Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How Florida School District Tames the Wild West of Education Security at Scale and On Budget

Transcript of a discussion about how a large public school system creates a new culture of computing safety at low cost and high scale. 

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender.

Dana Gardner: Welcome to the next edition of BriefingsDirect. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator.

Bringing a central IT focus to large public school systems has always been a challenge, but bringing a security focus to thousands of PCs and devices has been compared to bringing law and order to the Wild West.

For the Clay County School District in Florida, a team of IT administrators is grabbing the bull by the horns nonetheless to create a new culture of computing safety -- without breaking the bank.

Today's BriefingsDirect security insight’s discussion examines how Clay County is building a secure posture for their edge, network, and data centers while allowing the right mix and access for exploration necessary in an educational environment.

To learn how to ensure that schools are technically advanced and secure at low cost and at high scale, please join me now in welcoming Jeremy Bunkley, Supervisor of the Clay County School District Information and Technology Services Department.

Jeremy Bunkley: Pleasure to speak with you today, Dana.

Skipper

Gardner: We are also here with Jon Skipper, Network Security Specialist at the Clay County School District.

Jon Skipper: Thanks, Dana. I appreciate it.

Gardner: Lastly, we are here with Rich Perkins, Coordinator for Information Services at the Clay County School District.

Rich Perkins: Thanks, Dana. Good to be here.

Gardner: Jeremy, what's been the biggest challenge to improving security, compliance, and risk reduction there at the school district?

Change is hard

Bunkley: I think the answer actually scales across the board. The problem even bridges into businesses. It’s the culture of change -- of making people recognize security as a forethought, instead of an afterthought. It has been a challenge in education, which can be a technology laggard.

Getting people to start the recognition process of making sure that they are security-aware has been quite the battle for us. I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon. But we are starting to get our key players on board with understanding that you can't clear-text Social Security numbers and credit card numbers and personally identifiable information (PII). It has been an interesting ride for us, let’s put it that way.

Gardner: Jon, culture is such an important part of this, but you also have to have tools and platforms in place to help give reinforcement for people when they do the right thing. Tell us about what you have needed on your network, and what your technology approach has been?

Education is one of those weird areas where the software development has always been lacking in the security side of the house.
Skipper: Education is one of those weird areas where the software development has always been lacking in the security side of the house. It has never even been inside the room. So one of the things that we have tried to do in education, at least with the Clay County School District, is try to modify that view, with doing change management. We are trying to introduce a security focus. We try to interject ourselves and highlight areas that might be a bad practice.

One of our vendors uses plain text for passwords, and so we went through with them and showed them how that’s a bad practice, and we made a little bit of improvement with that.

I evaluate our policies and how we manage the domains, maybe finding some stuff that came from a long time ago where it's no longer needed. We can pull the information out, whereas before they put all the Social Security numbers into a document that was no longer needed. We have been trying really hard to figure that stuff out and then to try and knock it down, as much as we can.

Access for all, but not all-access

Gardner: Whenever you are trying to change people's perceptions, behaviors, culture, it’s useful to have both the carrot and a stick approach.

So to you Rich, what's been working in terms of a carrot? How do you incentivize people? What works in practice there?

Perkins: That's a tough one. We don't really have a carrot that we use. We basically say, “If you are doing the wrong things, you are not going to be able to use our network.”  So we focus more on negatives.

Perkins

The positives would be you get to do your job. You get to use the Internet. We don't really give them something more. We see security as directly intertwined with our customer service. Every person we have is our customer and our job is to protect them -- and sometimes that's from themselves.

Either you are a student and you get this level of access, or you are a staff member, you get this level of access, or you don't get access.
So we don't really have a carrot-type of system. We don't allow students to play games if they have no problems. We give everybody the same access and treat everybody the same. Either you are a student and you get this level of access, or you are a staff member, you get this level of access, or you don't get access.

Gardner: Let’s get background on the Clay County School District. Tell us how many students you have, how many staff administrators, the size and scope of your school district?

Bunkley: Our school district is the 22nd largest in Florida, we are right on the edge of small and medium in Florida, which in most districts is a very large school district. We run about 38,500 students.

And as far as our IT team, which is our student information system, our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, security, down to desktop support, network infrastructure support, our web services, we have about 48 people total in our department.

Our scope is literally everything. For some reason IT means that if it plugs into a wall, we are responsible for it. That's generally a true statement in education across the board, where the IT staff tends to be a Jack-of-all-trades, and we fix everything.

Practical IT

Gardner: Where you are headed in terms of technology? Is there a one-to-one student-to-device ratio in the works? What sort of technology do you enable for them?

Bunkley: I am extremely passionate about this, because the one-to-one scenario seems to be the buzzword, and we generally despise buzzwords in this office and we prefer a more practical approach.

