By Dick Hobbs, TVB Europe
Delegates at this year’s IT Broadcast Workflow conference heard one vendor’s name above all others. Virtually every file-based architecture, it seemed, relied on bringing content from producers into the broadcaster’s infrastructure using UDP acceleration products from Signiant. Over little more than a decade this company has come from nothing to lead a new technology sector.
“The company originated as a development inside Nortel, the Canadian telco,” according to Margaret Craig, the well-known industry figure who is now Signiant CEO. “Their own research labs needed a way to move big code around development centres. Nortel spun it out, at a time which was right for the media industry.”
Today the company is privately held by three venture capital firms, and so prefers not to talk about its size or its revenues. All Craig could be tempted to say is that it is growing rapidly, with worldwide operations including a substantial presence in Europe. Corporate headquarters is near Boston, and the development team is still based in Ottawa, Canada.
While it does sell in other vertical markets, its primary focus is on moving media files around, from pre-production material shared between post houses to the delivery of content from and to broadcasters worldwide. It uses either private networks like Sohonet — of which Craig is also a nonexecutive director — or the open Internet.
“Our high level proposition is in security, automation, and enterprise level monitoring and control, as well as acceleration,” she says. “We provide software to manage connections, and we work with service providers to deliver a managed service.”
What Signiant sells is a software layer to manage connections, including the use of an IP acceleration protocol to get the best possible speed out of the available bandwidth. Craig admits “our software was always powerful, but it needed an IT guy to make it sing. Our new offering makes it more accessible.”
That accessibility comes in two ways. First, the client is easy to use, and versions are available for Web browsers and tablets as well as desktop computers. Second, Signiant is moving into a new business model by offering the software on a subscription basis. This will allow, for instance, a post house that wins work on a particular project to be able to connect with collaborators just for the duration of that project without significant capital costs. The model even works for individual artists or editors.
“For a single user you might pay a few hundred euros a month,” Craig says. “You can build your own portal with a logo and picture, and then move content over a standard connection.”
This new model, introduced at NAB this year and a major focus of Signiant’s presence at IBC2012, also offers a store and forward service through a privately managed cloud.
“This is what our customers told us they want. The same back end, heavy-duty enterprise automated stuff with the core software at each end. But they are not comfortable with the public cloud, so we are taking that limitation away for them,” Craig says. “That is scalable: the same toolset can be used within a huge enterprise.”
It is easy to view Signiant technology as the mechanical business of getting very large media files from point A to point B. That is the top-level view, but doing it in a way that is of value to broadcasters requires more. Security is a prime concern, not just in the use of private Signiant servers in the cloud and at user premises, but while the content is in transit. A unique secure socket layer (SSL) security model minimises the risk of hackers tacking into the media. Increasing the ease of use is also a central concern. The system has always had enterprise-wide monitoring and control, so a user can see how a transfer is going, what bandwidth is being used and when a successful move will be complete. Now the emphasis is on automating that file exchange.
David Nortier is Signiant’s general manager for the EMEA region, which he set up at the beginning of 2006. “We started out by doing a lot of work with the BBC,” he says. “We wanted to get a handle on what broadcasters needed to do. “More recently we have been working with the Digital Production Partnership, the group of UK broadcasters which has come together to establish standards for programme delivery,” he continues. “What is clear is that broadcasters want automated delivery, with compliance checking before a file is sent.”
What the DPP is saying is that, given there is a defined standard for the presentation of file-based content to broadcasters, then you can check for that, and for any customer-specific requirements, in the pre-flight check before the file is sent. If the file comes from a trusted source, then it can go straight into the broadcaster’s asset management.
“We have extended our workflow engine to create a DPP-compliant system, which we will be showing at IBC this year,” said Nortier. “We think that will encourage the post community to look at Signiant.”
Craig takes up the workflow aspect of the technology. “With automated processing and compliance checking before delivery, broadcasters and their suppliers can build a distributed workflow that does not waste the bandwidth. With intelligence in the system you can make the workflow better,” she adds. “The aim is to get assets to air. By prioritising the delivery for content that is close to air, you can help broadcasters achieve tight day and date deadlines.
“At Signiant we talk about ‘powerfully simple file movement’,” Craig concludes. “We think this really is the right time for file-based delivery technology, the inflection point where it becomes mainstream. We think we hit the sweet spot with both the heavy lifting and the ease of use.”