IFE Content Delivery Makes Its Way to the Cloud


Illustrations: Óscar Matamora

Airlines have moved much of their operations to the cloud. But can the in-flight entertainment industry be swayed to make the shift?

The logistics involved to get just one movie to an aircraft are much like a convoluted relay race: It involves passing a tape, USB stick or hard drive to the different parties that produce the movie; license it; add subtitles, closed captions and metadata; transcode it; integrate that file onto hardware; send it to a data center; check it into an airport-secure facility; and hand carry it to its final destination on an aircraft. It’s a laborious cycle that repeats every 90 days, but there’s a movement to fast-forward the decades-old analog process.

For the past four years, according to APEX Technology Committee chair and APEX board member Michael Childers, Lufthansa Systems has been testing a possible cloud-based workflow on its BoardConnect wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) system with some of its airline clients, while also consulting video encryption specialists castLabs and cloud service giant Amazon Web Services (AWS). The group is determined to make the content delivery supply chain more efficient by breaking it free of its assembly-line routine and moving it entirely to the cloud. But what exactly is cloud computing anyway?

“We offer building blocks you can combine to create applications – and you haven’t had to write a line of code.” – David Griggs, AWS Elemental

“The cloud isn’t a big mainframe computer. It is spreading your processing across potentially thousands of computers wherever in the world they may be,” explains Childers, who is also chief consultant of Content and Media Strategy for Lufthansa Systems. “There isn’t a single point of storage or a single point of processing. The cloud is basically distributed computing, and the software that supports it brings about a very high degree of automation.”

He further explains: “Imagine the storage and processing of IFE content distributed among thousands of secure data centers where work can be easily spread for greater efficiency and faster processing.”

Working in the cloud enables different parts of the content delivery system to be automated simultaneously and pushed to the cloud as they are completed, rather than one after the other. Lufthansa Systems’ case study on the transcoding segment – file formatting for optimal display quality – was presented at the APEX TECH conference in Los Angeles in June last year. Much of that is already done in the cloud today, but the case study demonstrated that the new method is a huge money saver.

“Today, we measure our cost for delivering a transcoded file to the content integration facility in the hundreds of dollars, and sometimes more. By doing that processing in the cloud, we are measuring that processing in the tens of dollars. And that’s just the post-production phase,” Childers says, adding that Lufthansa Systems is also working with Venera Technologies in hopes of pushing the quality-control segment to the cloud, as well.

“When the adoption reaches critical mass, eventually everybody falls into place.” – Michael Childers, APEX and Lufthansa Systems

The process of delivering cloud-based content to an aircraft’s onboard server can be implemented today, with a Wi-Fi connection at an airline’s terminal. Advanced 5G cellular technology promises to bring the Internet of Things to airline operations and could streamline IFE content delivery. “What we have to develop now is the software that is necessary to change the content integration process, and then find a path through the cloud to the aircraft,” says Childers.

There are, however, parts of the content delivery chain that remain grounded by business rules. When it comes to premium, early-window IFE, the idea of delivering a movie file over the cloud can be taboo. Key to a full transition will be convincing Hollywood studios to put their premium early-window content in the cloud in all phases of the supply chain. For legacy reasons, this has proven to be a challenge and is one of the reasons why there has been such a tight grip on the physical delivery method. Even today, streaming early-window movies to passengers’ devices in an isolated aircraft cabin is not permitted by most studios. So, why would this change in the future?

“For one thing, it’s inevitable,” Childers says. “When the adoption of a particular technology reaches critical mass, eventually everybody falls into place. Somebody made a statement to me that everyone in the entertainment industry is in a mad rush to be second. Nobody ever wants to be first to do anything because they tend to be conservative.”

“Storage in the cloud is not limited, which can help cut time needed for delivering early-window content.” – Alec Henthorne, castLabs

There is no expectancy date as to when content delivery will make a universal leap to the cloud. Regardless, some in the content delivery chain are moving ahead and preparing for the “inevitable” by setting up the baby steps to help the IFE industry on its journey to the cloud.

IdeaNova Technologies, for instance, offers a cloud-based platform for transcoding and encryption, with emphasis on the ability to move content delivery to the cloud partially or in phases – depending on comfort level. “This is an important option as it might better meet some customer expectations as well as increased security requirements requested by studios,” IdeaNova Technologies stated in a press release.   

Axinom makes a similar promise with secure storage for premium video content in on-premise data centers or the cloud, or both. The company also boasts content-syncing capabilities between an aircraft and an airport server for more efficient content delivery.

While APEX’s Technology Committee and companies worldwide continue to work toward cloud-based IFE content delivery solutions, airlines have already embraced cloud computing for a wide range of operational solutions.

High speed, wide bandwidth and stable communications, the low cost of data storage and processing components, and the development of machine learning have all led to the widespread acceptance of the cloud as a viable option to expand, or even eliminate, a costly in-house data center. Data storage and processing requirements have, in many cases, outpaced the ability to keep adding hard drives and additional servers to a company’s IT infrastructure.

Cloud computing also has advantages beyond basic data storage and automation.  “We now offer native functionality, building blocks that you can start to combine in ever-increasing, interesting and sometimes complex ways to create applications – and you haven’t had to write a line of code,” says David Griggs, senior product manager, Media Services, for AWS Elemental.

In 2017, American Airlines (AA), the largest airline in the world, began migrating its critical applications to IBM Cloud, which runs across 60 data centers in 19€¯countries worldwide. “One of the reasons American Airlines chose our cloud is you can replicate your applications across as many data centers as you need for backup and security,” says Greg Land, executive director and global industry leader, Aviation, Hospitality and Travel of IBM. “When an airline’s systems go down even for a couple of hours, it makes global news. The systems are so critical, and that’s why airlines were the most aggressive in pursuing cloud computing.”

AA further uses the cloud for its customer-facing mobile app and check-in kiosks, for dynamic rebooking and creating optimized airport ramp directions for baggage tug drivers to speed up delivery of connecting bags. “We have really seen that we have the ability to move the right workload to the right environment with IBM Cloud,” says Maya Leibman, AA’s chief information officer.

Other airlines, including Emirates, Air Mauritius, Etihad Airways and Finnair, have moved IT infrastructure by utilizing IBM Cloud resources, and gategroup automated more than 60 percent of the catering processes for Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon using the service. Meanwhile, Ryanair and Korean Air have both announced plans to close the majority of their data centers over the next three years, migrating infrastructure to AWS.

Yet, full content delivery over the cloud in all phases still seems untouchable. If the IFE industry could simply cut on-premise hardware from the equation this would help consolidate the many steps in distribution and remove a great deal of cost, says Alec Henthorne, solutions architect at castLabs: “Storage in the cloud is not limited, so processing files can have a quicker turnaround, which can help cut time needed for the potential of delivering early-window content.”

“Journey to the Cloud” was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.