Tech Briefing: Complexity is the enemy

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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The broadcast industry is going through a major shift: from analogue to digital, proprietary to IP, and closed to increasingly open. However, Simen K. Frostad, chairman of Bridge Technologies argues that the biggest challenge is dealing with complexity.

Looking back on the broadcast era from the early decades of the 20th century onwards, it’s easy to think that things were simpler then. Although it took a major scientific breakthrough and many inventions to create the means to transmit pictures and sound from the mast to the sitting room, the underlying technology of broadcasting was homogeneous from end to end.

Now, broadcasters and other digital media providers operate in a much more complex world. RF and IP intermingle, and the numerous variables inherent in IP and public data networks make it a far greater challenge to ensure that services reach the audience at the intended quality.

This complexity poses a serious threat to media organisations because it can increase capital and operational costs, and reduce the organisation’s efficiency and agility. It’s more difficult to make the right decisions about infrastructure and technologies, and the consequences of the wrong decisions can add up to a critical drag on organisational performance. Sports teams search for the cumulative benefits of marginal gains in every area, but media providers are in danger from big losses through the cumulative effect of inefficiencies in many areas.

The commercial conditions under which media companies operate in our deregulated world only intensify the complexity of the technical challenge for those planning the infrastructure. Whereas a state broadcaster or a major independent used to be able to plan and build its technical operations in the expectation that nothing much would happen to bring about sudden change, today’s operators compete in a climate where continuous evolutions and re-alignments are the norm. Media businesses take day-to-day decisions which are driven by commercial logic, and their technical staff have to be on their toes to keep up.

In the real world

For example, in a rapidly consolidating media market, Provider A may have started out as an energy company with an existing investment in fibre infrastructure and an offshoot in IP service provision, including TV services. With an energetic business strategy, the company soon acquires a competing media provider whose subscribers are mainly served through cable: as a result, Provider A’s technical staff have to synergise and reconfigure these diverse delivery systems to create the most efficient control and maintenance operation.

A few months down the road, Provider A makes another acquisition of a much larger competitor, and this entails becoming a producer of content for the first time, and bringing all the different subscriber bases together into a new CRM system to manage provisioning, service upgrades and so on. Yet further mergers and acquisitions are in the pipeline, but for reasons of confidentiality the boardroom can’t let the technical staff know in advance what they might be.

‘Never a dull moment’ is the way one technical head describes his life in a media organisation like Provider A. The knowledge that sudden and possibly radical changes in the technical requirements may be just around the corner poses a ‘stimulating’ set of challenges! Technical decision-making and technology purchases have to be made against a background of questions like ‘how many doors can I keep open?’ and ‘how can we build an elegant and efficient system, without boxing ourselves in when we have to graft another infrastructure into it?’ Designing technical and business systems for agility is one of today’s greatest priorities.

But this has to be balanced against the other major priority – delivering continuous high service standards to the customer base, despite the upheavals and reconfigurations that may be going on behind the scenes. Provider C’s subscribers aren’t to blame if Provider A’s systems lock them out of their TV services after the two companies merge. And if this happens, the PR damage to the new merged entity can be enormous.

So this is the conundrum for CTOs and technology heads in media businesses. The challenge lies not just in the unprecedented technical complexity of converged media operations, diversified media consumption and TVEverywhere; it’s also in the continual state of change resulting from fierce competition and a deregulated business climate. In this dizzying vortex it would be all too easy to make technology decisions that might have critical consequences for business agility and profitability.

How can operators create the essential efficiency and simplicity that businesses require, in the face of all this complexity? One of the characteristics of complexity is that it makes it more difficult to see and understand what’s going on. Technical complexity also tends to breed corresponding complexity in the human resources an organisation develops, creating a further degree of opacity and drag through inter-departmental cross-currents, convoluted channels of communication, ‘meetings paralysis’ and so on.

The case for visibility

So a media organisation must do everything it can to keep technical infrastructure transparent, easy to diagnose, with structures that are easy to replicate and behaviour that is easy to predict.

Duplication of systems running in parallel, or technical ‘silos’ that are difficult to integrate into the efficient running of the whole business – these are to be avoided. But in fact, when business logic propels competing media companies into mergers, this is exactly the problem technical staff often face. Heterogenous systems and infrastructures have to be rationalised and integrated together to achieve streamlined workflow and economies of scale. The memo arriving in the technical head’s inbox the day after the merger is agreed might read: ‘Build a new, common infrastructure that gives us operational savings and keeps all our options open for the future. And while you are doing it, don’t lose us any of the new subscribers we’ve just acquired!’

As Danish media operator SE proved after merging with one of the country’s largest TV providers, you can only safely get to work on building a new common infrastructure if you have a clear picture of the quality of customer service you are delivering throughout the operation. Both SE and its new acquisition Stofa had existing monitoring systems from Bridge Technologies, and this allowed SE to check the monitoring data from Stofa for a trial period before SE took over the Stofa services.  Without this pre-verification of service quality, SE would have been making a leap in the dark, and the continuing visibility the system delivered during the infrastructure changes meant that SE could react quickly to service issues.

Virgin Media in the UK also inherited a diversity of infrastructure from merged entities such as Telewest, and the combined network included more than 50 regional head ends. Virgin set about creating a new infrastructure while continuing to service its customer base over the existing networks. This vast and complicated project was guided by a simple principle: that all parts of the infrastructure should be visible to the monitoring system, in order to limit the potential for service quality problems to be engineered into the new infrastructure. By fully understanding the data from all points in the infrastructure as it was being built, the engineers had the ability to predict where problems might arise, and could avoid both under-provisioning and inefficient over-provisioning.

The volumes of data created by this all-seeing monitoring system would themselves be overwhelming if not presented in a way that allows staff to digest it easily and interrogate the system for quick pinpoint fault-tracking. Complexity is a fact of day-to-day life for media organisations, but complexity can never be accepted as ‘just the way it is’; there’s a constant battle to find those marginal gains by seeing clearly into every aspect of the technical operation and understanding how to design simplicity into it.

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