NBC Broadcasts Olympics via Cisco Video Backbone

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-08-07 Print this article Print

The network is using Cisco Systems' IP video network infrastructure and video encoding software to distribute its Olympic coverage from China-through the same virtual pipe-to televisions, PCs and smart phones around the world.

NBC may have all the cameras, cables, on-air talent and back-scene technicians over in Beijing for the 29th Summer Olympiad, but Cisco Systems and Omneon are the IT companies serving up all that sports video to the outside world.

By the time the Games end on Aug. 24, somewhere between 2,900 and 3,600 hours of high-definition video will have been broadcast to the television network and to millions of desktop, laptop and handheld screens.

No one can be more specific about the actual airtime, because it is simply a best guess that depends upon the length of each competition, the weather and the amount of coverage each event ultimately receives from producers.

Whatever the total airtime is, it will be more than the entire television airtime from all previous televised Olympiads (since Rome in 1960) combined.

Cisco, the world's largest IP networking hardware and software company, is providing its IP video network backbone to enable this coverage. Virtually all of the video will travel through transcontinental fiber-optic cable from mainland China to Los Angeles and New York City, where it will be edited and broadcast in a mammoth programming effort involving hundreds of producers, editors and technicians.

Cisco's WAAS (Wide Area Application Services) infrastructure enables NBC personnel in New York and Los Angeles to capture video, voice and data in Beijing and deliver it through the same virtual pipe to three kinds of screens: televisions, PCs and smart phones.

One Pipe for Video, Voice and Data 

"NBC's strategy is based on an end-to-end Cisco architecture, built on top of Cisco routers and video encoding systems, as well as our WAN [wide-area network] acceleration technology, the Cisco WAAS," George Kurian, vice president and general manager of Cisco's applications delivery business unit, told me.

"This uses some key innovations: The first and most important is a single, unified network fabric built around the Cisco 12000 router. It's a 450M bps network combining real-time high-definition broadcast contribution video, voice and data from the points of creation into the studios in New York and Los Angeles."

The system transports all that video, plus TelePrompTer script content and standard data traffic, through the same fiber-optic pipes in real time.

"NBC's custom-designed application tracks and documents literally millions of assets down to the individual camera and production equipment piece, to coordinate all of the production and logistics around many events," Kurian said. "It has to run flawlessly across various intercontinental links from China to several points in North America."

Omneon and NBC came up with the custom-made application, called proxy-based workflow, to move the multigigabyte-sized files.

"This requires making low-res copies of thousands of hours of competitions that are captured in our storage system in Beijing, and using a product called ProCast-a video acceleration management product that proxies the images over to another media-grid storage server in New York," Matt Adams, vice president of broadcast solutions for Omneon, who previously worked for NBC, told me.

"We also have 40 'at-home' editors-we call them shot-pickers-using a VPN to either New York or LA., who make their shot selections using the proxies. Once they decide which shots they want to make a deliverable piece with, then the system sends the proxies back to Beijing [to NBC's data center headquarters], where the high-res clips are called up from the main arrays to match the [low-res MPG4] proxies that have been selected."

This saves a great deal of time, effort, power and I/O in threading through all the hours of video to be shot. "We'd clog up the [Cisco] data pipes between the at-home editors, New York and Beijing if we didn't use proxies," Adams said.

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on Salesforce.com and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and DevX.com and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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