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Behind the Scenes With Windows Azure Media Services: Case Study

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For this, Microsoft deployed the Microsoft Media Platform Video Editor, a browser-based video editor that enabled producers to quickly create and stream highlights from already cached live chunks at the content delivery network (CDN) edge. Unlike most cloud-based editors, which are fairly primitive, the Media Platform Video Editor supports advanced features such as USB jog wheel support, audio rubber banding, panning, track locking, and multiple audio tracks, which is obviously critical for international broadcasts. Using other Azure resources, clips created in the Video Editor could be transcoded for uploading to YouTube and other user-generated content (UGC) sites.

Overall, Azure handled thousands of transcode jobs without individual publishers having to worry about securing the necessary encoding or delivery scalability or fault tolerance. This level of instant scalability was critical to the following mini-case studies.

NBC Sports Group

When the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger was completed in January 2011, the sports-related assets of the two companies were combined into the NBC Sports Group (Figure 4). The new entity contained an array of broadcast and cable channels and digital sports assets, including NBC Sports, NBC Olympics, NBC Sports Network, Golf Channel, 11 NBC Sports Regional Networks, and NBC Sports Radio, as well as all of their respective digital properties. The group also had partnerships with the International Olympic Committee and United States Olympic Committee, the NFL, NHL, PGA TOUR, PGA of America, USGA, Churchill Downs, Premier League, MLS, Tour de France, French Open, Formula One, IndyCar, and more.

Figure 4. One of the many properties of the NBC Sports Group

What the group didn’t have, according to Eric Black, VP of technology for the NBC Sports Group, was uniformity or standardization. “Every business unit had a unique technology stack; origin services, encoding, video workflows. Everyone was doing something differently.”

According to Black, the scale and standardization provided by Azure were two of the most attractive components. “We’re broadcasting 40-60 live events per week, and many use different broadcast standards. The Azure cloud converts these signals into standardized output streams, and then transcodes them in real time to the same bitrate profiles used for both live and video on demand (VOD) streams,” he says.

The highest bitrate stream for all videos, live and VOD, is 6Mbps at 1080p, which is expensive to transmit. As Black explains, however, “[I]t’s less about cost and more about delivering high quality bits. Multiple studies show that high quality video drives engagement and viewing time. For us, 1080p is becoming the standard, though clearly not all viewers can consistently access and play this stream, which is why we offer alternative bitrates optimized for the user’s connection and equipment.”

Architecturally, Azure provides the video encoding and origin services, which were the most significant choke points for NBC. Once the files are encoded and the various packages created, they’re handed off to third-party CDNs for playback using existing multiplatform players.

As with the Olympics, third-party extensions to the Azure platform proved critical to NBC’s deployment. One primary example is iStreamPlanet’s Aventus, a cloud-based platform for delivering live events that’s integrated into the Azure platform. Developed in conjunction with NBC (and other clients), Aventus provides an automated workflow for provisioning hardware, scheduling, quality control, encoding, video workflow, and monitoring; it also has the ability to publish to multiple channels simultaneously. Aventus was designed for use on cloud-based virtual machines, rather than on-premise equipment, so it can instantly scale up and down to meet customer needs.

Overall, while NBC considered multiple cloud technologies, Azure was clearly the frontrunner. As Black explains, “[W]e’ve worked with Microsoft in the past, and they’re always been technology leaders. Azure offers scalability and cutting edge technologies -- both from Microsoft and third party partners -- and we’re confident that we made the right decision.”

European Tour

Where the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger created a problem in need of a solution, the European Tour’s selection of the Azure platform was more an opportunity meeting an existing capability. That is, the European Tour retained significant broadcast rights for its golf footage, but it needed infrastructure to deliver the streams. Having delivered a bulk of the international streams for the 2012 Olympics in London, Microsoft and its U.K. partners had proven their ability to deliver content around the world, and Azure clearly had the capacity. The parties met during the Olympics, discussions ensued and the European Tour choose Azure to deliver the newly acquired live and VOD coverage.

By way of background, the European Tour serves a similar function to the PGA Tour in the United States, broadcasting European Tour golf events around the world (Figure 5). However, where the PGA Tour relies on the television broadcasters to produce the event, the European Tour does its own production, then sells that content to broadcast partners around the globe, which carry the programs live. However, there were 60 countries without broadcast rights that weren’t receiving coverage. In addition, in countries with live TV coverage, there was no way for viewers who missed the event to watch extensive highlights.

Figure 5. The European Tour’s coverage of the Irish Open 

According to Mark Lichtenhein, head of television, digital media, and technology for the European Tour, the tour recently renegotiated with its broadcasters to resolve both issues. Specifically, the tour retained the right to broadcast tour events live in countries without existing broadcasters, and it negotiated the ability to show full-length highlights starting 7 days after the event in countries with existing coverage, which Lichtenhein called “catch up TV.” The tour also negotiated the right to broadcast 500 hours of highlights from years past.

The problem was infrastructure. Up until that point, the tour primarily had broadcast short VOD clips and had no live or large-scale VOD production capabilities. What made the Azure solution so ideal was the ability to use the infrastructure and expertise pulled together for the London Olympics to start delivering the newly enabled streams.

For example, deltatre was one of Microsoft’s partners for the London Olympics. For the new live feeds, the tour directed the broadcast feed from the BT Tower in London to deltatre for encoding and delivery to the Azure origin server. deltatre also provided the Diva player used to play back the streams, which offered viewers the ability to identify and jump to major moments in the event, such as key birdies and bogies.

To create the VOD highlight clips, the tour digitized its tape library of 25 years of events, creating six streams for SD clips, maxing out at 1.5Mbps, and eight streams for HD clips, with a maximum data rate of 3.5Mbps. This digitization not only preserved the previously tape-based content, but it made it easier for the archive department to license footage to third parties.

As with the Olympics, another key benefit of cloud-based production was the ability to edit in the cloud, though the tour uses Forbidden Technologies PLC’s FORScene rather than Microsoft’s Media Platform Video Editor. As Lichtenhein explains, “[N]ews editing was traditionally done locally, and the[n] delivered over the Internet, which can be a huge problem in countries with poor connectivity. Now we have a separate satellite feed for interviews that’s immediately digitized and made available in the cloud. We can edit the footage and send it out for broadcast without it ever existing on someone’s hard drive. Cloud production has simply revolutionized how we do news reporting.”

Whether for scale, standardization, or accessibility to new features such as cloud-based editing, cloud production is a natural choice for episodic large events and for broadcasters who need to spin up significant new capabilities in a short period of time. Judging from the results at the Olympics, and the kudos we received from NBC and the tour, Microsoft’s Azure Media Services should be considered by all organizations seeking these benefits.

This article appears in the August/September 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Case Study: Behind the Scenes With Windows Azure Media Services."

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