Honeycutt Sees Swift Shift To Cloud-Based Tech

The industry's transition to IP infrastructures remains swift and sure, and is a top concern on the minds of inventive media technologists. Discovery Communications chief technology officer John Honeycutt spoke with B&C contributing editor George Winslow about the challenges IP and cloud-based infrastructures pose for programmers and some of the opportunities they open up for new, more efficient operations.

Honeycutt is a past winner of the B&C Technology Leadership Award, and is one of the honorees on this year’s Digital All-Stars list. An edited transcript follows.

Just to set the stage for talking about the transition to IP infrastructures, what have you been focusing on since becoming CTO last year?

Wow! How much time do you have? Four hours? In no particular order, the first one that comes to mind is information security [InfoSec]. That is a topic that has always been on the radar, but what happened last fall with Sony has underscored the need for it. And, as we prepare in various parts of the world to move into a B-to-C-type service…we are now in a game of credit cards and payments and transactions.

The second focus for me has really been thinking about the transition from a predominantly linear business to what John Malone calls a random access world and what that change means from an infrastructure perspective….How does that change our production process, our content serving process? It raises a long list of areas that have to change.

Because my remit spans both the broadcast technology side and IT, I’d say the third is really about some of our core business systems. We are in the middle of a big change from our U.S. advertising sales platform and as we work through the acquisitions we’ve made, we want to move to a more flexible financial management environment.

How does the transition to IP technologies and infrastructures fi t in with those goals?

When you talk about moving into an IP world, the topic of InfoSec comes up and the topic of flexibility in manufacturing and distribution really comes front and center.

We are in the middle of a move of our Latin America playout operations up to Sterling, Va., which is where we have historically housed our U.S. operation. When that launches later this summer, it will be our most substantive IP environment. The core video and signal distribution infrastructure will be all IP.

Of course, there is another conversation we could have about the cloud and cloud-based playout. I can’t say who we are working with, but we are in active testing and demo mode with at least one of the next-generation environments.

Ultimately, from a signal distribution perspective, I would love to see all of this get to the point where I can just say ‘meet me at this address in the cloud environment and you can access my content both from a linear and non-linear perspective.’

All of this is moving so quickly….and I do believe that the investment we made to move Latin America up to Sterling…will probably be the last playout center that we build. I think the next generation, which for us will [happen first in] Europe, will be very different and I think a lot of it will be in the cloud.

There has been a lot of talk about a large transition to IP infrastructures using software to run processes over lower-cost IT equipment, with at least some of that happening in the cloud. How far along are we down that path?

I think we are in pretty early days. To use a baseball analogy, it is kind of the third inning. We’ve moved beyond proof of concept but the next really big question is scale and our ability to replace some of the components that require us to live in a baseband video and audio world. So in the next three innings if we can get scale and eradicate some of those lingering issues keeping us in baseband, then the game will end pretty quickly.

How fast are vendors moving to develop technologies needed for this IP and cloud transition?

I think it depends on who you talk to. There are some real progressive organizations out there and I think there are some people that are just trying to leverage their old school infrastructure so to speak.

I’m not interested in those guys who are just trying to leverage investments they have already made. I really think you have to think about this totally differently.

Given the importance of multiplatform delivery and growing competition from over-the-top players, is there more urgency to move to IP?

I definitely think so. Our job is to get the content on as many platforms as we possibly can. That has been Discovery’s model since forever.

The business people will handle the negotiations and determine what makes sense, but on my side, I know that I can’t be a barrier to that. Getting the content in a place where it is rapidly and readily accessible to those platforms is a key part of the strategy because the deals happen quickly and the first-move advantage is probably more important than ever.

With the explosion of different delivery methodologies and the different consumption opportunities, I don’t want to be in a place where I have to handle each one of those processes and platforms individually; I’d rather be able to say, ‘Here is where the content is. I will grant you access to what we agreed on and go get it.’

Historically, there was a big difference between the technology for multiplatform delivery, which was generally IP and the broadcast infrastructure. How far are you in bringing those two sides together and automating the process of getting content to all platforms?

It depends on the area, but the moves we have made organizationally since I’ve come back have really started to accelerate that.

When you talk about monitoring across our technical infrastructures, that is rapidly on the way to becoming one group. When we talk about software testing across the infrastructure, that is rapidly on its way to becoming one group. We don’t really think about what side of the house you come from anymore.

Now, that view has been in vogue in the broadcast business for a while. But I do think it is real now. If I can have someone sitting in a monitoring center in Silver Springs looking at the health and welfare of our infrastructure in London, and at the health and welfare of our email infrastructure around the world, that is fine. Some of the analytics tools that we traditionally use on the IT side are now deployed on the broadcast side….[Beyond that] it makes no sense to me to have to go back to baseband video and audio every time I serve content to one of those platforms.

So, thinking about the version of assets is hugely important to us as a global company, and as part of that, we’re starting to think a lot about virtual versions. In Germany and Scandinavia, for example, we regularly create virtual versions of assets that are basically manufactured on the fly. If I’m airing it as linear, I’m no longer putting graphic elements on it.

We haven’t put together dedicated language assets for years around the world. But it is getting to a point now where we are not even segmenting shows anymore because we are doing virtual breaks. So we will look at an asset and say here is break-pattern one and break-pattern two and break-pattern three. Then we’ll apply this or that break pattern to this airing of the show and not create a physical version of the show anymore. And that is all IP.

How quickly do you see the industry moving operations to the cloud?

I think it will be pretty quick to be honest. We are in proof of concept at this point.

I don’t have a huge desire to buy a lot of what I jokingly refer to as blinking lights because I feel like by the time we buy it and by the time we integrate the equipment, it is frankly going to be obsolete. I feel like the pace of capability within software and software-defined networks is growing so rapidly that in some ways I would rather pause an investment and wait for this maturity level to come. And I think that is within the next three years. I think it will come really quickly. It may not be for everything to start with. But our ability to trust [cloud technology] is growing every day. We see examples of people around the world who are starting from scratch and have gone straight to cloud-based playout. It works fine for them.

Of course, there are still some substantive things that you have to be careful about, but I don’t see a lot of things that are going to stop it. It’s really about how quickly we get behind it.