The idea of one-to-one is itself to me flawed, because if I just throw a device in a student's hand, what am I actually doing besides throwing a device in a student's hand? We haven't trained them. We haven’t given them the proper platform. All we have done is thrown technology.

Kids today know how to use social media, not technology. They are not production-driven, they are socially driven.
And when I hear the terms, well, kids inherently know how to use technology today; it kind of just bothers me, because kids inherently know how to use social media, not technology. They are not production-driven, they are socially driven, and that is a sticking point with me.

We are in fact moving to a one-to-one, but in a nontraditional sense. We have established a one-to-one platform so we can introduce a unified platform for all students and employees to see through a portal system; we happen to use ClassLink, there are various other vendors out there, that’s just the one we happen to use.

We have integrated that in moving to Google Apps for Education and we have a very close relationship with Google. It’s pretty awesome, to be quite honest with you.

So we are moving in the direction of Chromebooks, because it’s just a fiscally more responsible move for us.

I know Microsoft is coming out with Windows 10 S, it’s kind of a strong move on their part. But for us, just because we have the expertise on the Google Apps for Education, or G Suite, it just made a lot of sense for us to go that direction.

So we are moving in one-to-one now with the devices, but the device is literally the least important -- and the last -- step in our project.

Non-stop security, no shenanigans

Gardner: Tell us about the requirements now for securing the current level of devices, and then for the new one. It seems like you are going to have to keep the airplane flying while changing the wings, right? So what is the security approach that works for you that allows for that?

Skipper: Clay County School District has always followed trends as far as devices go. So we actually have a good mixture of devices in our network, which means that no one solution is ever the right solution.

We have a good mixture of devices in our network, so no solution is ever the right solution.
So, for example, we still have some iPads out in our networks, we still have some older Apple products, and then we have a mixture of Chromebooks and also Windows devices. We really need to make sure that we are running the right security platform for the full environment.

As we are transitioning more and more to a take-home philosophy -- and that’s where we as an IT department are seeing this going – so that if the decision is made to make the entire student population go home, we are going to be ready to go.

We have coordinated with our content filter company, and they have some extensions that we can deploy that lock the Chromebooks into a filter situation regardless of their network. That’s been really successful in identifying, maybe blocking students, from those late-night searches. We have also been able to identify some shenanigans that might be taking place due to some interesting web searches that they might do over YouTube, for example. That’s worked really well.

Our next objective is to figure out how to secure our Windows devices and possibly even the Mac devices. While our content filter does a good job as far as securing the content on the Internet, it’s a little bit more difficult to deploy into a Windows device, because users have the option of downloading different Internet browsers. So, content filtering doesn’t really work as well on those.

I have deployed Bitdefender to my laptops, and also to take-home Apple products. That allows me to put in more content filtering, and use that to block people from malicious websites that maybe the content filter didn’t see or was unable to see due to a different browser being used.

In those aspects we definitely are securing our network down further than it ever has been before.

Block and Lock

Perkins: With Bitdefender, one of the things we like is that if we have those devices go off network, we can actually have it turn on the Bitdefender Firewall that allows us to further lock down those machines or protect them if they are in an open environment, like at a hotel or whatever, from possible malicious activity.

And it allows us to block executables at some point. So we can actually go in and say, “No, I don’t want you to be able to run this browser, because I can’t do anything to protect you. Or I can’t watch what you do, or I can’t keep you from doing things you shouldn’t do.” So those are all very useful tools in a single pane of glass that we can see all of those devices at one time and monitor and manage. It saves us a lot of time.

We aim to defend our internal network while you are here and our network will extend directly down into the student and teacher's home.
Bunkley: I would follow up on that with a base concept, Dana, and our base concept is of an external network. We come from the concept of, we are an everywhere network. We are not only aiming to defend our internal network while you are here and maybe do some stuff while you are at our house, we are literally an externally built network, where our network will extend directly down into the student and teacher’s home.

We have gone as far as moving everything we physically can out of this network, right down to our firewall. We are moving our domain controllers, external to the network to create literally an everywhere network. And so our security focus is not just internal, it is focused on external first, then internal.

Gardner: With security products, what have you been using, what wasn't working, and where do you expect to go next given those constraints?

No free lunch

Perkins: Well, we can tell you that “free” is not always the best option; as a matter of fact, it’s almost never a good option, but we have had to deal with it.

We were previously using an antivirus called Avast, and it’s a great home product. We found out that it has not been the best business-level product. It’s very much marketed to education, and there are some really good things about it. Transferring away from it hasn’t been the easiest because it’s next to impossible to uninstall. So we have been having some problems with that.

We have also tested some other security measures and programs along the way that haven’t been so successful. And we are always in the process of evaluating where we are. We are never okay with status quo. Even if we achieve where we want to be, I don't think any of us will be satisfied, and that’s actually something that a lot of this is built on -- we always want to go that step further. And I know that’s clich√©, but I would say for an institution of this size, the reason we are able to do some of the stuff is the staff that has been assembled here is second to none for an educational institution.

