On Cloud Nine: Innovations in The Media Industry

Recently The Prime View had the privilege to interview Shahar Bar, Senior Vice President, Video Products & Corporate Development at Harmonic Inc., a global company that delivers revolutionary video streaming and broadband solutions to media companies worldwide.

Check out our discussion below and see how Shahar and his teams are maintaining innovation spirit in a highly distributed environment, how cloud adoption will impact the future for the media industry, and constant innovations as a key to pivot business and stay ahead of the competition.

Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

Shahar, you have a tremendous technology background of working at Harmonic for over two decades. Could you tell us about the steps you have taken that have led you to your current position? Also, what are you responsible for right now? 

I have been with Harmonic for over 20 years. I started out in R&D and engineering. Later I moved on into Product Marketing roles. I got involved in many of our mergers and acquisitions – there was a period a few years ago, we did quite a few mergers and acquisitions. We have two main divisions in the company. I oversee the video division from a product perspective, from a business development perspective, from a strategy perspective, and all our corporate development activities.

What kind of individuals you’re looking to bring to Harmonic to foster the right innovation culture?

Harmonic is truly a global company with over 1500 employees. Less than 20% of them are located in the United States – we have a large percentage of employees worldwide, in Asia, and Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America. So, when I interview people for my team, I always look for a couple of traits. The first one is creativity, and the second one being disruptive, or have a background of an entrepreneur, which basically means that you’re looking for disruption. I strongly believe those are key to innovation because technology evolves rapidly. Having that ability to disrupt, to look at things differently is key to keeping an innovative culture.

Shahar Bar

Senior Vice President, Video Products & Corporate Development at Harmonic Inc.

That’s a great answer. While researching Harmonic’s products and services before this interview, I could see that you have R&D centers in the US, France, Israel, Ukraine, and Hong Kong. How do you maintain a highly innovative spirit in that distributed environment? 

It’s a good question. At Harmonic, we have developed an international R&D force, which is over 600 engineers, and it is, as you mentioned, in five different main locations. 

To get that to work, we adapted some of the tools that everybody’s now familiar with, such as Zoom,  box.com, JIRA, and so on. Those are tools that we had vetted long before we ever heard of COVID-19. And we’ve been using those tools extensively. So, to some extent, while for many companies, it was the first time, when they only started using them in 2020, we were very familiar with all of them long before. That helped a lot with our infrastructure of collaboration.

To answer your question directly, over the years, we found that engineers from many different cultures, different backgrounds all have one common thing – they love to work on the latest technology. And if you allow the engineering teams to work on breakthrough technology on the cutting edge of what they’re doing in the industry, they get exceptionally excited, exceptionally motivated, and they tend to accelerate their development and their innovation.

That seems to be the biggest common theme across all of them, and it doesn’t matter from an engineer is from Kyiv, Hong Kong, or the West Coast here in the US; they all love to work on the latest tech.

Do you feel that having the infrastructure in place gave you a head start being better prepared for the COVID-19 crisis?

I think it’s true. Of course, nobody was prepared for COVID-19. It affected all of us as human beings, as parents, as families, and as workers. After all, there was a big change, but we had the infrastructure in place, and that made the transition for us, as a company, easier. Besides, the fact that we do a lot of our development on the public cloud made it also much easier to continue development because you can do your development on the public cloud, whether you’re actually physically in the office or whether you’re sitting at home, in your living room.

The challenge with streaming content over the Internet is the lack of sufficient bandwidth. Could you share with our audience how Harmonic addresses this obstacle?

This is a huge challenge, and we’ve been dealing with bandwidth challenges for many years. In the early days, 20 years ago, the challenge was how to manage satellite bandwidth in an optimized manner, or how to manage your spectrum and your physical bandwidth in a cable plant. 

Today, in the world of streaming, we manage it in two different ways. On the one hand, we have our cable division, which develops a software-oriented broadband solution called CableOS® for access networks. And being software turned out to be a significant value add during the pandemic because the ease to increase capacity essentially meant just increasing your software setup, which is much easier than physical deployments. And that made a huge difference. So, the fact that we run a software-based broadband architecture made it extremely helpful for many of our cable customers during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the other part of streaming is the content itself, the actual movies, the videos, the live sporting events. And in that area, we’ve developed technology to minimize the bandwidth that flows on the networks. We utilize artificial intelligence to do that. We use AI to compress the video into a smaller file size while making it in a way where humans cannot detect the savings, so the human eye won’t be able to detect the changes. This technology is developed together with artificial intelligence and machine learning. And this technology was deployed very rapidly in 2020, during the pandemic.

It would be exciting to hear Harmonic’s journey to the cloud. When did you realize that the cloud was the next big thing? How did you manage to leverage the benefits of the cloud for your products and offerings?

I think we started that main transition around 7-8 years ago. We started looking at our next-generation technology and decided, which at that time may have seemed a little bit premature, to bet on the technology of containers, microservices, and Kubernetes. While today, that may seem obvious, it was absolutely far from obvious back then; it wasn’t clear that those were the dominant technologies of the future. We chose these technologies because we felt that we could use them for our existing customers and deployed as an appliance that we shipped, but we also can deploy the technology in the public cloud – for innovators and early adopters in the market that were willing to try and test the media and the video workflows in the public cloud.

