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iStreamPlanet, Intel and Switch Communications Go for Online Gold

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[Note: Streaming Media publishes vendor-submitted case studies such as this one based solely upon our assessment of their value to our readers.]

Whether they were following alpine skiing, figure skating, luge, hockey, snowboarding, or other events, millions of people watched the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games on their computers. iStreamPlanet was selected by NBC and Microsoft to manage content acquisition, encoding, and publishing of live and on-demand video for the games. To build the digital media infrastructure required for this massive undertaking, the company partnered with Intel and co-location services provider Switch Communications. The new infrastructure uses servers based on the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series to provide the raw compute performance, memory, and I/O bandwidth required to deliver an outstanding online media experience.


Maximize performance. Adopt a processing architecture that can provide robust performance for encoding 30 live video feeds in HD at six different bitrates and then publish live and on-demand video
for millions of viewers-all while helping to create a dense, energy-efficient hardware infrastructure.
Deploy the infrastructure fast. Design and implement the new infrastructure within 2 weeks.


Servers with Intel Xeon processors. iStreamPlanet selected servers with the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series to deliver the raw compute power, memory, and the I/O bandwidth needed to process Olympic Games video. The "origin" servers that ingest and publish the video are part of the Switch|Cloud Agile Infrastructure created by Switch Communications and reside at the Switch SuperNAP, the world's most powerful data center.


  • Fast deployment. By providing engineering expertise and rapidly acquiring components from multiple vendors, Intel helped iStreamPlanet and Switch Communications design and deploy the new infrastructure within 2 weeks-in plenty of time for the opening ceremony.
  • Outstanding viewing experience. The new Intel processor-based servers deliver significantly better performance than those used for previous iStreamPlanet projects. Viewers enjoyed high-quality video and exceptional responsiveness for their online experience.
  • New opportunities. This high-profile project could drive continued customer growth for both iStream Planet and Switch Communications.

After successfully providing millions of viewers with live streaming and on-demand video from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, NBC television and Microsoft decided to team up with iStreamPlanet once again to deliver online media for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. iStreamPlanet turned to Switch Communications to help design, build, and manage the infrastructure required for this project. Switch owns and operates seven co-located facilities in Nevada, including the SuperNAP, a massive data center that houses mission-critical applications for top-tier global organizations.

The SuperNAP hosted the "origin" servers that ingested encoded video and then published that video live, slightly delayed (to allow for ad insertions), and on demand. "Switch's SuperNAP facility was the clear choice for hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games origin infrastructure," says Mio Babic, chief executive officer of iStreamPlanet. "We had worked with Switch for several years, and we knew that by building the infrastructure in the SuperNAP facility, we could capitalize on the cost-effective telecom bandwidth, redundancy, and security we needed for an event of such stature and importance."

The Switch team also offered the data center expertise required for designing and deploying the new infrastructure fast. "Our timeline was extremely aggressive," says Babic. "We had just 2 weeks to build an infrastructure that would be capable of delivering live and on-demand video for millions of viewers. We knew that Switch could help us assemble the right technology partners and get the system up and running quickly."

Wanted: A High-Performance Processing Architecture

iStreamPlanet needed a processing architecture that could deliver the raw compute power and memory bandwidth required for both encoding and publishing content. Outstanding compute performance was essential for quickly encoding video at numerous bitrates. "With the adaptive streaming technology we are using for this event, video quality is adjusted dynamically on a per-user basis depending on the bandwidth and the CPU resources available," explains Babic. "For the Olympic Games, we needed processors that could quickly encode 1080p HD content in up to six different bitrates to accommodate a variety of user settings."
Choosing an architecture that could accommodate sufficient memory and I/O bandwidth was also crucial for providing a responsive on-demand experience. "If users want to pause or rewind on-demand video, they expect the player to respond immediately, like their home DVR," says Babic. "We needed a processing architecture for the origin servers that could keep a substantial amount of data cached in memory so users would achieve that responsive playback experience."

Intel Xeon Processors Become the Olympic Games Standard

After evaluating numerous processors from multiple vendors, the iStreamPlanet team selected the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series for both the encoding and origin servers. "The Intel Xeon processor 5500 series delivered far superior performance to the other processors we tested," says Babic. "With this series, we had the processing performance for encoding video quickly and the memory bandwidth for caching large amounts of data. We even had processing headroom, so we could encode for additional bitrates if necessary. It was clear that these Intel processors would deliver the best possible media experience for the Olympic Games and beyond."