So even in the processes that we have identified, which were helter-skelter before we got here, we have some more issues to continue working out, but we won’t be satisfied with where we are even if we achieve the task.

Skipper: One of the things that our office actually hates is just checking the box on a security audit. I mean, we are very vocal to the auditors when they come in. We don’t do things just to satisfy their audit. We actually look at the audit and we look at the intent of the question and if we find merit in it, we are going to go and meet that expectation and then make it better. Audits are general. We are going to exceed and make it a better functioning process than just saying, “Yes, I have purchased an antivirus product,” or “I have purchased x.” To us that’s unacceptable.

Bunkley: Audits are a good thing, and nobody likes to do them because they are time-consuming. But you do them because they are required by law, for our institution anyways. So instead of just having a generic audit, where we ignore the audit, we have adopted the concept of the audit as a very useful thing for us to have as a self-reflection tool. It’s nice to not have the same set of eyes on your work all the time. And instead of taking offense to someone coming in and saying, “You are not doing this good enough,” we have literally changed our internal culture here, audits are not a bad thing; audits are a desired thing.

Gardner: Let’s go around the table and hear how you began your journey into IT and security, and how the transition to an educational environment went.

IT’s the curriculum
Education is to educate children, so we have decided to go to instruction, professional development.

Bunkley: I started in the banking industry. Those hours were crazy and the pressure was pretty high. So as soon as I left that after a year, I entered education, and honestly, I entered education because I thought the schedule was really easy and I kind of copped out on that. Come to find out, I am working almost as many hours, but that’s because I have come to love it.

This is my 17th year in education, so I have been in a few districts now. Wholesale change is what I have been hired to do, that’s also what I was hired here to do in Clay. We want to change the culture, make IT part of the instruction instead of a separate segment of education.

We have to be interwoven into everything, otherwise we are going to be on an island, and the last time I heard the definition of education is to educate children. So IT can never by itself be a high-functioning department in education. So we have decided instead to go to instruction, and go to professional development, and go to administration and intervene ourselves.

Gardner: Jon, tell us about your background and how the transition has been for you.

Skipper: I was at active-duty Air Force until 2014 when I retired after 20 years. And then I came into education on the side. I didn’t really expect this job, wasn’t mentally searching for it. I tried it out, and that was three years ago.

It’s been an interesting environment. Education, and especially a small IT department like this one, is one of those interesting places where you can come and really expand on your weak areas. So that’s what I actually like about this. If I need to practice on my group policy knowledge, I can dive in there and I can affect that change. Overall this has been an effective change, totally different from the military, a lot looser as far as a lot of things go, but really interesting.

Gardner: Rick, same question to you, your background and how did the transition go?

Perkins: I spent 21 years in the military, I was Navy. When I retired in 2010, I actually went to work for a smaller district in education mainly because they were the first one to offer me a job. In that smaller district, just like here, we have eight people doing operations, and we have this big department. Jeremy understands from where he came from. It was pretty much me doing every aspect of it, so you do a little security, you do a little bit of everything, which I enjoyed because you are your own boss, but you are not your own boss.

You have to be flexible because education is not the military, so you can't be that stringent. That's a challenge.
You still have people residing over you and dictating how you are going to work, but I really enjoyed the challenge. Coming from IT security in the military and then coming into education, it’s almost a role reversal where we came in and found next to no policies.

I am used to a black-and-white world. So we are trying to interject some of that and some of the security best practices into education. You have to be flexible because education is not the military, so you can’t be that stringent. So that’s a challenge.

Gardner: What are you using to put policies in place enforce them? How does that work?

Policy plans

Perkins: From a [Microsoft] Active Directory side, we use group policy like most people do, and we try and automate it as much as we can. We are switching over, on the student side, very heavily to Google. They effectively have their own version of Active Directory with group policy. And then I will let Jon speak more to the security side though we have used various programs like PDQ for our patch management system that allows us to push out stuff. We use some logging systems with ManageEngine. And then as we have said before we use Bitdefender to push a lot of policy and security out as well, and we've been reevaluating some other stuff.

One of the first things we did was identify what we can lock down, and the easiest one was the filter.
We also use SolarWinds to monitor our network and we actually manage changes to our network and switching using SolarWinds, but on the actual security side, I will let Jon get more specific for you.

Skipper: When we came in … there was a fear of having too much in policy equated to too much auditing overhead. One of the first things we did was identify what we can lock down, and the easiest one was the filter.

The content filter met such stipulations as making sure adult material is not acceptable on the network. We had that down. But it didn't really take into account the dynamic of the Internet as far as sites are popping up every minute or second, and how do you maintain that for unclassified and uncategorized sites?

