The Genesis of a Virtual Workflow

Some years ago, I was engaged in a late-night conversation at a Streaming Media Europe event with Andreas Heidoetting, global head of webcast technology, who has a range of responsibilities for the NASDAQ OMX Corporate Solutions webcasting infrastructure. We were discussing the various workflow aspects of operating its four global broadcast network operation centres, through which NASDAQ ran all its online events. We were thinking outside the box and focused on removing expensive, heavily manual third party encoding call capture vendors - on which a great dependency had developed largely as a legacy from the acquisition of Corporate Communications Broadcast Network (CCBN) several years before. Such a change could yield a potentially significant efficiency saving if we could deliver it.

Essentially, the workflow was scaled to meet a peak demand, which NASDAQ hit on each quarterly reporting round, at which time there may be many hundreds of live events running across the platform. However, generally, the systems were running an average load nearly an order of magnitude lower. For a year this meant a whole lot of expensive kits on standby and skilled operators that needed occupying.

The brainstorming session developed into an initial consulting project where we isolated the key technologies that could not be emulated in software, which were relatively few, and started talking about developing an entirely virtual workflow. This had appeal, since you could launch such a workflow on a virtual platform, use it when you needed it, and then destroy it (getting rid of any maintenance and hosting cost).

Afterward, with my team at id3as (a professional services consultancy for streaming media), we put together a working proof of concept for NASDAQ OMX Corporate Solutions that removed the reliance on the audio capture interfaces that were historically deployed to dial into analyst briefing calls - the lion's share of their webcasts. With this removed, we had a workflow with Internet protocol (IP) in and IP out; everything else was software based.

We deployed this proof of concept on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), and while it was crude - inasmuch as the entire process was manually driven via remote desktop - it proved that we could build a workflow to complete the same task as the tens of thousands of audio-only analyst briefings that were operated from within its existing network operations center (NOC), without any requirement for physical servers, phone lines, or encoders.

Andreas had introduced Simon Ball, global head of webcast operations, NASDAQ OMX Corporate Solutions, who was very engaged by this stage. Ultimately there were a number of seeds germinating, and it was clear that by the time they came to fruition, the opportunity here would be to decommission the NOCs and pay only for the compute time that they used, with little or no underutilization.

We ran some spreadsheets, and the business case looked extremely attractive. While it would be inappropriate for me to discuss my client's inner financials in this article, the cost savings were predicted in orders of magnitude.

Having hundreds of encoders and management computers running in multiple webcast operations centers - ready and waiting for peak usage, and yet normally operating at a small fraction of that capacity - meant underutilization was an expensive business. We subsequently changed that dynamic so that the only time any infrastructure was up, operating, and costing money was when it was directly in use for client delivery and directly earning money.

Regardless of how it was done - I will look at some key aspects of the technology later - this “cloud” of intangible systems is brought into action as soon as required, and it is destroyed (at least as far as any cost of ownership is concerned) the moment it is no longer directly making the business money. For me, this is what the cloud is all about: the cloud should really refer to dynamic economic and service models and not to anything technical at all. It's all about what it offers, not how it does it. Anyone who leads with any technical advantage the cloud delivers misses the point if he or she doesn't offer an economic/ service advantage first and foremost. Now that I have labored that point, let us look at the relevant technology involved.

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