Blaze Streaming Media Delivers Remote Workflows for Virtual Events With AWS

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Amidst the challenges presented by a global pandemic, the live events industry has shown incredible resiliency. Even as large, in-person gatherings ceased in 2020, and it became clear that they would remain unsafe for the foreseeable future, the industry quickly found new ways to move forward, albeit virtually. Organizers of established events quickly worked to translate all the components of an in-person event into a web browser for virtual attendees, sparking an increased demand for primary and backup streaming services. As a result, Portland, Oregon-based end-to-end live event production outfit Blaze Streaming Media has seen new and repeat business soar.

The company provides a wide range of live and remote event production services that have largely virtualized in the last year, as most in-person events pivoted to an online format. Prior to 2020, its crew traveled multiple times a year to venues around the world to manage events. Today all of that work is handled remotely with help from Amazon Web Services (AWS) technology.

Before each project, the Blaze team collaborates with the client on a virtual show flow and then begins building out the engineering stack and production equipment required to carry out the job. Typically, the design includes AWS Elemental Link contribution encoders that are sent to a production base in advance to pre-established templates in the AWS Elemental MediaLive cloud-based video processing service. From there, the Blaze team readies the content for broadcast-grade delivery to event attendees on a range of supported devices.

“Link gives us an easy contribution onramp to MediaLive and packs an insane amount of functionality into a tiny box for under $1,000,” shared Joe Christensen, president, Blaze Streaming Media. “The workflow is so straightforward. We just program MediaLive, attach the Link inputs and we’re in business. From there, we can go into our event folder, select our template, and load it; it’s pretty much foolproof.”

“Combining an on-premises piece of hardware like Link to a cloud workflow in MediaLive has provided us with a powerhouse for innovation, and we continue to be impressed by the new features that AWS constantly rolls out. Even simple updates like the new ability to bulk start and stop multiple jobs at once can make a big impact,” he continued. “AWS technology is making higher-end video production and delivery workflows more accessible to crews like us who can’t afford to spend six figures on expensive hardware that will eventually phase out.”

For projects where Blaze only handles content encoding, streaming and delivery, it ships out a flight kit with Link units to the on-site production team. The team then just has to power up the Link encoders, connect to an Ethernet cable, and the Link devices are streaming video within minutes. “There’s this tendency in our industry to gravitate toward tools with complex knobs and dials, but often, that just makes your job harder. Link is great, because you can achieve the same quality results with a lot less complexity,” added Christensen. “I just ship out the Link units, provide the production crew with simple instructions, make sure everything is connected, and then it’s smooth sailing.”

In a perfect world, Blaze would manage each client’s on-premises network to ensure ideal conditions, but, in reality, the networks at venues are managed by third parties and are unpredictable and unreliable. For a long format stream, this could mean an entire day of on-site troubleshooting of audio/video sync issues, but Blaze has found its own workaround with Link and MediaLive. Link uses an array of advanced technologies to ensure that a video feed is high quality and reliable, even in a challenging network condition. The device encodes video with high quality-per-bit using the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) codec and transports that video with high resiliency using the delivery protocol Zixi, which combines content-aware and network-adaptive forward error correction with error recovery.

When network conditions change during a live stream, Link adapts automatically with its network-aware adaptive bitrate algorithm, and adjusts in real-time to changes in network conditions by varying the bitrate of the encoded video. “With Link and MediaLive, we can transmit live video even amidst fluctuating network conditions, and the fact that integration of Zixi is built into MediaLive makes it much easier to deliver high-quality streams regardless of network stability,” noted Christensen.

For detailed post-event reporting, Blaze uses Amazon CloudWatch to report out metrics on any MediaLive channels it creates. Amazon CloudWatch provides an overview of all audio levels, the network inputs and outputs, and allows Blaze to respond to system-wide performance changes. If audio dropped on a channel, for instance, Blaze can confirm where, go back to the source, and show the client the source of the problem.

“Being able to share detailed, client-facing reporting across a fleet of more than 20 Link devices with three simple mouse clicks is mind-blowing,” Christensen explained. “It’s hard to ask any technology to do that level of reporting at scale, but with AWS Elemental Link, AWS Elemental MediaLive, and Amazon CloudWatch, we can easily do it without having to bounce through tabs or mess with TeamViewer instances to look at the whole fleet. All the tools and metrics that we need if we get called into a postmortem are available right there.”

Considering that virtual conferences often involve back-to-back sessions with little-to-no time in between, effectively managing and transitioning between video inputs can prove a challenge, especially because attendees click on web links and dial into sessions early and presentations can sometimes run over. However, input switching with Link and MediaLive has helped Blaze in this respect. Using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Blaze can play pre-event audio and video from a file on a loop while attendees are joining the live event, then switch to Link as the MediaLive source when the presentation starts.

“We recently tested input switching for the first time, and, even though we were nervous about input switching at the encoder, it turned out terrific. The Link device remains active and still sends to the job, so all of the alert metrics related to it are still available in MediaLive. It’s still burning in even though it’s not mapped to the show output, and it’s that kind of functionality that sets Link and MediaLive apart from the rest,” Christensen said.

Blaze has been using MediaLive for nearly a year now, but the team continues to uncover new possibilities. Christiansen concluded, “As soon as we got into MediaLive, it was as though our jobs as streaming engineers changed for the better. We can send out multiple renditions of video anywhere and everywhere and build a complex encoding stack that meets client demands in ways we never could have imagined.”