So one of the things we did was we looked at a vendor, like, okay, does this vendor have a better product for that aspect of it, and we got that working, I think that's been working a lot better. And then we started moving down, we were like, okay, cool, so now we have content filtering down, luckily move on to active network, actually not about finding someone else who is doing it, and borrowing their work and making their own.

We look into some of the bigger school districts and see how they are doing it. I think Chicago, Los Angeles. We both looked at some of their policies where we can find it. I found a lot of higher education in some of the universities. Their policies are a lot more along the lines of where we want to be. I think they have it better than what some of the K-12s do.

So we have been going through there and we are going to have to rewrite policy – we are in an active rewrite of our policies right now, we are taking all of those in and we are looking at them, and we are trying to figure out which ones work in our environment and then make sure we do a really good search and replace.

Gardner: We have talked about people, process and technology. We have heard that you are on a security journey and that it’s long-term and culturally oriented.

Let's look at this then as to what you get when you do it right, particularly vis-à-vis education. Do you have any examples of where you have been able to put in the right technology, add some policy and process improvements, and then culturally attune the people? What does that get for you? How do you turn a problem student into a computer scientist at some point? Tell us some of the examples of when it works, what it gets you.

Positive results

Skipper: When we first got in here, we were a Microsoft district. We had some policies in place to help prevent data loss, and stuff like that.

One of the first things we did is review those policies and activate them, and we started getting some hits. We were surprised at some of hits that we saw, and what we saw going out. We already knew we were moving to the Google networks, continuing the process.

As far as taking a student who may be on the wrong path and reeducating them, Bitdefender has helped.
We researched a lot and one of the things we discovered is that just by a minor tweak in a user’s procedures, we were able to identify that we could introduce that user to and get them used to using email encryption, for example. With the Gmail solution, we are able to add an extension, and that extension actually looks at their email as it goes out and finds keywords -- or it may be PII -- and automatically encrypt the email, preventing those kinds of breaches from going out there. So that’s really been helpful.

As far as taking a student who may be on the wrong path and reeducating them and bringing them back into the fold, Bitdefender has actually helped out on that one.

We had a student a while back who went out to YouTube and find out how he could just do a simple search on how to crash the school network, and he found about five links. And he researched those links and went out there and found that this batch filed with this type will crash a school server.

He was able to implement it and started trying to get that attack out there, and Bitdefender was able to actually go out there and see the batch file, see what it did and prevent it. By quarantining the file, I was able to get that reported very quickly from the moment that he introduced the attack, and it identified the student and we were able to sit down with the administrators and talk to the student about that process and educate them on the dangers of actually attacking a school network and the possible repercussions of it.

Gardner: It certainly helps when you can let them know that you are able to track and identify those issues, and then trace them back to an individual. Any other anecdotes about where the technology process and people have come together for a positive result?

Applied IT knowledge for the next generation

A high-school student can graduate and walk away with a CCNA, which is a major industry certification.
Skipper: One of the things that’s really worked well for the school district is what we call Network Academy. It’s taught by one of our local retired master chiefs, and he is actually going in there and teaching students at the high school level how to go as far as earning a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)-level IT certificate.

If a student comes in and they try hard enough, they will actually figure it out and they can leave when they graduate with a CCNA, which is pretty awesome. A high school student can walk away with a pretty major industry certification.

We like to try and grab these kids as soon as they leave high school, or even before they leave high school, and start introducing them to our network. They may have a different viewpoint on how to do something that’s revolutionary to us.

But we like having that aspect of it, we can educate those kids who are coming in and  getting their industry certifications, and we are able to utilize them before they move on to a college or another job that pays more than we do.

Bunkley: Charlie Thompson leads this program that Jon is speaking of, and actually over half of our team has been through the program. We didn’t create it, we have just taken advantage of the opportunity. We even tailor the classes to some of the specific things that we need. We have effectively created our own IT hiring pipeline out of this program.

Gardner: Next let’s take a look to the future. Where do you see things going, such as more use of cloud services, interest in unified consoles and controls from the cloud as APIs come into play more for your overall IT management? Encryption? Where do you take it from here?

Holistic solutions in the cloud

Bunkley: Those are some of the areas we are focusing on heavily as we move that “anywhere network.” The unified platform for management is going to be a big deal to us. It is a big deal to us already. Encryption is something we take very seriously because we have a team of eight protecting the data of  about 42,000 users..

If you consider the perfect cyber crime reaching down into a 7th or an 8th grader and stealing all of their personal information, taking that kid’s identity and using it, that kid won’t even know that their identity has been stolen.

We consider that a very serious charge of ours to take on. So we will continue to improve our protection of the students’ and teachers’ PII -- even if it sometimes means protecting them from themselves. We take it very seriously.

As we move to the cloud, that unified management platform leads to a more unified security platform. As the operating systems continue to mature, they seem to be going different ways. And what’s good for Mac is not always good for Chrome, is not always good for Windows. But as we move forward with our projects we bring everything back to that central point -- can the three be operated from the single point of connection, so that we can save money moving forward? Just because it’s a cool technology and we want to do, it doesn't mean it's the right thing for us.

