Cloud AV

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: AV Equipment; AV Industry; Networked AV Systems

Date: November 2010

Cloud computing is a term that the AV industry is hearing more often these days, especially as cloud-based services are making appearances in both commercial and residential AV installs. Part of the popularity of interacting in "the cloud" is due to the rise in easy-to-use services like Dropbox, Google Docs and Gmail, all of which provide a high comfort level to a wide audience. As a result, cloud computing and cloud AV is becoming part of daily modern life.

Media streaming, accessing music or movies from a cloud-based server, has crept into users' consciousness via Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix. In fact, Netflix reported in October 2009 that 42% of Netflix subscribers streamed at least 15 minutes of one TV episode or movie. A mere six months later that number had jumped to 55 percent of subscribers by April 2010.

Tom Cullen, co-founder of Sonos, explains, "The most simple user experience in the cloud is streaming Internet radio. You can be in any location and listen to a radio station online that may be inaccessible by traditional means. But by streaming from the cloud, you can get to a radio station from any country."

Cullen says that installers will often demonstrate the capabilities of his company's multi-room music system by having the potential customer choose a country from which to stream music. "We can easily demonstrate that the cloud just came home to them," he adds.

What is "The Cloud"?
In practical terms, the cloud is remote disk drive space via enormous server farms located around the world. For example, online technology magazine estimates that Google owns approximately one million servers (or two percent of the world's server population) to provide its search, email, and other cloud-based services.

Robert Wakefield, director of professional services for IT services provider Now Micro, says that accessing the cloud means using resources that are stored on the Internet.

"The cloud concept is not new to the IT world, but it's a hot concept now because of two factors - scalability and advances in technology," explains Wakefield. "The cloud means you can pay for what resources you use; but at the traditional data center, you are paying for space whether you use it or not. Recent advances in storage and bandwidth technology make it easier to implement and access the cloud.

It is important to note that the cloud itself is end-point agnostic. Any number of devices can access the cloud, including an increasing number of AV-related hardware and software.

The Cloud and AV
In recent months, the AV industry has seen a rapid rise in the number of new or updated cloud-based products and services. While these types of products still count as a small portion of the overall AV market, this trend should serve as a warning signal that a change is happening that will impact infrastructure design and system implementation.

"From an infrastructure point of view, the biggest change in AV system design in the last five years is that AV products need an Ethernet switch nearby," says Cullen. "AV professionals have become IT and infrastructure experts so that customers can access cloud-based services over reliable, high bandwidth connections."

And because the cloud means that there is no need to maintain a network disk drive or a multi-disc CD changer, the customer has a disconnected relationship to the distance traveled or the complexity of receiving the content. "The customer just sees that magically clean, seamless AV install with loudspeakers and a touch screen control," he adds.

Cloud AV is also reaching into the education and corporate markets. Joe Manning, president of WOW Vision, says, "Cloud products and services are becoming more popular because budgets are shrinking; the $100,000 classroom or meeting room is gone. And if a client is spending that kind of money, then they want cables off the tables."

WOW Vision manufactures a wireless solution for multiple PC and Mac users to share, collaborate on, and present content on a single projector or display. "Our model is the reverse of digital signage. Instead of one computer displaying to 100 screens, we enable virtually an unlimited number of users to display their desktop on one screen," he says.

WOW Vision's products change the traditional install paradigm for the AV integrator. Their wireless unit sits next to the projector, and needs an audio cable from the sound system, a network cable, and a video cable is connected to the projector. Students download a thin client from a specific IP address in order to access their content and shared services.

Manning proclaims that his product reduces costs for equipment racks, cables, switchers and routers. That may seem like taking money away from the AV integrator's sales and value-add services, but he doesn't think so. "Once the customer sees the benefit, they will want this install in every room rather than in just a few rooms. Instead of a small percentage of networked classrooms at a university, they can expand the number of interactive classrooms across the entire campus. This ultimately gives more business to the integrator. It is profitable business for the integrator and because there are no ongoing licensing fees, it is more cost effective in the long run for the university," he says.

He uses an example of a university install where the company's products not only reduced the necessary AV budget, but also shortened the installation time. Manning explains that the university was flabbergasted that the estimated budget for networked classrooms was $48 million USD, three months for installation, and required 240 miles of cables. Instead, WOW Vision's cloud-based products reduced the AV budget to six million dollars and one month of installation time.

As a result of the savings, the university could afford to go forward with the project and rolled out this solution to every classroom on campus. While the initial sale was less, it set up a high-touch, repeat visit relationship for the integrator that provided more opportunity to sell to the customer.

Howard D. Smith, chief technology officer for Dynamax Technologies, agrees that cloud-based products and services aren't taking away sales from the reseller/integrator. Instead, the cloud is shifting the business model to a longer-term view. Dynamax offers its software-as-a-service (SaaS) digital signage platform a cloud-based service with no license fees. Instead, clients sign a contract for monthly subscription fees.

"The SaaS market is all about customer acquisition. A reseller sees 20-30% commission on $10 per month and thinks you just killed his cash flow. He's used to selling an $800 software license which means more money up front," says Smith. "Resellers get scared when looking at $10 per month but that's based on a three year subscription upfront and a renewal at the end of the contract. It doesn't take money away from them; it changes the way the reseller sells."

Smith thinks that the popularity of the cloud is due to people and companies who are reluctant to maintain their own servers or disk drives. SaaS and other cloud-based solutions eliminate the need to hire IT staff, upgrade a server, or back up the data. "Even large companies are attracted to cloud-based solutions, especially since the cloud moves AV and IT from a capital expenditure to an operational expenditure," he notes. "So instead of worrying about a server failure, the AV reseller/integrator can focus on helping the customer with their content strategy and offer best practice consulting or content packages as a value-add."

Smith also says that the cloud-based AV model doesn't omit the integrator since the customer always needs help installing the display or projector, or needs advice on content management.

Looking Ahead
For AV professionals, the cloud will bring both opportunity and change to technology and to business practices. "The skill of the business moves to helping the customer find the one thing they want in the big amorphous cloud," says Cullen, who believes there will be thousands of streaming services offering worldwide availability. "Our challenge will be in product development; how to integrate a thousand services and help customers search through it."

Manning stresses, "The cloud is cost effective today and in the future. Business models are changing. The punitive model of license fees will go away. You will still have an environment where AV components exist locally, but not to the current extent."

For Smith, AV's move to the cloud is already happening. In the near future, he predicts that the default digital signage player is an embedded device with no operating system rather than a fully-functional PC. "Or similar to Google's recently launched GoogleTV, a digital signage player could someday be an app loaded onto an Internet-enabled display," he concludes.