SVG Tech Insight: Remote Content Creation in the Age of COVID-19
This fall SVG will be presenting a series of White Papers covering the latest advancements and trends in sports-production technology. The full series of SVG’s Tech Insight White Papers can be found in the SVG Fall SportsTech Journal HERE.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically disrupted business across all industries, with more than a third of the workforce in the United States working remotely almost overnight. Companies and their employees have had to rapidly adjust their operational models from collaborative office work to remote business via a suite of communications platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Teams. While organizations continue to implement safe social distancing measures in-house, we are seeing efforts to move job functions that were traditionally in-house to remote.
As professional sports teams return and adapt to playing in empty stadiums, their respective in-house production and editorial teams are adapting as well. Content creators — many of whom work on high-performance workstations with direct access to shared storage — are now having to retool their operations and formulate new work-from-home scenarios. Some organizations have been equipped to handle this shift while others have had to improvise with cumbersome ‘sneaker-net’ workflows, shuttling media on portable hard drives or transferring files through corporate VPN. Others have adopted screensharing platforms like Teamviewer and VNC to access on-premises systems from secondary computers. These methods, while function, have resulted in fractured workflows with core resources such as shared editorial storage, tape archives, and high-end editorial systems under-utilized or sitting idle.
As the pandemic continues, the question becomes how to create content in a traditionally collaborative environment while maintaining the health and safety of individuals without sacrificing the final deliverable. Editors, graphics and visual effects artists, and content loggers are among those whose roles can be shifted offsite today through various forms of remote access. Leveraging display extender technologies like PCoIP-based KVM, virtualizing desktops, and Desktop as a Service all offer viable solutions for decentralizing traditionally onsite operations. Each of these technologies relies on underlying display transport protocols, such as Teradici’s PCoIP, HP’s Remote Graphics Software RGS, and VMWare’s Blast Extreme, among others.
Developed to deliver multiple high-resolution display outputs to end points over ethernet, what makes protocols like PCoIP and RGS unique is the way screen images are refreshed and delivered to the end user. Instead of sending continuous full-frame video refreshes that can add encoding overhead and latency, it works by updating only the pixels that change from moment to moment. Bandwidth and connection requirements will scale anywhere from 15 to 100+ mbps depending on available bandwidth, per screen. Bi-directional audio, USB, and serial data is carried alongside display data as a fully encrypted data stream to deliver a very viable low latency, high-resolution near-realtime user experience.
Virtualizing the creative workstation is another option for today’s content creators through the use of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platforms like VMWare Horizon. VDI has been a standard practice for task-based job functions for decades; you could even consider mainframes from the 1960s and 70s as a primitive form of VDI. Only in recent years has the technology become a viable and acceptable solution for creatives. Unlike the traditional approach of managing physical workstations, VDI enables organizations to provide high-end virtual workstations complete with 3D graphics acceleration, audio support, and multiple displays with access to on-premises resources like shared storage and archive, without the expense and overhead of supporting individual workstations. A VDI infrastructure is based around a hypervisor to provisions, managing the virtual machines and hosted on dense hardware servers or blade servers clustered to provide a pool of available resources. An entire Post department-worth of physical workstations could be collapsed down to 6-10 rack units of hardware in a data center. VDI is attractive to IT organizations as it simplifies deployment, offers greater control over security, and makes scaling beyond a fixed number of workstations easier to manage and plan for. Organizations can easily deploy VDI into an offsite data center that offers greater levels redundancy and protection against facility outages like power and network maintenance. One of the greatest limitations of VDI is the lack of virtualized MacOS support, a favorite of creatives.
A third approach is cloud-based Desktop as a Service (DaaS) companies like Bebop and Avid’s own Avid On-Demand. Much like a roll-your-own VDI, these companies offer turnkey virtual workstations provisioned for content creation. Avid On-Demand is built around the Avid ecosystem with virtualized Media Composer workstations connected to Nexis storage workspaces hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud. Bebop Technology offers a non-Avid option, providing virtual workstations preloaded with Adobe Creative Cloud, Cinema 4D, Autodesk products, etc. — all you provide is software license and media. In the case of Bebop, teams can have their workstations provisioned in their own cloud environment. Teams interested in moving to a DaaS model do have to consider the expense of moving to a managed service where usage costs can rapidly accumulate, as well as the logistics of shuttling media onto and off of the platform. Automated transfer workflows do need to be considered when planning for a move to DaaS; fortunately, the service providers include the tools to make this relatively easy.
To access resources at home, all three solutions are based on the same core principals and protocols. In all three scenarios, users can access remote resources on both hardware and software-based clients. Software clients follow the same principal as standard screensharing technologies and require a separate computer to run the client receiver application. For organizations interested in hardware solutions, consider deploying thin clients or zero clients from one of handful of equipment manufacturers including 10ZiG, Amulet Hotkey, and Dell. Today’s thin clients and zero clients can support multiple protocols, high-resolution displays, USB devices including custom NLE keyboards, Wacom tablets, webcams, and bi-directional audio for monitoring and video conferencing. One manufacturer, Amulet Hotkey, has taken it a step further and packaged a PCoIP co-processor card into an external KVM transmitter form-factor, making it possible to extend up workplace-bound Mac and PC workstations, video servers, scopes, multiviewers, or any device with a DisplayPort/USB-C output to the home. For teams with workflows and media repositories centered around on-premises architectures, the Amulet Hotkey PCoIP KVM solution may be the ideal solution for extending beyond the bounds of the facility.
Technology aside, there are several other factors to consider when planning a shift to offsite operations. For starters, robust home internet access is a baseline requirement. Without at least 30 mbps of downlink throughput, these solutions won’t offer much in terms of a robust experience. We also have to consider whether the job function is even possible to move offsite. For instance, not every seat in the control room or production suite should be done from home. However, with the push to decentralize operations, remote postproduction is very real and feasible today. As this is quickly becoming the new normal, organizations must rely more heavily on their employees to be able to perform their job beyond the controlled environment of a corporate network and out of reach of the helpdesk. Employers and employees must adjust expectations and be accepting that the experience is a bit different; fortunately, there are solutions to help minimize that difference.