Sometimes we have to choose an option that we don’t necessarily like as much, but pick it because it is better for the whole. As we continue to move forward, everything will be focused on that centralization. We can remain a small and flexible department to continue making sure that we are able to provide the services needed internally as well as protect our users.

Skipper: I think Jeremy hit it pretty solid on that one. As we integrate more with the cloud services, Google, etc., we are utilizing those APIs and we are leading our vendors that we use and forcing
We are leaning heavily on more cloud services and the interoperability between APIs and vendors.
them into new areas. Lightspeed, for instance, is integrating more-and-more with Google and utilizing their API to ensure that content filtering -- even to the point of mobile device management (MDM) that is more integrated into the Google and Apple platforms to make sure that students are well protected and we have all the tools available that they need at any given time.

We are really leaning heavily on more cloud services, and also the interoperability between APIs and vendors.

Perkins: Public education is changing more to the realm of college education where the classroom is not a classroom -- a classroom is anywhere in the world. We are tasked with supporting them and protecting them no matter where they are located. We have to take care of our customers either way.

Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You’ve been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how Clay County is building a secure posture for their edge, network and data centers while allowing the right mix of access and exploration necessary in an educational environment.

And we have learned how bringing a security focus to thousands of PCs and devices can ensure that schools are technically advanced and secure at low cost and at high scale.

So please join me now in thanking our guests, Jeremy Bunkley, Supervisor of the Information and Technology Services Department; Jon Skipper, Network Security Specialist, Rich Perkins, Coordinator of Information Services, all at the Clay County School District in Florida.

This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing series of BriefingsDirect discussions. A big thank you to our sponsor, Bitdefender, for supporting these presentations, and also a big thank you to our audience for joining us. Do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender.

Transcript of a discussion about how a large public school system creates a new culture of computing safety at low cost and high scale. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2017. All rights reserved.


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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How Imagine Communications Leverages Edge Computing for Efficient Live IP Multiscreen Digital Video

Transcript of a discussion on how video delivery and customization capabilities are moving to the network edge to enable end user and content provider benefits.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Dana Gardner: Welcome to the next edition of the BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer podcast series. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing discussion on digital transformation success stories. Stay with us now to learn how agile businesses are fending off disruption -- in favor of innovation.

Our next high-performance edge-computing success story examines how a video delivery and customization capability is moving to the network edge -- and closer to consumers -- to support live, multi-screen Internet Protocol (IP) entertainment delivery.

We’ll learn how hybrid technology and new workflows for IP-delivered digital video are being re-architected -- with significant benefits to the end-user experience, as well as with new monetization values to the content providers.

With that, please join me in welcoming Glodina Connan-Lostanlen, Chief Marketing Officer at Imagine Communications in Frisco, Texas.

Connan-Lostanlen

Glodina Connan-Lostanlen: Thank you, very much.

Gardner: Let’s begin with the drivers in the market. Your organization has many major media clients. What are the pressures they are facing as they look to the new world of multi-screen video and media?

Connan-Lostanlen: The number-one concern of the media and entertainment industry is the fragmentation of their audience. We live with a model supported by advertising and subscriptions that rely primarily on linear programming, with people watching TV at home.

And guess what? Now they are watching it on the go -- on their telephones, on their iPads, on their laptops, anywhere. So they have to find the way to capture that audience, justify the value of that audience to their advertisers, and deliver video content that is relevant to them. And that means meeting consumer demand for several types of content, delivered at the very time that people want to consume it.  So it brings a whole range of technology and business challenges that our media and entertainment customers have to overcome. But addressing these challenges with new technology that increases agility and velocity to market also creates opportunities.

For example, they can now try new content. That means they can try new programs, new channels, and they don’t have to keep them forever if they don’t work. The new models create opportunities to be more creative, to focus on what they are good at, which is creating valuable content. At the same time, they have to make sure that they cater to all these different audiences that are either static or on the go.

This is a major, perhaps once-in-a-generation, level of change -- when you go to fully digital, IP delivered content.
Gardner: The media industry has faced so much change over the past 20 years, but this is a major, perhaps once-in-a-generation, level of change -- when you go to fully digital, IP-delivered content.

As you say, the audience is pulling the providers to multi-screen support, but there is also the capability now -- with the new technology on the back-end -- to have much more of a relationship with the customer, a one-to-one relationship and even customization, rather than one-to-many. Tell us about the drivers on the personalization level.

Connan-Lostanlen: That’s another big upside of the fragmentation, and the advent of IP technology -- all the way from content creation to making a program and distributing it. It gives the content creators access to the unique viewers, and the ability to really engage with them -- knowing what they like -- and then to potentially target advertising to them. The technology is there. The challenge remains about how to justify the business model, how to value the targeted advertising; there are different opinions on this, and there is also the unknown or the willingness of several generations of viewers to accept good advertising.

