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Authentication Remains a Challenge, and Not Just for Streaming

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So you’ve just paid $100 to watch the “Fight of the Century” with your buddies. And when you turn on the TV, you see … nothing.

Meanwhile, ringside in a faraway city, everything is on hold, while technicians there—plus probably a few at an edge location closer to your viewing locale—are scrambling to get the technology updated so you and the much-largerthan- expected viewing audience can watch the much-hyped pay-per-view (PPV) sporting event.

While this scenario could easily be one that live streaming technicians lose sleep over, it turns out that it’s the traditional media delivery companies—cable, fiber, and satellite providers— that have egg on their faces for the Mayweather vs. Pacqauio fight. HBO and Showtime —two of the fight’s sponsors—probably anticipated a large audience, but not that the fight would be held up for almost 45 minutes to address the technology issues facing those who tried to authenticate their PPV purchase.

Even those who tried to purchase PPV access beforehand encountered problems, including Twitter users who pointed out they tried to purchase access almost a week in advance.

Ironically, HBO and Showtime did their best to stamp out illicit streaming, including limiting streams from outside the U.S.—a technique called geofencing, which is semi-effective unless a non-U.S. user tunnels into the U.S. and then makes the request—as well as knocking out illegal sites offering the fight.

Dwelling on these authentication issues isn’t intended to be a slight to either sponsor, but it is a reminder that authentication and rights management tend to be major issues, whether for a traditional PPV event or an on-demand streaming event.

Streaming Media contributing editor Dom Robinson offered insight into this topic during a consulting project he and I worked on. In the report, released internally to a global television and streaming provider, we talked about the planning required for live content access and the importance of intelligent routing request (IRR) technology.

Without strong IRR capability, including a hardened on-ramp database solution, the tendency in a PPV scenario—be it a concert, game, or other major event—will be for too many requests to be authenticated through a few key servers.

Typically there are two ways to deliver request routing: passive and intelligent. Passive request routing scales very well, as all edge servers can be listed and the end user is connected to the content at any one of the listed nodes. This is inefficient for the operator, though, as provisioning a live stream for all server locations can be time-consuming and create unnecessary layers of redundancy.

Failure issues with passive request routing tend to show up at two major points: the start of a live event and—in the case of a large sporting event—just after some major event occurs on the field.

At the start of an event, everyone wants to join at the same time, so this bottleneck presents a major issue. In an IRR approach, each user request is evaluated through some business logic in the supervisor layer, routing a user to an optimal server from which to serve that session. Key business intelligence criteria might include geography, rights, availability, resilience, latency, or even localization for alternate or local languages.

Yet, even if the edges and bandwidth capacity is in place to deal with the largest volume, often times an IRR platform isn’t designed at a granular level to handle massive scale. If an event suddenly generates interest from 10,000 or more viewers—well within the bounds of a major sporting event, even the Fight of the Century—the logic that steers an IRR request may not be granular enough to route many thousands of requests in a very short period of time to less-utilized servers.

If this happens, all users will suffer connection problems. There are ways around it, but we can find solace in the fact that the fight for mastery of seamless authentication might just be in the first round.

This "Streams of Thought" column appears in the July/August issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "It's Not Just Us."

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