<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=414634002484912&amp;ev=PageView%20&amp;noscript=1">
Early Registration for the 2024 Media Technology Summit Is Now Open

The Sustainability Situation

August 28, 2023

Increasingly, the concept of sustainability is becoming a central calculation to consider for broadcast and streaming companies as they move further into the IP-based realm of the cloud and the development of new facilities and technologies. After all, implementing the concept of sustainability, or rejecting it, by its very nature, directly impacts what path broadcasters/streamers are likely to take in the near future, both as it relates to building their infrastructures and, eventually, figuring out their bottom line. The concept, of course, is nothing new, although it is now more viable and better understood than it was some 10 years ago when the EBU published a fact-sheet on sustainable broadcasting. Since then, the EBU has established an ongoing initiative of providing information, holding events, producing data, and making proposals on the topic of sustainability, including the establishment of a so-called Green Production Group. The home page of the website for that group points out in its very first line that “green production is no longer a fringe activity.” 

Agreeing wholeheartedly with that statement is Cassidy Phillips, the Lead Solutions Architect for swXtch.io, a software company that manufactures virtual networking solutions for companies migrating their infrastructures to the cloud, and the former longtime SMPTE Washington DC Section manager. 

In particular, Phillips believes that the maturation of the SMPTE ST-2110 Professional Media over Managed IP Networks suite of standards has opened up new options and concepts about how broadcast companies large and small can shrink their carbon footprints while expanding their business offerings in the cloud era by allowing broadcast facilities to experience “huge long-term energy savings and other efficiencies.”

“One of my favorite concepts from school biology was the concept of homeostasis,” Phillips says. “Going to system design, I always liked the idea that you could come up with a system that would have as minimal impact as possible in terms of outside interaction. You wouldn’t need so many outside touches, outside electricity, it could sort of sustain itself. That has always been a goal. 

“So, the idea of sustainability to me [for the broadcast industry] has been how much more efficient a SMPTE 2110 system could be, especially when you go to large systems, compared to the SDI sort of equivalent. As I learned about these ideas, I realized we were starting to simplify architecture—we didn’t need as many devices to accomplish the same production workflows as in the past, and we didn’t need as much rack space, or require as much electricity. But I feel that message goes beyond the electrical efficiencies, because we are also doing things like reducing how many clicks an operator actually has to make to achieve the same result as before.”

Phillips adds that while many of these efficiencies are made possible by the evolution of various cloud resources, more powerful computing, field programmable gate arrays, and so on, at the center of making the cloud work is the need to have state-of-the-art data centers churning away on the ground, a big asset from the major cloud providers. To his way of thinking, this means that media organizations can be most efficient and less wasteful by coming up with a proper balance of sorts between the organization’s cloud resources and its on-prem ground resources—the kind of homeostasis he refers to. 

“To me, sustainability is efficiency, and in that context, homeostasis may basically be an impossible goal, but it is what we should reach for,” he states. “Every generation of technology, sometimes accidentally, becomes more efficient, and when it does, it is up to system designers to be really smart about analyzing the possibilities and putting the right pieces together.”

That said, Phillips cautions that a lot of analysis and careful planning has to go into the development of greener, more efficient workflows across the industry for it to be meaningful in the long run. He reminds that “There is that thing where if you add a lane to a freeway, you do not always necessarily reduce congestion—you actually just make it possible to introduce even more cars on the freeway.” 

Among other things, that analogy suggests media companies striving for greater efficiency, less power consumption, and less waste should consider a lot more than coming up with a cool cloud-based workflow. The overall state of the industry requires, based on consumer demand, more content creation than ever before, constant content distribution, and content viewing at home on the consumer’s end of things. That’s just a few of the different factors to sort through.

“When you talk about mega-producers of content, maybe they would not be able to create that volume of content today if they did not have those data centers and new technologies available to them,” Phillips says. “But if you reframe that and ask what it would take to create the same volume of content and distribute it as we are doing today if they still had to use tapes, for example, or other legacy technology—it would be massive, trust me. You would need astronomical amounts of plastics and other things beyond what we use right now. So, a lot of the efficiency is already there. But we have to talk about efficiency in the context of the fact that consumers are sort of selfish in that they are not going to stop enjoying media, no matter what. So, how to create ‘more’ while using fewer tools and more efficient products is the challenge.”

He adds that another reality about the industry also makes the pursuit of sustainability challenging—manufacturers and engineers are continually coming up with “more and better” ways of creating and presenting content—4k/UHD to 8k and maybe someday beyond, for example. Every step up like that can, to a degree, increase a company’s carbon footprint in some fashion.