That is a great topic right now, and very relevant when we talk about linear advertising and dynamic ad insertion (DAI). Now we are able to -- at the very edge of the signal distribution, the video signal distribution -- insert an ad that is relevant to each viewer, because you know their preferences, you know who they are, and you know what they are watching, and so you can determine that an ad is going to be relevant to them.

But that means media and entertainment customers have to revisit the whole infrastructure. It’s not necessary rebuilding, they can put in add-ons. They don’t have to throw away what they had, but they can maintain the legacy infrastructure and add on top of it the IP-enabled infrastructure to let them take advantage of these capabilities.

Gardner: This change has happened from the web now all the way to multi-screen. With the web there was a model where you would use a content delivery network (CDN) to take the object, the media object, and place it as close to the edge as you could. What’s changed and why doesn’t that model work as well?

Connan-Lostanlen: I don’t know yet if I want to say that model doesn’t work anymore. Let’s let the CDN providers enhance their technology. But for sure, the volume of videos that we are consuming everyday is exponentially growing. That definitely creates pressure in the pipe. Our role at the front-end and the back-end is to make sure that videos are being created in different formats, with different ads, and everything else, in the most effective way so that it doesn’t put an undue strain on the pipe that is distributing the videos.

We are being pushed to innovate further on the type of workflows that we are implementing at our customers’ sites today, to make it efficient, to not leave storage at the edge and not centrally, and to do transcoding just-in-time. These are the things that are being worked on. It’s a balance between available capacity and the number of programs that you want to send across to your viewers – and how big your target market is.

Why not design the whole workflow digital-first?
The task for us on the back-end is to rethink the workflows in a much more efficient way. So, for example, this is what we call the digital-first approach, or unified distribution. Instead of planning a linear channel that goes the traditional way and then adding another infrastructure for multi-screen, on all those different platforms and then cable, and satellite, and IPTV, etc. -- why not design the whole workflow digital-first. This frees the content distributor or provider to hold off on committing to specific platforms until the video has reached the edge. And it’s there that the end-user requirements determine how they get the signal.

This is where we are going -- to see the efficiencies happen and so remove the pressure on the CDNs and other distribution mechanisms, like over-the-air.

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Gardner: It means an intelligent edge capability, whereas we had an intelligent core up until now. We’ll also seek a hybrid capability between them, growing more sophisticated over time.

We have a whole new generation of technology for video delivery. Tell us about Imagine Communications. How do you go to market? How do you help your customers?

Education for future generations

Connan-Lostanlen: Two months ago we were in Las Vegas for our biggest tradeshow of the year, the NAB Show. At the event, our customers first wanted to understand what it takes to move to IP -- so the “how.” They understand the need to move to IP, to take advantage of the benefits that it brings. But how do they do this, while they are still navigating the traditional world?

It’s not only the “how,” it’s needing examples of best practices. So we instructed them in a panel discussion, for example, on Over the Top Technology (OTT), which is another way of saying IP-delivered, and what it takes to create a successful multi-screen service. Part of the panel explained what OTT is, so there’s a lot of education.

There is also another level of education that we have to provide, which is moving from the traditional world of serial digital interfaces (SDIs) in the broadcast industry to IP. It’s basically saying analog video signals can be moved into digital. Then not only is there a digitally sharp signal, it’s an IP stream. The whole knowledge about how to handle IP is new to our own industry, to our own engineers, to our own customers. We also have to educate on what it takes to do this properly.

One of the key things in the media and entertainment industry is that there’s a little bit of fear about IP, because no one really believed that IP could handle live signals. And you know how important live television is in this industry – real-time sports and news -- this is where the money comes from. That’s why the most expensive ads are run during the Super Bowl.

It’s essential to be able to do live with IP – it’s critical. That’s why
It's essential to be able to do live with IP -- it's critical.
we are sharing with our customers the real-life implementations that we are doing today.

We are also pushing multiple standards forward. We work with our competitors on these standards. We have set up a trade association to accelerate the standards work. We did all of that. And as we do this, it forces us to innovate in partnership with customers and bring them on board. They are part of that trade association, they are part of the proof-of-concept trials, and they are gladly sharing their experiences with others so that the transition can be accelerated.

Gardner: Imagine Communications is then a technology and solutions provider to the media content companies, and you provide the means to do this. You are also doing a lot with ad insertion, billing, in understanding more about the end-user and allowing that data flow from the edge back to the core, and then back to the edge to happen.

At the heart of it all

Connan-Lostanlen: We do everything that happens behind the camera -- from content creation all the way to making a program and distributing it. And also, to your point, on monetizing all that with a management system. We have a long history of powering all the key customers in the world for their advertising system. It’s basically an automated system that allows the selling of advertising spots, and then to bill them -- and this is the engine of where our customers make money. So we are at the heart of this.