At that time, we focused on one software stack, using containers, microservices, and Kubernetes infrastructure to deploy services both for our traditional customers who wanted traditional servers and the new adopters, who were willing to try things in the cloud. While it seemed like a big, bold decision, and there were many pros and cons going in different directions, we did go with that decision. Today it pays dividends because it’s clear that the cloud is the dominant platform of the future for many industries, not just the media industry. For us, the fastest-growing product we have in the video division is our VOS®360 cloud streaming platform. Now we can say that the big decision we took eight years ago was foundational.

I can see that your products largely utilize AI. Could you elaborate a little bit more on Harmonic’s AI strategy and how it will impact your products and services in the future?

In general, AI is a big theme that will affect every industry, from banking to health to media. And in our industry, we are getting impacted by AI quite significantly. 

In the short term, there are two AI areas having a profound impact on the video industry. One is, as I mentioned, the world of compression. How to compress videos into a more efficient form? AI can watch millions of hours of video much faster than we can as humans, and it can perform better results and learn faster than we can. So that’s one area. The other area is the whole world of streaming is intertwined with advertisements and personalization. The content that you watch, the content that I watch, is very personal today in streaming. Also, the advertisements that you get and that I get are going to be different. And that back-end the decision engine, which crunches all that data and decides who gets to watch what. It’s basically all driven by machine learning procedures. A huge emphasis has been placed on this in the industry, and it is having a profound impact on the media industry. That impact will be felt for many years, if not forever.

5G is getting to be adopted around the globe. What impact will it have on your industry? Can you envision any new use cases that haven’t been available due to network technology limits?

So, there are short-term benefits resulting from 5G; because of 5G, governments are allocating spectrum to some wireless carriers and taking it away from others. That tends to affect many of our customers, and many of them are being forced to move infrastructure from one area to the other.

Though the real impact of 5G, at a very high level, is somewhat similar to the COVID-19 crisis – it accelerated a trend that was already in place. These are the trends in clouds, the trends in streaming, the trends in e-commerce. Many trends were already underway, and COVID-19 just gave them an acceleration, a booster. What happened in one year should have happened over five years, shrinking it to a much shorter timeframe.

When 5G gets deployed at its full capacity, not in the early deployments as it is now, it will profoundly impact the media industry. There will be a generational shift from traditional broadcast to streaming. That’s a generational shift like the shift from landlines to mobile phones; it didn’t happen overnight. That shift took 20 years, and now everybody has a mobile phone, and most people don’t have a landline. 

Broadcast to streaming will take a very long time, a generation of time. But 5G, when it’s fully deployed, will basically be a major accelerator to that process, and streaming will explode even more than what we see today. 5G will accelerate the existing trends dramatically in the media industry.

What do you consider Harmonic’s main differentiator in the market? 

I’ve been with Harmonic, as you mentioned earlier, for over 20 years. One of our company’s unique capabilities is the team’s ability to pivot. We have pivoted the business several times in the 20 plus year timeframe. And that’s not easy. Many amazing companies start out with a certain product, disrupt a certain industry, and have tremendous success, but once they reach a sort of a ceiling, kind of a glass ceiling, they struggle to reinvent themselves.

At Harmonic, we have a unique DNA, where we can reinvent ourselves every few years and be relevant for, and pioneers in, the next round of technological innovation. That’s our biggest differentiator as a company. In both of our divisions, we have reinvented ourselves several times and are doing so right now. And that’s a tribute to some of the brilliant people in our company that are able to see the trends and make those bets that make us successful. I would say that our biggest strength is to see a little bit forward and to move in the right direction.

So, who do you consider your main competition? And whether you have to compete with any open source solutions on the market?

Historically we’ve had four or five main competitors that we would compete against day in and day out. Some are strong in one region, and some are strong in one market. What’s a little bit different going into the future is the existence of the cloud companies. The cloud companies are so strong, so powerful, that after they launched their infrastructure, basic compute, networking, and storage, they’re now moving on to higher value-added services and as a result, they will become our longer term competitors as they offer video infrastructure as a foundational service on their cloud. It is our job to out innovate them in this specific area.

So, what can you do at Harmonic to stay ahead of the competition? 

The one good thing about technology, in contrast to some of the other industries, is incumbency. If you’re the existing supplier of existing infrastructure, you won’t retain or keep the customer unless you continuously innovate. In contrast to more traditional industries, where you can sometimes stay the supplier for 10-20 years, in technology, if you don’t show innovation in 1-2 years, they will replace you very rapidly. And that is the positive side of technology. 

Continuously innovating your solutions and your products is the only way to maintain your success.

If you out-innovate everybody in the areas that you decide to focus on, you can be extremely successful. That innovation can be in the technology itself. It can also be in your sales and your go-to-market strategy. Innovation is fundamental in the media industry but a little bit different from some traditional industries. That’s the fun part of tech – you can grow fast, but you can also lose your customers fast. But if you innovate, you should be able to succeed.

Shahar, thank you for your commitment to revolutionizing the game for the media industry with powerful technology driven products and solutions.

Stay tuned for the next interviews!