluation of the overall costs of each offer, the detail of service level agreements, a judgement of the degree to which each contender was being open about likely real-world responses to problems, and finally and crucially, the boiler-plate latency of the proposed connections.

Explains The Farm’s IT director Adam Morris: “We were looking for a diverse 10 gig link back to London to allow Manchester staff to use London technical resources – basic infrastructure like storage, but also workflow-related functions like processing of audio and video to enable 4k video finishing. Many of the processing elements of our work are particularly time-sensitive and so we need a connection that effectively made the Manchester site ‘just around the corner’ from Soho, in latency terms.”

A veteran of The Farm with approaching two decades of service, Morris is at clearly at home in an organisation where loyalty prevails. He notes with satisfaction that many of his colleagues have been with The Farm for even longer than him, and that this culture extends beyond the payroll to the company’s relationships with suppliers too, who are more often than not chosen for what they can bring to The Farm for the long haul.

Morris chose Gamma subsidiary The Loop as one of the five contenders, liking the price quoted, and the fact that the company is itself based in Manchester.

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Yes, we liked the local connection. As a London-centric business, we wanted to use local suppliers for our Manchester site where we could. It wasn’t until a little later that we became aware that The Loop is part of Gamma and we recognised the further plus that we’d work with Manchester people backed by the strength of a wholly-owned national network.

Adam Morris, IT Director – The Farm

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But, important though localism and price were, they were not the only criteria against which the front-runner was decided. Network robustness was another. The fact that The Loop quite literally, has strength in depth was seen as a significant plus. Whereas other networks rely on shallowly-buried cable and have limited geographical reach, The Loop owns three dark fibre rings totalling 171 km in length, buried deep underground and considerably less prone to accidental disturbance as Manchester continues to be developed. The physical extent of The Loop’s network, throughout Manchester, Trafford and Salford, means it connects to every single data centre in the metropolitan area – and runs right past The Farm’s new northern home.

Latency was also a major factor for Morris and his colleagues.

“We talked extensively about this with all the contenders and The Loop impressed us with their openness about what was achievable in the real world.”

The Loop’s multi-ring topology in Manchester, and Gamma’s multi-path, highly robust national network, not only achieves benchmark resilience, but also guarantees the shortest possible physical routes. In turn, this translates into the class-leading latency needed by The Farm and other time-critical applications such as financial trading and telecommunications.

The final decider for The Farm was speed of delivery, and here too, The Loop came out on top, willing to commit to a go-live date then just seven weeks away.

Contract signed, The Loop’s Manchester-based delivery team managed the civils to lay a direct fibre connection from The Farm’s new facility into the network in the street outside. From there the P2P Ethernet travels through The Loop’s Manchester hub, and then on into the Gamma national network to one of Gamma’s London data centre hubs.

Says Morris: “After the fibre was in we went from testing to live very quickly. The first production we worked on as a team split between Manchester and London was the reality programme Ambulances, and there have been many more since.”

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After the fibre was in we went from testing to live very quickly. The first production we worked on as a team split between Manchester and London was the reality programme Ambulances, and there have been many more since.

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The Farm’s primary editing technology toolset is the Avid Media Composer software suite, designed to support collaborative working, but with latency restrictions. Room to room, or floor to floor in the same building poses no challenge, but the straight-line distance between the two post-production suites in Soho and Manchester is over 260 miles and involves multiple connections.

“We needed to get sub 10-milliseconds, otherwise it was game over. What we’re seeing from The Loop is seven milliseconds. But latency doesn’t just matter for the stability of our editing suite. It matters for the administrative infrastructure functions that underpin our workflows, for file delivery to broadcasters and a more. This is an intensely collaborative work environment where immediacy is crucial.”

“Obviously we have a service level agreement with The Loop, but before we signed them we talked in a non-contractual setting around the table to get a sense of the way people behind the service approach their work”

“The Loop understand what we are about, and in addition to the robustness of the network and supporting technology, we see a personal commitment”

“The P2P Ethernet is not something we think about day-to-day. It’s just an element of our digital foundations that enable us to function efficiently even though our teams are located in two different cities over 200 miles apart.”

Foundations: underpinning the drive to survive and thrive

All enterprises aiming to keep up with the thrivers, or at least match the survivors, are on a digitisation path now.

But they all are inevitably at different stages in the journey; in an increasingly app-centric, OTT world, some are starting out, some looking to accelerate and capitalise on early gains, some seeking to stretch out to a no-prisoners dominance of their sector.

At Gamma, we see the challenge clearly from both sides.

We see the tension between cost and real-world performance. End users grinding teeth when sees apps respond slowly. IT providers stressing about the cost of bandwidth.

Frankly, there’s no progress on the path to surviving and thriving without the right digital foundations. Apps are only able to drive competitiveness and revenues if they respond as user demand.

There’s no future in OTT service providers dodging user complaints about poor app responsiveness. Guess where the users will go?

Neither can enterprises can’t take a foot off of the pedal because they have a captive, employee-only audience.

Fact is, we all know what’s possible. And we all expect better. That’s why getting the right digital foundations in place is so important.