Media Giants Chase Netflix in the Cloud

Legacy content creators engage in an infrastructure arms race as they battle streaming platforms for next-gen TV consumers
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Back in 2008, when most of Netflix’s business still involved shipping DVDs, a hardware-induced data center failure famously shut down its entire service for three days.

Amazon Web Services provides data storage and processing firepower to several streaming video platforms. Pictured: Amazon’s Seattle HQ.

Amazon Web Services provides data storage and processing firepower to several streaming video platforms. Pictured: Amazon’s Seattle HQ.

The company, on the cusp of transforming itself from a relatively small national distributor of packaged media into the pre-eminent global distributor of streaming video, had a tough choice to make: It could build a world-class data center operation or it could move its data handling to a public cloud.

“That is when we realized that we had to move away from vertically scaled single points of failure, like relational databases in our data center, towards highly reliable, horizontally scalable, distributed systems in the cloud,” explained Yury Izrailevsky, Netflix’s VP of cloud and platform engineering, in a blog post announcing the completion of the streaming service’s cloud migration.

Already outgrowing its computational capacity faster that it could rack new servers, Netflix became the first major media-technology company — nay, one of the first big companies of any kind — to transition all of its data storage and processing to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Move to Virtualize Was Complex

The ambitious move took nearly seven years to complete, with the company transitioning its customer-facing streaming and Big Data platforms over to AWS in 2013 and its billing and payment infrastructure a year later. By 2015, the move to virtualize in the cloud every function that had once been executed on Netflix servers was complete.

“Supporting such rapid growth would have been extremely difficult out of our own data centers; we simply could not have racked the servers fast enough,” Izrailevsky said. “Elasticity of the cloud allows us to add thousands of virtual servers and petabytes of storage within minutes, making such an expansion possible.”

The enormous task wasn’t simply a matter of moving infrastructure. Netflix had to reimagine its architecture, turning monolithic applications into hundreds of various software-based “microservices.”

“Arguably, the easiest way to move to the cloud is to forklift all the systems, unchanged, out of the datacenter and drop them in AWS,” Izrailevsky explained. “But in doing so, you end up moving all the problems and limitations of the datacenter along with it.”

For cloud services provision, Netflix chose Amazon Web Services, which would later become the leader in the media-technology cloud services market.

While AWS has the biggest market share among cloud services providers — 35%, according to a study conducted by Synergy in the third quarter of last year — Google Cloud has a presence, too. The Walt Disney Co. uses Google Cloud’s storage, database and application service to run Disney Life, its U.K. subscription video-on-demand service. And career-oriented social media platform LinkedIn just announced that it’s using Microsoft Azure to launch its own video live-streaming platform.

But as major media conglomerates like Disney and Comcast/NBCUniversal rise to the challenge of Netflix, which has left them in the dust in the race to serve next-generation TV consumers around the globe, they’re also moving gobs of infrastructure — not just billing, but production workflows and the backbones of streaming services — to the cloud, much of it via AWS.

Disney, for example, expanded on its cloud services agreement with AWS in 2017, putting critical workloads for its media networks, parks and resorts and The Walt Disney Studios into the public cloud.

Disney uses Google Cloud’s storage, database and application service to run Disney Life, a subscription video-on-demand platform available in the U.K.

Disney uses Google Cloud’s storage, database and application service to run Disney Life, a subscription video-on-demand platform available in the U.K.

As Disney was in the process of buying 21st Century Fox’s studio and cable-network assets last summer, Fox expanded its agreement with AWS to use its cloud platform to deliver more than 90,000 on-demand titles for its key brands, including Fox, FX, National Geographic, 20th Century Fox Television, 20th Century Fox Film and Fox Sports.

AWS now houses the vast majority of Fox’s key platforms and workloads in its cloud, where machine learning and data analytics services combine to create a consistent set of digital media capabilities across Fox brands.

Keeping Digital Capabilities Consistent

“We are experiencing the benefits of our long-term relationship with AWS, which started many years ago when we began to modernize the infrastructure and platforms that power our businesses throughout the world,” 21st Century Fox chief information officer John Herbert said of the expanded deal in a statement. “Having completed this phase, our strategic relationship is now enabling completely new and creative ways of producing our award-winning content and reaching audiences with new and innovative products.”

For its part, Comcast last year announced the migration of key server infrastructure for its cable and NBCU media division to AWS. For Comcast Cable, that includes cloud-based functions like the X1 Voice Remote. For NBCU, AWS will undoubtedly provide cloud-based services to the division’s upcoming OTT platform.

“We have deepened our strategic relationship with AWS, making the industry’s leading cloud our preferred public cloud provider,” Comcast Cable senior VP and chief network and operations officer Jan Hofmeyr said. “Over the years, we have leveraged the breadth and depth of AWS’s services, including compute, storage and analytics. In that process, we’ve found AWS to be extremely customer-focused.”

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