Additionally, he says that while it is probably true that “there is no way to be ‘completely’ green all the time,” media companies need to keep in mind there are other things they can do along the way beyond transforming their workflows to the cloud. He suggests, for example, that they try to be “extra green” in other areas of their operations. 

“Be green with your craft services, how you handle trash, what kind of recycling you have, and so on,” he adds. “A lot of companies are also utilizing smart management systems to run data centers. Having data centers equipped with management tools that keep them from powering resources that are not actually in use makes a lot of sense.”

And speaking of data centers, Phillips postulates that as technology keeps evolving, more media companies will be able to build their own private data centers on an ST-2110 foundation as they gradually re-invent their infrastructures for the cloud universe. 

Indeed, in an article he wrote for SMPTE last year, Phillips stated that moving forward, media companies should typically pursue facilities combining “ST-2110 and commercial off-the-shelf [COTS] data center-grade technologies” in order to “open the door to many other interesting possibilities, with real implications not only for reduced operational expenses but also for running a greener business with greater capacity to adapt and grow.”

He believes, in the end, this kind of transition for media companies can be affordable and beneficial all around, albeit requiring a bit of altered thinking from how media facilities were traditionally built and operated.

“A big difference [that media companies would have to get used to] revolves around how often owners would want to go through a technology refresh,” Phillips says. “A cloud host typically refreshes their technology pretty regularly, while media companies are still of a mindset that they can only budget to refresh their infrastructures every five to 10 years, so it’s a different mentality.

“But if they are okay with moving to a more frequent refresh cycle and owning their own data center, then I expect they could make it all cost out, especially if the government is offering credits to companies trying to be more efficient. Then, there can be more private clouds around the industry, and 2110 makes that easier because it now has a compressed piece to it. So, even if you are bandwidth limited, you can rely on ST-2110-22 to use compressed video of some type. And then, you don’t have to worry about uncompressed bandwidth anymore, which has been a major blocker for many people up until now.  

“So, I can imagine configurations where companies start saying my primary setup will be my own—my own private data center and private cloud. And then, they will use [major cloud services like] AWS, Azure, Google, or Oracle as backup and tertiary paths. That would be a similar mindset from the 50,000-ft. view to how they used to use satellite and fiber paths. It’s a similar topology in a fairly simple way, but you use cloud resources instead of legacy resources.”

As far as streaming companies are concerned, studies on Co2 emissions from major companies suggest they have a lot of work to do in the sustainability category. Indeed, an article last year in TV Technology stated that Netflix alone generated “roughly 1.1 million metric tons of Co2 [in 2021], equivalent to the yearly emissions from approximately 240,000 passenger cars.” The streaming giant states that more than half of that was from the production of the various shows Netflix produces. The issue has become so important that Netflix now has its own sustainability program underway. But such statistics illustrate the dichotomy facing this new and growing industry—today’s consumers have an insatiable appetite for unending streams of content, and yet, to provide that, companies have to either grow their carbon footprints even further or come up with new technologies, policies, or initiatives to circumvent the issue.

Along those lines, an international organization made up of a consortium of partners from across the industry called Greening of Streaming is working on various initiatives designed to address these issues and help streaming companies find ways to reduce their footprints. Among those is a project started earlier this year called The Less Accord, which is designed, according to the organization’s website, “to work across all industry groups and stakeholders to define the ‘Low Energy Sustainable Streaming [LESS] Accord”—essentially a set of best practices companies can utilize to maximize energy efficiency without reducing the quality of their product. 

More generally, Phillips emphasizes that the industry needs to formulate and push more educational initiatives to get everyone up to speed on the challenge posed by and potential benefits resulting from this evolving challenge. He points to yet another dichotomy in this area whereby veteran broadcasting professionals may have great industry experience yet know very little about how and why to implement a sustainability program, while simultaneously, incoming young professionals may understand sustainability’s importance very well, yet not have the experience to implement such changes without guidance from their veteran colleagues. 

“That culture clash is real,” he says. “The younger generation, at least in my experience, has a lot more environmental awareness about what a carbon footprint is and all that, while people who have been running companies or engineering teams for years have always had their focus on keeping the product healthy and on the air. So, we need to be very open to new information. One of my favorite concepts, which SMPTE does very well, is mentorship and mentees. In this area, I would love to see that become more formalized over time.” 


Michael Goldman

Related Posts