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Activate Opens Network Operations Center

Activate (www.activate.com) announced on Tuesday that it opened a new $20 million network operations center in Seattle — dubbed Activate Grand Central — to handle signal acquisition, storage, encoding, management and streaming for its customers.

Jeff Schrock, CEO and founder of Activate said the center has been long in planning — almost a year since the idea was first put together. The goal, said Schrock, was to increase the capacity of the company's streaming capabilities.

"We built Grand Central to handle thousands of simulcast webcasts," he said. In all, the new facility has increased Activate's capacity about 10 times. "Plus," said Schrock, "we don't have to make capital investments in the future."

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Another benefit is that the center is all digital, so streams are pre-processed before they hit the encoders. "Artifacts are filtered out, so when the encoders encode, it's a pure signal. It makes it look and sound better," Schrock said.

Almost all of the company's streams will be coming into the facility with the exception of some "24x7" streaming, like radio stations.

Wise $20 Million Investment?

The unveiling comes at a time when many companies are tightening their belts, seeking a shorter time to profitability. By many measures, the $20 million price tag seems extravagant. Schrock, however, is confident that it was a good investment. "We made the investment decision a little over year ago, and the company hasn't slowed down, so I don't think it was a bad idea," he said. "It's a sound investment for the future. This plant is going to be in use for the next 10 years, if not longer."

Activate's satellite

Activate's Grand Central launch also comes just weeks after Intel announced it was bowing out of the streaming delivery and services space. Despite the depressed market conditions, Schrock said that Activate hasn't been affected too dramatically. "Intel built their business around entertainment streaming, which from information I know, their clients were not willing to pay for services. Our customers are willing to pay," stressed Schrock.

Intel built its own network center in Oregon last year, just after it entered the streaming market, and was planning on opening another in the U.K. "Intel built their [center] without any customers," said Schrock. "We built ours after 4 years of working with actual customers, doing more webcasts than anyone in the business." Schrock didn't seem too surprised to see Intel drop out. "They weren't the first to fail in webcasting and they won't be the last," he said. "It's very difficult for a large company to come into an emerging market and try to take over. Schrock said that Intel might have been able to stay in streaming if it had a longer time to achieve profitability.

"We're one of the most profitable business in streaming today," he said. "Our investment horizon is much shorter than anyone else's."

No CDNs Here

Interestingly, Activate is one of the few major streaming providers that doesn't have its own content delivery network. But Schrock is quick to point out that in a recent study published by Network World — Yahoo Broadcast! and Activate (which are not CDNs) beat out the big CDN companies.

"While CDNs say they improve quality, third parties prove they don't," he said. One problem, said Schrock, is that much of the content that's supposed to be local, is actually being served from central servers, so customers aren't getting the benefits of CDNs. "Our network performance is outstanding and we spend 1 percent of what those companies spend on their network," he said.

Activate's video wallSchrock did admit that CDNs were good for improving access to large events like last year's Madonna webcast. But generally, Activate isn't interested in becoming a full CDN. "We're very willing to work with business partners, if and when we need to satisfy a job," he said, "but the vast majority of [Activate's] content is only consumed by less than 1,000 people, which doesn't need a CDN."

The Facilities

The digital media center integrates monitoring of satellite acquisition, network operations, quality control and system management.

Doyle Technology Consultants, a system integration architecture firm, worked with Activate throughout the 11-month construction, equipment installation and integration, to modify the building.

When iBEAM opened its network operations center in Silicon Valley last October, president and CEO Peter Desnoes said that the facility showed off its commitment to its customers. Schrock admitted that Activate's new facility plays a similar role calling it "definitely eye opening" and an "impressive site for visitors to see."

The list of equipment includes:

  • 512x512 Wideband A/V digital router
  • 24-bit serial AES Digital Audio
  • 23 satellite dishes with DSS expandability
  • Automated teleconferencing infrastructure12 Telos telephony stations, which handle up to 120 lines
  • 35+ encoding/tape capture stations of varying formats
  • Video pre-processing
  • Uninterruptible power [UPS] backed by 1MW diesel generator

Little Help From Its Friends

Activate wasn't alone in building this new facility. It had help from EMC, Compaq, Microsoft, Cisco and CCC Network Systems.

Mark Leinesh, VP of service provider solutions for Compaq, said that the company helped with both hardware and technology. "[Activate has] hundreds of our dense servers," he said, "which it uses as encoding machines and Windows Media and RealNetworks servers."

Leinesh said that the area of service providers building out data centers for hosting, streaming and edge networks is a very important field. "We have a lot to offer," he said, talking about its storage, server and services. "Service providers are a critical market and streaming media is an area we see ripe for growth."

No doubt Activate is seeing a lot of growth. In 2000, the company said it delivered 100 million streams and had over 20,000 webcasts.

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