Outsourcing to the cloud saved Blinkbox money and boosted efficiency

The next time you are watching online movie service Blinkbox, you may be unaware it uses a cloud environment to be able to provide films to your Smart TV or devices efficiently.

Blink

Consumers want new releases right away. They want to watch Zac Efron in Bad Neighbours or Angelina Jolie in Maleficent on their favourite consumer devices, with impeccable video and audio quality and reliability.

But piracy concerns mean that content providers often supply a movie just one day before Blinkbox is due to make it available. This leaves less than 24 hours to perform quality checks, encode the film in multiple formats and prepare it for streaming.

Such a tight turnaround requires lots of storage, high infrastructure demands at data centres and the ability to scale things very quickly. The service has to deliver an experience that is consistent, and the movies have to look great regardless of what format they are being played in.

The technical infrastructure required to meet the challenge is often beyond the resources of even large firms. In Blinkbox’s case, the network uses Microsoft Azure’s cloud system to meet demand.

It was only in August 2013 that Blinkbox decided to move to this system. Previously, the company’s own data centre was running out of the computing power necessary to encode and catalogue its movies quickly enough to get them to work on multiple devices and screen sizes. A backlog was building up – and if Blinkbox had to add new support for a new tablet or game console, it had to scale up its data centre infrastructure months in advance.

“We had aggressive growth goals, but we needed to break through the encoding bottleneck,” says Jon Robinson, group head of IT for Blinkbox. “We also needed greater resilience beyond our London data centre in the event of a natural disaster or a utility worker chopping through a cable. The more successful we became, the less we could tolerate a service interruption of any length of time.”

Through using this cloud service it has cut down the encoding time from weeks to just days or hours. Blinkbox can also now scale up its infrastructure the day before a promotion launches, to help with the extra traffic, then scale it back when traffic slows.

The company runs its application in two European Microsoft Azure data centres, and customers are served by the data centre nearest them. By using these centres Blinkbox now saves millions of dollars through the elimination of racks of high-performance servers and storage.

In addition to removing costs, Blinkbox also reaps operational savings by making far better use of its engineering staff. “We’re a small company that is growing rapidly, and we’re an engineering company at heart,” Robinson says.

“No one wants to do boring work. By removing mundane data centre tasks from our engineers’ days, they can do smarter things like making our platform more reliable, do better monitoring, and improve our auto-scaling.”

As new video formats come out, Blinkbox will continue to use cloud computing to help it expand with changes in technology.

“Video content is getting ever richer, being stored in ever-larger formats, and needs to be streamed faster,” Robinson says. “Plus, the number of devices and formats that we need to support is growing. All this leads to the need for lots and lots of storage.

“New devices are coming out all the time – some manufacturers give us lead time, others don’t. We no longer worry about how much lead time we have. We have encoding resources available on demand.”

If not for cloud computing, watching the latest blockbuster via an online movie streaming provider might be near impossible. And as technology changes and develops, cloud computing will be able to provide the necessary backup to power these increasingly popular services.

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