Infrastructure Growing Pains Hit XM Satellite Radio

It's one thing to convince people to change the way they listen to radio - it's another to build the technology infrastructure to support that growth once they do.

In XM Satellite Radio Inc.s rise from relative obscurity to a household name serving 4.4 million subscribers in less than four years of broadcasting, the companys one constant has been change.

Trying to change the way people listen to radio was a tall order, but an even bigger challenge was preparing for the growth of the satellite radio concept and building a technology infrastructure that would support that growth.

Thanks to savvy planning and tight technology partnerships, XM has helped to radically transform the audio and digital landscape in the consciousness of consumers, and its IT infrastructure has so far kept up with the growth that is showing no signs of slowing.

XMs technology nestles as comfortably aboard major airliners and in the hands of the U.S. military as in a Volkswagen or a dorm room. With sales of XM radio units trailing only those of DVD players among consumer products sold in the United States, the Washington company seeks 20 million subscribers by 2010.

In addition, XM is growing at a rate greater than cable or television or its other airwave-transmission predecessors, according to research company Greystone Communications Group Inc.

"When youre adding 3 million subscribers per year, that is a huge challenge to scale the infrastructure, scale the people and scale the application," said Frank Patry, vice president of IT for XM Satellite Radio, wholly owned by XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. "With business growing this fast, there is no road map to follow ... by looking at other businesses. This is one of those things [that] if you ever get behind, youll never catch up."

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Although its current popularity may suggest otherwise, the concept of popularizing satellite radio transmissions and receivers gained little traction early on against cheaper, more easily accessible free audio alternatives. Still, it fell upon the shoulders of the companys executive team, made up of former cellular and cable employees, to design a system and data center capable of sustaining projected growth and technology demands.

"We had a timeline [designating] when we would enable capabilities," said Patry. "So, for example, launching the business didnt require analytics—there wasnt anything to analyze.

But in three years, capabilities able to do business intelligence and data warehousing had to be enabled to support the type of decision making we would have to make as to what additional channels we bring on. [We asked ourselves,] Do we do business-to-business or Web-based streaming? You need additional tools to do that."

The infrastructure had to offer telecommunications-grade support and provisioning, be able to accommodate anticipated subscriber growth, and have subscriber-activation capabilities, Patry said.

The first step in building XMs technology center included the purchase of a 100-year-old building in downtown Washington that had been a printing company. The facility was retrofitted to become what Patry describes as a stylized music factory.

In the core of the building, the data center was designed to house XMs technology and operations center, including broadcasting equipment, IT for uplink management and repeater network hardware for satellite radio transmission delivery in 70 markets.

XMs data center and technology decisions underpin three primary tenets: creating and maintaining a scalable software and hardware infrastructure, enabling flexibility to support existing and new technology, and keeping costs in line.

From the beginning, the companys strategy was to institute a building-block approach to grow the data center in 1-million-subscriber chunks. In three years, XM has gone from departmental servers to enterprise-class platforms.

Next Page: Partners important to XM Satellite.