The Switch team fully supported the choice. "Nearly all of our customers select Intel processors for the servers they run in our co-location facilities," says Jeff Ames, chief technology officer at Switch. "The Intel Xeon processor 5500 series was the right choice for providing the performance iStreamPlanet needed while enabling us to build a dense, energy-efficient infrastructure that fits in well with the SuperNAP facility."

Switch and iStreamPlanet Build the Infrastructure in a Cloud

Switch and iStreamPlanet decided to integrate the servers and storage needed for the origin environment into Switch's new Switch|Cloud Agile Infrastructure. The Switch|Cloud, which resides within the SuperNAP, provides organizations with a flexible and scalable computing option. "We created the Switch|Cloud to help organizations accommodate occasional demand spikes or complete short-term projects without having to buy and maintain their own hardware," says Ames. "Using the Switch|Cloud for the Olympic Games, iStreamPlanet can access the resources it needs while benefiting from the bandwidth, pricing, density, energy-efficiency, and security that the SuperNAP offers."

The Olympic Games infrastructure includes encoding servers plus mirrored origin systems. The encoders process 30 live video feeds in HD at six different bitrates. Servers in the origin environment then ingest the material, publish live content, publish delayed content, and host the video-on-demand content. These origin servers use the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Enterprise R2 operating system and run Microsoft IIS Media Services 3.0 along with iStreamPlanet's Video Workflow Automation Services, which help create and control the publishing of live and on-demand video.

The New Infrastructure Is Deployed in Less Than 2 Weeks

With help from the Intel team, Switch and iStreamPlanet were able to build the new origin infrastructure within just 2 weeks. "The Intel team was instrumental in helping us meet our deadlines," says Babic. "They provided key engineering advice and worked with multiple vendors, including Arista Networks and Juniper Networks, to help us acquire the necessary components in time."

The Intel team provided design guidance for several aspects of the infrastructure, including storage. "We needed 18TB of storage for each of the video-on-demand origin systems so we could store more than 1,000 hours of content," says Babic. "The Intel engineers recommended disk drives that would complement the Intel processors, and they helped us deploy the right mix of drivers to deliver the high-performance I/O required for live streaming and the robust reliability for video on-demand."

The Intel engineers also helped resolve a crisis within the network interface cards (NICs). "We wanted to team the adapters to provide greater I/O bandwidth needed to support a large number of live video streams, but the NICs initially supplied with the servers just could not deliver the performance we needed. With our deadline approaching, we needed a solution fast," says Babic. "The Intel team offered to provide Intel Gigabit
Dual Port Server Adapters. Within 48 hours, we had the NICs on site, and with help from Intel, we teamed the adapters and surpassed our performance requirements. It was a tremendous testament to Intel products and the Intel team's level of commitment."

Intel Processors Help Deliver Exceptional Media Experience

Pregames testing suggested that the new Intel Xeon processors would deliver more efficient processing and ultimately a better online media experience than what was achieved with previous processors. "Moving to the Intel Xeon processor 550 series, we saw an immediate and significant improvement in encoding and the delivery of adaptive streaming compared with the previous architectures we've used," says Babic. "In the past, we needed two servers to encode a single video feed at six bitrates. Now we can use only one. We are achieving significant resource and cost savings while also delivering a much better user experience."

Dense, Energy-Efficient Infrastructure Helps Control Costs

The Intel Xeon processors also helped the iStreamPlanet and Switch teams build a dense, energy-efficient infrastructure within the SuperNAP. "We want to make sure that we are as environmentally conscious as possible. And, of course, building a dense, energy-efficient infrastructure not only helps the environment, it also enables us to reduce costs," says Babic. "These Intel Xeon processors enable us to achieve a high level of performance in a very small space. We might have needed twice as many encoders and twice as many origin servers, with two times the power and networking equipment, if we had chosen a different processing architecture."

Olympic Games Open New Communities

Switch CEO and founder Rob Roy says this project highlights the tremendous potential for cloud services not only for digital media but also for a full range of other applications. "We are very proud to have worked with iStreamPlanet, Intel, and other best-of-breed technology partners to help deliver an outstanding online experience for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games," says Roy. "We have built a powerful infrastructure here that can serve as a benchmark for building and using cloud services, and we anticipate that more and more organizations, in a variety of fields, will see the value of the cloud."

The iStreamPlanet team certainly sees an opportunity for using cloud computing to expand its customer base. "By delivering media services through a cloud environment, our company can take on more large-scale projects without having to buy and manage a huge infrastructure ourselves," says Babic. "Instead of serving only 50 to 100 clients, we can now serve thousands. With Intel and Switch, we're building a new business model that will change the way the digital media world operates."

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