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16 December 2021

Appear’s server-based Neo launch arrives with questions of cloud’s carbon

Norwegian broadcast technology vendor Appear was planning for IBC to be the stage on which it would unveil its new Neo line of server-based products – an evolution from the bespoke appliance offerings that have served its remote broadcast customer base for so many years.

It was to be a big stage, festooned with the new corporate branding, to announce Neo to the world. But, alas, as we know, IBC did not go ahead, and so Appear did not get the chance to introduce some 30 new hires, swelling the count to some 170, to the rest of the industry. Appear’s CEO Thomas Jørgensen tells Faultline that the cancellation hurt, and when flipping the interview dynamic to ask us if any virtual events have been adequate replacements for in-person affairs, we unfortunately did not have an answer for him.

Appear has made its name on the back of its hardware appliances, used in the contribution market, to transport video feeds from the field back into the production workflow. The X units are designed for the field, with the XC platform intended for the head-ends, bringing all those feeds together.

However, the new Neo offering is an evolution of the X approach, moving from the bespoke appliance platform to a more general-purpose server platform – featuring CPU and GPU resources. Jørgensen explained that the X and XC lines are assembled in Norway, with Appear adding the software on top. For the Neo line, essentially the servers arrive ready for the software, and do not require any assembly.

Jørgensen said the Neo line combines Appear’s pedigree in hardware with the scalability of servers, which gives customers a plug-and-play option that does not require specialist knowledge for deployment. So, will this set the stage for a full migration away from hardware and into the SaaS and cloud-based realm?

Jørgensen said that this would entirely depend on the customer type; that there is a full range from uniquely bespoke appliances to fully cloud-based. Appear is expanding into the latter, but has no desire to leave behind its core strength in hardware. Jørgensen confirmed Appear is investing heavily, and that there are interesting projects in Appear’s labs.

Appear has not yet been afflicted by the supply chain crunches, but Jørgensen said it has been much harder than usual to maintain an adequate supply of components, which will apparently continue into 2022 – warning that companies need to maintain a long horizon to ensure a tidy supply chain.

There has been a lot of customer interest in new codecs, said Jørgensen, but very few customers are demanding support for the likes of VVC or AV1 at the moment. This is not particularly surprising, as those in the contribution market tend to be very conservative about their technology choices, and do not want to risk an outage during a live event. Jørgensen says there has been a strong surge in demand for live events and outdoors production, outside of the main driver that is sports.

Another prominent customer angle is concern with sustainability and the impact that the video industry has on the environment. Appear has just launched a whitepaper on the subject, where one of its largest customers, a European tier 1 telco, carried out an investigation into the matter.

Jørgensen stressed that these are not Appear’s numbers, and so it could not validate them entirely, but that it was very interesting to see how a very dense hardware approach like Appear’s compares to the cloud-based approach. The telco examined the performance of encoding a UHD channel.

The big claim is that Appear’s approach produces around half a ton of CO2 emissions, while the cloud-based leading competitor’s emissions are over 20 tons. In terms of e-waste per year, Appear hits 4 kg, while the competitor hits 168 kg, while power consumption per channel is 168W per channel for Appear but over 1200W for the competitor.

In terms of rack units (RUs) per channel, Appear scores 0.4 while the rival hits 8, and in terms of weight, Appear hits less than 4 kg with the rival on over 84 kg. Finally, in cardboard packaging, Appear is at around 10 kg, while the rival is at 231 kg.

The metrics are very favorable for Appear, and Jørgensen wants to get the word out about the findings. Faultline’s sister service, Rethink TV, has plans to examine the environmental impact of video streaming, and understands the complexities of evaluating different technological decisions.

In the remote production realm, transporting equipment around between sites is one of the largest indirect costs, in both fuel expenditure and carbon emissions. Technologists would love to point to a new silicon design that could save on power consumption, but when taking the big-picture view, housing the equipment inside a significantly lighter case or chassis could be the much more pragmatic approach.

In the production world, however, the cloud-first vendors like to make bold claims about their environmental credentials. What the data from this Appear customer suggests is that the hardware-centric world might have a lot of different sticks to beat the cloud-first vendors with, and that is rather a juicy prospect to look forward to, with regards to headlines.

But Appear is ready for a world in which the equipment itself is far less of a concern. The shift from on-prem to cloud data centers, and the embracing of general-purpose hardware running specialist software in Open-RAN, provides a clear example of how the production world will manage that transition. The big question is how the likes of Appear ensure that they leverage incumbent positions to stay at the top of the pile. A peek behind the aforementioned lab doors would answer that.