Building A New Broadcast Technical Infrastructure From The Ground Up – Hawk Media Partnership and Narrative Entertainment

Building new broadcast technical infrastructure from the ground up is a superb opportunity to create a purpose built and cost-effective architecture using the latest vendor technology.

There are significant advantages for broadcasters to start with a clean ‘technical architecture’ slate, particularly when it comes to opportunities to select new vendors offering leading technology solutions and new ways of doing things. In addition, building new infrastructure usually provides significant cost savings opportunities. However, given the critical nature of a broadcaster’s technical architecture, it’s not without challenges and risks. This article describes a recent example of a complete technology refresh programme and provides some insight into some of the challenges involved.

On 14 May 2021 it was announced in Variety that Narrative Entertainment had bought seven popular UK TV channels from Sony Pictures Entertainment. This exciting development had its origins in mid 2020 when the technical and operational foundations for Narrative’s endeavours were put in place and Narrative first approached Hawk to help it transfer the business architecture out of Sony and build a new technical infrastructure for the channels. During this early stage much effort was put into requirements definition, technical architecture design, vendor assessment, programme planning and resourcing. This preparation stage was essential, and the parties had a clear vision of where they wanted to end up. The well-used adage, “fail to plan, plan to fail” remains very relevant in today’s world of agile development and minimum viable products. Despite having the benefit of transition services arrangements, where the buyer continues to use the seller’s technical infrastructure whilst building and transitioning to new technical infrastructure, the critical nature of transitioning a broadcaster onto new technical infrastructure means that delivering successfully ‘right first time’ is essential.

In terms of architectural design, having thoroughly reviewed and understood the existing systems and taken into account future requirements, the key at this stage was gaining a thorough understanding of what systems were available in the marketplace. The art of this work is being able to marry up the requirements for new architecture with available technology and vendors products and solutions. By taking this approach Hawk was able to select ‘out of the box’ systems that require minimal customisation or modifications, which helped reduce risk whilst enabling super-fast delivery and offering significant cost savings opportunities.

Vendor selection is potentially problematic. How to run a successful procurement programme and keep all vendors ‘onside’ for future opportunities? Hawk’s approach is to treat all vendors equally, using a fair process which is as transparent as any procurement exercise allows. Hawk also only ask for what it needs in order to assess vendors’ products and overall capability to make a decision. Whether you call this smart or streamlined procurement, it’s about being fair to vendors and finding the best fit and best value for the end customer.

Making sure users’ needs are addressed is clearly a top priority that is often in conflict with selecting ‘out of the box’ products. Everyone needs to be taken on a journey, which starts with the old systems and ends with the new. Whilst this is not a perfect science, a programme that neglects those that need to use new systems on a day to day basis is doomed to failure in the long term. Yes, compromises are sometimes necessary, however users need to understand why their requests can’t be met and need all the support necessary to take up new systems. This means ample training opportunities, user surgeries and iterations & perhaps unforeseen modifications are all necessary and need to be budgeted for. Careful consideration of the employee’s ‘system experience’ is a worthwhile investment and as important as providing good quality hardware for users.

To cloudify or not? Many new systems (but not all) run in the cloud. Whilst cloud provides excellent opportunities to centralise data and make accessible to all, not all functions are yet suitable for the cloud. Cloud costs can also be prohibitively high, or though it seems to many users. Hawk’s experience is that cloud services are sometimes set up in ways that waste money. This is not always due to lack of knowledge. It’s often due to a lack of considering overall architectural requirements and efficient data flows. Once a holistic approach is taken and the most appropriate cloud resources are set up correctly, cloud architectures are often lower in cost than on prem systems, particularly when the true rack room infrastructure costs are taken into account and compared on a like for like basis with cloud costs. The message here is that if you want to cloudify, think holistically, consider data flows and user access requirements, then implement correctly using knowledgeable specialists.

What skills and how many people do we need for the programme? Sufficient project resourcing is essential. There are a number of reasons that resourcing of broadcast projects is a consistent challenge for large programmes. Factors include programme complexity, unforeseen issues and manual tasks, technical complexities, parallel running of infrastructure and services, covering ‘business as usual’ operations work at the same time as introducing new systems (parallel running). Hawk tackles resourcing through deep dives into the issue and considering ‘what if’ scenarios to root out and mitigate against potential risks. In addition Hawk uses its extensive network of technical and programme experts to understand the resourcing issues. Hawk develops a fully costed resourcing plan with named roles and resources and timing of their involvement. Hawk also continuously tracks resource usage from business as usual and programme perspectives to ensure that nobody is tripped up by resourcing issues.

How to transition from legacy to new technical infrastructure? This is an important question to answer at the start of a project, particularly for an ‘always on’ broadcaster. There is no right way to do this, however in general there are two broad options. The first of these, a ‘parallel run’, where old systems continue to be used whilst new systems are brought on line often requires more resourcing and potentially with dual data entry into systems. A parallel run approach might be perceived as the safer option, however it prolongs the pain of carrying on using old systems whilst new systems need to be fully resourced. A ‘big bang’ approach to transitioning is sometimes more attractive than a parallel run. Requiring fewer resources than a parallel run strategy but more risky as the ropes are cut as you leave the safety and security of the known and enter into the unknown new world with limited fallback opportunities. Sometimes a hybrid approach works best, when old systems are kept running as a fallback with the majority of resourcing aimed at the new systems.

Security deserves a mention. As the risks posed by cyber attacks increase, network firewalls disappear, the public internet becomes inherently part of broadcasters’ networks, identity and access management becomes more challenging with multi factor authentication across numerous systems. Security of course needs to be considered from the outset, but rarely is. Our approach is to select vendors with strong security credentials and leverage their capabilities in this area. We also undertake a full security review towards the end of the build phase, covering all systems and taking a holistic approach to highlight system level vulnerabilities and ensure the appropriate security controls are in place.

Finally, stakeholder management is an often used term that really comes down to straightforward, regular communications and, of course, avoiding surprises. There are usually numerous stakeholders in this type of programme including users, vendors, the seller’s teams, the buyer’s teams, project resources etc. Regular calls and updates, with transparent, concise reports all contribute to stakeholders confidence and trust. Easy to say but hard to get right in practice, ensuring each stakeholder group gets the right information at the right time in the right way is often fraught with difficulty and requires a thorough understanding of stakeholders requirements and their appetite for information.

Remy Minute, CEO Narrative Entertainment said “Hawk provided Narrative with excellent advice and guidance on technology, workflow and operations. They were an essential part of the team and I would highly recommend their services to other broadcasters undertaking complex and challenging technical projects.”

There are huge financial benefits to renewing technical architecture, selecting new vendors and moving users to a new set of systems. Usually, a lower monthly cost run rate can be achieved. Opportunities to seek cost savings are numerous and with a thriving and competitive broadcast technology market a well thought through architecture and workflow can reap many savings. In our experience most projects of this nature pay for themselves within a year.

So if you are looking for opportunities to save money, improve your users’ experience and make use of the excellent new technology and products offered by vendors then why not consider re-architecting your systems?

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