We are in the prime position to help them take advantage of the new advertising solutions that exist today, including dynamic ad insertion. In other words, how you target ads to the single viewer. And the challenge for them is now that they have a campaign, how do they design it to cater both to the linear traditional advertising system as well as the multi-screen or web mobile application? That's what we are working on. We have a whole set of next-generation platforms that allow them to take advantage of both in a more effective manner.

Gardner: The technology is there, you are a solutions provider. You need to find the best ways of storing and crunching data, close to the edge, and optimizing networks. Tell us why you choose certain partners and what are the some of the major concerns you have when you go to the technology marketplace?

Connan-Lostanlen: One fundamental driver here, as we drive the transition to IP in this industry, is in being able to rely on consumer-off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms. But even so, not all COTS platforms are born equal, right?

For compute, for storage, for networking, you need to rely on top-scale hardware platforms, and that’s why about two years ago we started to work very closely with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for both our compute and storage technology.

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We develop the software appliances that run on those platforms, and we sell this as a package with HPE. It’s been a key value proposition of ours as we began this journey to move to IP. We can say, by the way, our solutions run on HPE hardware. That's very important because having high-performance compute (HPC) that scales is critical to the broadcast and media industry. Having storage that is highly reliable is fundamental because going off the air is not acceptable. So it's 99.9999 percent reliable, and that’s what we want, right?

It’s a fundamental part of our message to our customers to say, “In your network, put Imagine solutions, which are powered by one of the top compute and storage technologies.”

Gardner: Another part of the change in the marketplace is this move to the edge. It’s auspicious that just as you need to have more storage and compute efficiency at the edge of the network, close to the consumer, the infrastructure providers are also designing new hardware and solutions to do just that. That's also for the Internet of Things (IoT) requirements, and there are other drivers. Nonetheless, it's an industry standard approach.

What is it about HPE Edgeline, for example, and the architecture that HPE is using, that makes that edge more powerful for your requirements? How do you view this architectural shift from core data center to the edge?

Optimize the global edge

Connan-Lostanlen: It's a big deal because we are going to be in a hybrid world. Most of our customers, when they hear about cloud, we have to explain it to them. We explain that they can have their private cloud where they can run virtualized applications on-premises, or they can take advantage of public clouds.

Being able to have a hybrid model of deployment for their applications is critical, especially for large customers who have operations in several places around the globe. For example, such big names as Disney, Turner –- they have operations everywhere. For them, being able to optimize at the edge means that you have to create an architecture that is geographically distributed -- but is highly efficient where they have those operations. This type of technology helps us deliver more value to the key customers.

Gardner: The other part of that intelligent edge technology is that it has the ability to be adaptive and customized. Each region has its own networks, its own regulation, and its own compliance, security, and privacy issues. When you can be programmatic as to how you design your edge infrastructure, then a custom-applications-orientation becomes possible.

Is there something about the edge architecture that you would like to see more of? Where do you see this going in terms of the capabilities of customization added-on to your services?

Connan-Lostanlen: One of the typical use-cases that we see for those big customers who have distributed operations is that they like to try and run their disaster recovery (DR) site in a more cost-effective manner. So the flexibility that an edge architecture provides to them is that they don’t have to rely on central operations running DR for everybody. They can do it on their own, and they can do it cost-effectively. They don't have to recreate the entire infrastructure, and so they do DR at the edge as well.

We especially see this a lot in the process of putting the pieces of the program together, what we call “play out,” before it's distributed. When you create a TV channel, if you will, it’s important to have end-to-end redundancy -- and DR is a key driver for this type of application.

Gardner: Are there some examples of your cutting-edge clients that have adopted these solutions? What are the outcomes? What are they able to do with it?

Pop-up power

Connan-Lostanlen: Well, it’s always sensitive to name those big brand names. They are very protective of their brands. However, one of the top ones in the world of media and entertainment has decided to move all of their operations -- from content creation, planning, and distribution -- to their own cloud, to their own data center.

They are at the forefront of playing live and recorded material on TV -- all from their cloud. They needed strong partners in data centers. So obviously we work with them closely, and the reason why they do this is simply to really take advantage of the flexibility. They don't want to be tied to a restricted channel count; they want to try new things. They want to try pop-up channels. For the Oscars, for example, it’s one night. Are you going to recreate the whole infrastructure if you can just check it on and off, if you will, out of their data center capacity? So that's the key application, the pop-up channels and ability to easily try new programs.

Gardner: It sounds like they are thinking of themselves as an IT company, rather than a media and entertainment company that consumes IT. Is that shift happening?

Connan-Lostanlen: Oh yes, that's an interesting topic, because I think you cannot really do this successfully if you don’t start to think IT a little bit. What we are seeing, interestingly, is that our customers typically used to have the IT department on one side, the broadcast engineers on the other side -- these were two groups that didn't speak the same language. Now they get together, and they have to, because they have to design together the solution that will make them more successful. We are seeing this happening.

