BBC CTO on moving audiences, moving to Manchester and moving to the cloud

Interview: John Linwood on the changing face of Auntie's tech
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Interview: John Linwood on the changing face of Auntie's tech

The BBC's CTO talks to silicon.com about how the role of technology at the broadcaster is changing

Data moving to the cloud. Operations moving to Manchester. Audiences moving online. There's no doubt the BBC's technology department is witnessing a number of profound transformations.

The man in charge of piloting it through these changes is John Linwood, the corporation's CTO. According to Linwood, tech's star is in the ascendant within the broadcasting industry.

"If we look at our three- to five-year horizon, one of the things we're very clear about is that the role of technology is becoming increasingly important in the media industry and in the BBC specifically," he told silicon.com.

"One of the things we're seeing is a very rapid pace of change in technology which is driving behaviours which historically the BBC hasn't had to deal with, which is tech refreshes are becoming more frequent, technology standards are changing," Linwood said.

This rapid pace of change is most evident in the different ways content is now being distributed.

With TV over the internet now commonplace for many viewers - iPlayer notches up tens of millions of requests per month - audiences now expect web on-demand services to be as reliable and stable as the traditional broadcast equivalent.

BBC Manchester

The move of much of the BBC's operations to Manchester will be taking up a large amount of BBC CTO John Linwood's time in the coming months
(Picture credit: Manky Maxblack via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence)

"For example, a year or two ago, we may have thought about iPlayer as cool and future media. In reality, it's become just standard BBC as far as our audience is concerned and so they expect it to be available, up to date and work across whatever link they're using it on," said Linwood.

And as iPlayer becomes standard BBC, the corporation's infrastructure is coming under greater pressure as a result.

In the old days of analogue where audiences accessed their programming by means of a widely distributed signal, the demands on broadcast infrastructure remained stable no matter how many viewers were watching.

In the days of iPlayer and TV over the web where users request their content directly from the BBC, extra demands are put on Auntie's infrastructure when viewer numbers start to ramp up.

As well as bringing in a whole new set of stresses on infrastructure, internet TV also has an impact on cost. In the analogue broadcast world, the number of people consuming content made no difference to cost. In the online world, it has a huge impact, said Linwood.

"We're having to look at our datacentre strategy, our storage strategy, our networking strategy. We have a number of different projects going on to look at what is the most effective way for the BBC to deliver services."

These challenges will only become greater as events such as the London 2012 Olympics and the next General Election take place. "All of these push the high water mark up in terms of our on-demand and streaming content," he added.

This increase in demand on the BBC infrastructure will mean the corporation is likely to turn to technology such as cloud computing and virtualisation to cope in a cost effective way. By using third parties for such tech, the BBC can avoid investing in infrastructure for a one-off event that it would rarely use the rest of the time.

Cloud computing could also serve as a way for independent production houses to get content into the BBC production system as it increasingly goes tapeless.

With physical tapes being phased out within the BBC, other content producers will need to upload their content digitally to a central location from where it will then be fed into the BBC infrastructure.

Cloud could also come into play as the BBC looks...

...into storage for its efforts around digitising and distributing 70 years worth of archive material and Linwood said he is currently in discussions with cloud providers about potential options.

The BBC CTO is also turning to tech to tackle the difficulties associated with producing content ready for a variety of platforms and is working on a tool for BBC journalists that will allow them to create content that can be distributed across a variety of media.

"The idea of coming in with a piece of tape and then having to produce the output for the news and then having to work on the radio output and then having to work on the online output - that goes away in this new model as journalists will file electronically. That content will immediately be available in many different media formats so that the TV news can take it straight away, the radio news can take it straight away, online can use it," he said.

One of the other priorities for the BBC is a greater focus on local journalism - and technology plays its part here too as the broadcaster revamps its local newsrooms and develops ways to boost the quality of locally produced content.

One example is a small mobile satellite van, currently being tested by the BBC, which allows journalists to create news reports effectively singlehandedly.

The van can set up a wireless network in its vicinity and also has a camera that can be remotely operated meaning editorial staff back at base can take general images and put them online, while the reporter on the spot can do other work, such as conducting interviews.

One of these vehicles is currently being trialled and there are plans to get more of them onto the road in the coming months.

As well as overseeing such tech developments, Linwood is also responsible for the running of its IT operations and is involved in moving a significant amount of the BBC's operations to Manchester's Media City.

The move offers a chance for the BBC to integrate technology much more closely into day-to-day operations, according to Linwood.

"The vision for Manchester is to… roll out the next generation of how the BBC delivers media. It's critically important for the BBC that we start to get technology and creative people working closely together, right up front in developing our strategy," he said.

In an effort to foster such co-operation, Media City will have a more campus-like feel than other BBC offices and sport common workspaces equipped with wireless networking to help staff interact more easily.

Linwood is also working to put in place framework agreements so the technology and associated standards that go into Manchester are replicated elsewhere in the BBC.

"What it means from a BBC perspective is, whether it's journalism and our journalism production tools, whether its production in terms of moving to our tapeless production environment or whether it's just generally the way in which people work, it means that the way in which people will do their jobs will change fundamentally in BBC North and we hope this will create a model for the rest of the BBC," he said.

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