Video Factory: one year on

Executive Product Manager

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Almost a year ago we announced that the internal BBC product called Video Factory was taking over the production of all the video content for BBC iPlayer.

To quote Marina Kalkanis' post:

"...Video Factory has moved live processing into the cloud. Cloud computing is computing services sold on demand, on the internet, typically by the minute or the hour; it is elastic - a user can have as much or as little of a service as they want at any given time. This means we will have the flexibility to scale (up or down) and only pay for what we use. "

I am a Senior Product Manger for Video Factory and Video Services for BBC Future Media. In this post I'll outline how Video Factory has delivered benefits to users of online video on iPlayer and across BBC products online.

Original aim

The primary goal for Video Factory was to have an in-house workflow that would replace the previous system that produced video for BBC iPlayer. We simply could not fail in that or BBC iPlayer would stop working.

The additional goals were to make the new workflow better than the old in every way we could. We wanted to be more resilient, so we did not miss any content. To be more scalable, so we could cope with more content and deliver to more devices. To deliver faster, so audiences would get to watch programmes on iPlayer sooner. To be more efficient, so we could offer the best value for money.

The keys to our success were the choices to use cloud services and the flexibly of continuous improvement and development.

What benefits have we seen?

As soon as we had delivered a working solution we already provided many benefits over the old – it was in no ways a “like for like” replacement.

No bottlenecks

Using elastic computing and doing our video transcoding in the cloud meant we had none of the bottlenecks that impacted the old system.

At 7pm, when all the national and regional news bulletins finish on BBC ONE, we have 18 live programmes ending at the same time. We can increase the size of our transcode farm at this time to make sure all 18 are delivered without delay. Then reduce the size again after the peak so we are not paying for resources that we are not using.

Without a cloud based solution, we would either have to have programmes waiting in a queue and delay availability or we’d have to buy enough hardware to cope with the peak and have it sitting idle for the majority of time.

More content

The same elastic computing and cloud storage meant we could also remove all limits in content production for BBC iPlayer. Before this year, content volume was limited by capacity and contractual limits built into the old system. With Video Factory there are no such limits. We have doubled the total number of hours of video available on BBC iPlayer and have increased the number of HD hours by almost 700%

Content available for longer

The other great benefit that cloud storage will enable is the ability to offer content for longer. Making it possible for BBC iPlayer to offer content for 30 days

Fully automated

Since the launch of Video Factory we have been working to improve further on the benefits we have already provided. There are two main workflows within Video Factory. One delivers the pre-recorded programmes. We call this File Based Delivery (FBD).

The other uses a constant archive recording of all BBC channels to deliver live programmes or any programmes that did not get pre-delivered. This workflow uses data provided by the play-out systems to get accurate start end timing for programmes as broadcast. When we launched, we would create proxy copies of all programmes being processed by this workflow so a manual check could be performed to ensure the correct programme was being delivered.

Now that the Video Factory is more mature and the data from play-out is trusted we have been able to fully automate this process for programmes that have the accurate data. This reduces manual effort, reduces transcode costs, as the proxy copy is no longer required and also speeds up delivery as a full set of transcodes can be started minutes after the end of a broadcast. This has meant we can deliver live and late delivered programmes in about 1x duration. So a 1 hour programme should be available on BBC iPlayer about 1 hour after it ends.

Live to VOD

The big thing we have been working on this year is improving the live stream offering on BBC iPlayer. Building on what we have already done for Video Factory and benefiting from the resilience and making all BBC channels available, we are refreshing the entire live video streaming workflow to provide better quality streams, HD streams for the HD BBC channels and streams of all the national and regional versions of BBC ONE and BBC TWO. The live streams in BBC iPlayer and across BBC Online will be migrated to the new services before the end of 2014.

How the Video Factory Live to VOD process logically works

An additional benefit of having live streams of all BBC channels is that in effect we have video ready for BBC iPlayer being created during the broadcast. We have built a process that uses this live transcoding and turns it into the On Demand assets that iPlayer needs (Live to VOD). As this does not involve transcoding after the broadcast has ended it means we can make programmes available much faster.

The system is not yet perfect, we cannot deliver to all the platforms that BBCiPlayer is on, so some versions of BBCiPlayer won’t benefit. Also the trims of the programmes are not frame accurate, so you may see a few extra seconds at the start and end. The benefits are significant though. With live programmes being made available in minutes rather than factors of durations (hours)

Using this process for many of the Match of the Day live programmes during the World Cup we managed to make matches available within 15 minutes rather than 3 ½ hours.

We will continue to run the “normal” Video Factory workflow in the background to ensure all versions of BBC iPlayer are provisioned and that the rough edit from Live to VOD is replaced with a clean asset as soon as possible

Bigger, Better, Faster

As an example of how much faster Video Factory can make live programmes available on BBC iPlayer, this is when we delivered the assets for the One O’clock News (30 minutes duration).

• In March 2013, before Video Factory

o Delivered in 2 hours and 53 minutes at 16:23 (almost 6x duration)

• In January 2014, before full automation

o Delivered in 48minutes at 14:18 (under 2x duration)

• In July 2014, with Live to VOD and full automation

o Live to VOD delivered in 3 minutes at 13:33 (0.1x duration)

o Automated VOD delivered in 23 minutes at 13: 53 (under 1x duration)

I cannot promise we will be this fast all the time. There are times when things go wrong and delivery can be delayed. We have built Video Factory with resilience, as its primary goal. So problems may delay delivery, but we ensure we never miss any content.

The aim is to make the Live to VOD better. Get the trims frame accurate and even faster. This would not only make give great benefit to the users of BBC iPlayer by making content available faster and improving the quality. It would also mean we would save of transcode costs as we would be re-using assets.

Video Factory as has already made delivery of media for BBC iPlayer and all BBC Online products better. The Media Services engineering team have embraced new technology and new ways of working to deliver cutting edge and industry leading software.

What I and the Media Services engineering team want to continue doing is making it faster, high quality, more resilient and more efficient for better value.

Kiran Patel is Senior Product Manger for Video Factory and Video Services for BBC Future Media.

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