I wouldn't say yet that they are IT companies. The core strength is content, that is their brand, that's what they are good at -- creating amazing content and making it available to as many people as possible.

They have to understand IT, but they can't lose concentration on their core business. I think the IT providers still have a very strong play there. It's always happening that way.

In addition to disaster recovery being a key application, multi-screen delivery is taking advantage of that technology, for sure.

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Gardner: These companies are making this cultural shift to being much more technically oriented. They think about standard processes across all of what they do, and they have their own core data center that's dynamic, flexible, agile and cost-efficient. What does that get for them? Is it too soon, or do we have some metrics of success for companies that make this move toward a full digitally transformed organization?

Connan-Lostanlen: They are very protective about the math. It is fair to say that the up-front investments may be higher, but when you do the math over time, you do the total cost of ownership for the next 5 to 10 years -- because that’s typically the life cycle of those infrastructures – then definitely they do save money. On the operational expenditure (OPEX) side [of private cloud economics] it’s much more efficient, but they also have upside on additional revenue. So net-net, the return on investment (ROI) is much better. But it’s kind of hard to say now because we are still in the early days, but it’s bound to be a much greater ROI.
Satellite providers are thinking broadly about how this world of IP is changing their game, what they need to do differently.

Another specific DR example is in the Middle East. We have a customer there who decided to operate the DR and IP in the cloud, instead of having a replicated system with satellite links in between. They were able to save $2 million worth of satellite links, and that data center investment, trust me, was not that high. So it shows that the ROI is there.

My satellite customers might say, “Well, what are you trying to do?” The good news is that they are looking at us to help them transform their businesses, too. So big satellite providers are thinking broadly about how this world of IP is changing their game. They are examining what they need to do differently. I think it’s going to create even more opportunities to reduce costs for all of our customers.

IT enters a hybrid world

Gardner: That's one of the intrinsic values of a hybrid IT approach -- you can use many different ways to do something, and then optimize which of those methods works best, and also alternate between them for best economics. That’s a very powerful concept.

Connan-Lostanlen: The world will be a hybrid IT world, and we will take advantage of that. But, of course, that will come with some challenges. What I think is next is the number-one question that I get asked.

Three years ago costumers would ask us, “Hey, IP is not going to work for live TV.” We convinced them otherwise, and now they know it’s working, it’s happening for real.

Secondly, they are thinking, “Okay, now I get it, so how do I do this?” We showed them, this is how you do it, the education piece.

Now, this year, the number-one question is security. “Okay, this is my content, the most valuable asset I have in my company. I am not putting this in the cloud,” they say. And this is where another piece of education has to start, which is: Actually, as you put stuff on your cloud, it’s more secure.

And we are working with our technology providers. As I said earlier, the COTS providers are not equal. We take it seriously. The cyber attacks on content and media is critical, and it’s bound to happen more often.

Initially there was a lack of understanding that you need to separate your corporate network, such as emails and VPNs, from you broadcast operations network. Okay, that’s easy to explain and that can be implemented, and that's where most of the attacks over the last five years have happened. This is solved.

They are going to get right into the servers, into the storage, and try to mess with it over
Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security.
there. So I think it’s super important to be able to say, “Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security, which everybody can see is so important.”

However, the cyber attackers are becoming more clever, so they will overcome these initial defenses.They are going to get right into the servers, into the storage, and try to mess with it over there. So I think it’s super important to be able to say, “Not only at the software level, but at the hardware firmware level, we are adding protection against your number-one issue, security, which everybody can see is so important.”

Gardner: Sure, the next domino to fall after you have the data center concept, the implementation, the execution, even the optimization, is then to remove risk, whether it's disaster recovery, security, right down to the silicon and so forth. So that’s the next thing we will look for, and I hope I can get a chance to talk to you about how you are all lowering risk for your clients the next time we speak.

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I’m afraid we will have to leave it there. Please join me in thanking our guest, Glodina Connan-Lostanlen, Chief Marketing Officer at Imagine Communications in Frisco, Texas.

Connan-Lostanlen: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Gardner: We have been examining how Imagine Communications is re-architecting edge and hybrid computing to enable IP delivery of digital video worldwide. And we have heard how advances in edge storage, server, and data center improvements from HPE are enabling the latest live, multiscreen, IP entertainment delivery models, which significantly benefit consumers and providers alike.

Thanks as well to you, our audience, for joining this BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer digital transformation success story discussion. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host for this ongoing series of Hewlett Packard Enterprise-sponsored interviews.

Thanks again for listening. Please pass this along to your IT community, and do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Transcript of a discussion on how a video delivery and customization capability is moving to the network edge to enable end user and content provider benefits. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2017. All rights reserved.


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