'Insatiable Demand' for Streaming Video Puts Pressure on Providers

Just as enterprise network managers brace for the flood of bandwidth-consuming content stemming from the NCAA men's basketball tournament, content delivery providers put in a significant amount of time preparing to meet the meteoric rise in demand.

This kind of preparation is something that many believe content delivery providers will need to get used to, as demand for live streaming of major events is growing far beyond the confides of March Madness.

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Scott Boyarski, vice president of technology for Turner Sports Media, whose jointly sponsored NCAA March Madness Live online streaming service saw 26.7 million unique visits and 10.3 million hours of streaming video in the first three rounds of the 2011 tournament, says initial preparations for this year's tournament began in late November. As much work goes into supporting this two-week event as does for the launch of the entire regular season, Boyarski says.

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"With the complexity with an event like this, you have a short window where you're delivering [for] high expectation on a very finite amount of time, and on top of that, fast-motion sports is not like news or canned entertainment," Boyarski says. "This is live sports. It takes a lot prep to get it right."

Boyarski, as well as Turner Sports vice president of new products and services Michael Adamson, has spent much of his time lately in Turner's digital control room, which he says is comparable to that of a broadcast television operations center. There, Adamson says about two dozen professionals are on-hand "to monitor every aspect of the live product," which goes beyond maintaining the streaming broadcast and entails monitoring analytics, server loads, CDN loads and performance across the board.

"The way we prepare for it is we're constantly hardening our infrastructure platforms," Boyarski says. "We're constantly fine-tuning and dialing our different tiers to ensure smooth delivery no matter the load."

However, the crowning of a tournament champion hardly means champagne and celebrations for Turner's content delivery team, which will have to quickly prepare for the next big thing.

Bill Wheaton, senior vice president and general manager for Akamai's media division, which worked with Turner to help maintain the online streaming service, says March Madness' inconvenient schedule for consumers makes it seem like the pinnacle for online streaming. In reality, it's just the latest in a long-running calendar of individual events that generate consistent growth in demand for constant access.

"It's more of a wave that's coming up that you just see building and building," Wheaton says. "People are getting used to access to that. And then on top of that, add more broadband, add more connectivity through the wireless networks, add more devices like the iPhone and the iPad, and all of a sudden you just see more and more people beginning to watch it on screens [of all types]."

Wheaton points to the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, in which more than 5% of viewers for coinciding games for the U.S. and England watched online, as a turning point for this trend. Since then, the number of smartphone owners in the U.S. has nearly doubled - from 53.4 million in July 2010 to 101.3 million in January 2012, according to comScore - while growing social networks have made it easier for consumers to share links to online streaming services.

This year alone Akamai has seen an "insatiable demand" for online streaming of live events, Wheaton says. It began with the Super Bowl in February, which broke online streaming records for an individual event with 2.1 million unique viewers, continued straight through other events like the Academy Awards and the NBA All Star Game, and will remain on-pace with the upcoming Masters Golf Tournament and the Kentucky Derby.

As consumers become more comfortable with online streaming of live events, the pressure will be on broadcasters to meet rising demand, Wheaton says.

"Their expectations are rising, along with the devices that are getting better," Wheaton says. "So everyone just has to get better."

Beyond preparing for scheduled live events, Adamson says Turner is also constantly keeping an eye toward unexpected news stories that will undoubtedly demand higher bandwidth.

This capability was tested substantially last March, when both the Tsunami in Japan and President Obama's announcement of U.S. involvement in uprisings in Egypt coincided with the NCAA tournament. Turner's digital operations team, which also supports CNN.com, had to be flexible enough to support high bandwidth on multiple fronts and for different audiences. It's an effort that Turner will likely need to put forth once again this year, Adamson says.

"This year we have the primaries going on leading up to the elections," he says. "At any moment, something's going to break on the Internet and in the news cycle that consumes a lot of bandwidth because a lot of people want to see what's going on."

In this regard, there is no end in sight. Flexibility and high performance of streaming services will only become more important in the next few years, as smartphones, tablets and internet-enabled televisions find their way into the hands of even more consumers, Wheaton says.

"As you look out four to five years, what we do know is that the volume of video that people will watch over IP is going to explode," Wheaton says. "So that's going to be a big game changer. Now that the television, the PC, the tablet and the phone all have ubiquitous access and the ability to have continuity between devices as you access that video, that's going to really drive consumption up for consumers."

Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, follow him on Twitter: @ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin's email is cneagle@nww.com.

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