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.
Latency: The Biggest Hurdle
Latency: The Biggest Hurdle
The biggest problem NBC faced in doing all this was latency. “If NBC did not use our WAAS system, they literally would have had to fly about 400 more people to Beijing-house and feed them and deal with local logistics for more than a month to get this job done,” Kurian said.
In the 450M bps pipeline, about 35M bps is reserved for data transfer, and all the rest is used for video. “Using WAAS, we can accelerate that performance up to near-LAN speeds of about 140M bps. That allows NBC enough speed in the network to keep staff working at home,” Kurian said. “That’s the power of the network.”
NBC leases the fiber-optic pipe across the Pacific Ocean, and Cisco provides a set of its high-capacity routers and WAAS engines on either end to facilitate and speed up all that heavy traffic.
The performance of data transfer over TCP/IP-the Internet pipelines that have been in use since the beginning of the Internet in the 1980s-decays as distance grows, Kurian said.
“When you’re sitting in your office in New York, watching a live broadcast from New Jersey, it looks fine. But when you’re capturing video in China and sending it over a long-distance link, everything slows down to a crawl,” Kurian said.
In the large files going through the pipe, the WAAS system identifies common data that gets re-transmitted repeatedly across the network. WAAS tags this common data and sends it only once, speeding up the transfer.
Cisco also uses its proprietary QOS (quality of service) network virtualization software to “carve up” the bandwidth in the fiber-optic pipes into manageable segments that allow a better flow of data bits, he added.
“So when this is all working together, even though the video is being moved transcontinentally, it looks like it’s working locally,” Kurian said.
Viewers of NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games will be able to use their PCs and laptops to access 2,200 hours of video that they can play back on demand, as well as 3,000 hours of highlights, rewinds, encores and scoring results. Individuals will also be able to watch video and view results on their smart phones.
NBC also owns the exclusive television and IP-casting rights to the next Olympiads in Vancouver (2010) and London (2012). For more information, go here.
A couple of late developments regarding the Olympics coverage have come to our attention.
No. 1: Limelight Networks, Inc. announced that it is providing live and on-demand video streaming services from NBCOlympics.com to MSN.com.
Limelight Networks is the primary CDN for all video content on the “NBCOlympics.com on MSN” web site, which is being produced in partnership by NBC and MSN.
You will have to download Microsoft’s Silverlight video software as a plugin to your browser. It’s free and takes just a few minutes to deploy, but once it’s running, you can watch up to four videos at once — if your computer has enough horsepower.
No. 2: Filtrbox has created a special news monitoring widget for professionals to keep track of their favorite team and sports. The Olympics widget link went live Aug. 7. Check it out here. You simply copy the code and add it to your blog. It’s easier and more precise than Google Alerts.