How the London Olympics broadcast through the cloud

Original author: ScottGu
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Earlier this year, we announced Windows Azure Media Services . Windows Azure Media Services is a cloud-based PaaS solution that allows you to efficiently build media services and deliver media content to your consumers. The solution offers a set of ready-to-use services that allow you to quickly receive media material, coding, format conversion, storage, content protection and video delivery both in live format and on demand. Windows Azure Media Services also supports the delivery of content to any device or platform, including: HTML5, Silverlight, Flash, Windows 8, iPad, iPhone, Android, Xbox and Windows Phone.

Windows Azure Media Services and London 2012 Olympics


The past few weeks, Windows Azure Media Services has been used to deliver real-time and on-demand video streams to several broadcasters that broadcast the Olympic Games. Among them: France Télévisions, RTVE (Spain), CTV (Canada) and Terra (Central and South America). In collaboration with deltatre, Southworks, gskinner and Akamai, we have helped deliver over 2300 hours of live video and HD content from the Olympic Games to more than 20 countries.

Below you will find some details on how these companies used Windows Azure Media Services to provide superior video delivery and broadcast.

Automating Media Delivery Workflows with Channels


Windows Azure Media Services supports the concept of channels that can be used to bundle several media service functions together into a single logical workflow for live video and on-demand broadcasts. Channels can be programmed and managed through the REST API, which allows companies that broadcast and publish videos to easily integrate their existing automation platforms with Windows Azure Media Services. For the London Olympics, companies used a channel model to coordinate workflows of live video and on-demand broadcasts through the FastForward video management system and deltatre's Forge content management tools.

Download live video streams of the Olympics


Live video streams for the Olipiada were published by Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), a media broadcasting organization created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to deliver video streams to consumer companies. OBS in London supplied all the content in 1080i HD video format. Video streams were compressed with an H.264 codec with a bitrate of 17.7 Mbps, embedded in MPEG-2 transport streams, and distributed via multicast via UDP by companies like deltatre. After that, the deltatre transcoded each 1080i stream into eight different bitrates for Smooth Streaming, starting with a bitrate of 150 kbps (resolution 336x192) and up to a bitrate of 3.45 Mbps (1280x720) and published streams in Windows Azure Media Services.

To ensure high reliability from failures, video streams were published simultaneously in several Windows Azure data centers located in different corners of the globe. The streams were then consumed by channels defined in Windows Azure Media Services and routed to video hosting instances that already posted live video to the web. To ensure the distribution of content, the Akamai HD CDN network was used:

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Streaming for all clients and devices


For the 2012 London Games, we used Smooth Streaming based video streaming model. For browsers, we delivered Smooth Streaming streams for both Silverlight and Flash clients. For devices, we delivered Smooth Streaming for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7. Using the advantages of universal support for the H.264 standard and the AAC codec, we were able to encode content all once and deliver it to all devices in single streams. Deltatre used the iOS Smooth Streaming SDK toolkit distributed by the Windows Azure Media Services for iPhone and iPad and the Smooth Streaming SDK for Android toolkit developed by Nexstreaming .

A key innovation of Media Services for this Olympics was the development of Flash-based SDK tools to natively support Smooth Streaming playback. Working with Flash experts from gskinner.com, the Windows Azure Media Services team has developed a native ActionScript SDK for delivering Smooth Streaming to Flash. This allowed broadcasters to take advantage of a single Smooth Steaming platform for all Silverlight, Flash, iOS, Windows Phone, and Android platforms.

Below you can see photos of different devices with live streaming of the Olympics video:
Samsung Galaxy playing Smooth Streaming
iPad 3 playing back Smooth Streaming
Nokia Lumia 800 playing Smooth Streaming
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France TV's Flash player using Smooth Streaming
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Benefits of Windows Azure Media Services


During the Olympics, broadcasters needed an average broadcast capacity of 30 live video streams 15 hours a day for 17 days. In addition to live streams, content was created on demand and delivered 24 hours a day to more than 20 countries - which generally means millions of hours of video consumed.

Without Window Azure Media Services, broadcasters would have to:

  1. Buy / rent infrastructure for computing, data storage and network communication
  2. Expand your own video processing architecture
  3. Link together the new infrastructure and the existing organization for a single workflow
  4. Deploy and run the architecture yourself in several different data centers for high fault tolerance
  5. Pay for energy, air conditioning, administration and staff serving 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

This is where the full power and flexibility of the Windows Azure Media Services platform is. Broadcasters were given the opportunity to take advantage of cloud technology, which allowed them to install and configure live and on-demand broadcasts with just a few lines of code. In just a few minutes, all the necessary services, network routing and storage resources were deployed and configured inside Windows Azure - ready to receive and send content to a large audience.

Online delivery of content for events of such magnitude as the Olympics is a difficult task, when problems with the network, hardware and even human errors can put the broadcast at risk. The Windows Azure Media Services platform offers automated layers of fault tolerance and redundancy that are usually unattainable or too expensive for traditional implementations on their own infrastructure or based on simple cloud services. In particular, Windows Azure Media Services offers redundant services for consumption, production, storage and distributed data caching - along with the ability to use it on different data centers, thus achieving high availability for solutions with the ability to automatically recover from failures.

Auto streaming video


A key principle of Windows Azure Media Services (and the Windows Azure platform as a whole) is the complete automation of all actions. Below is the pseudo code that illustrates how to create a new channel in Windows Azure Media Services that can be used for live broadcasting of HD video to millions of users:

// connect to the service: 
var WAMSLiveService = new WAMSLiveService(serviceUri); 
// Then you give us some details on the channel you want to create, like its name etc. 
var channelSpec = new ChannelSpecification() 
{ 
  Name = "Swimming Channel"; 
  Eventname = "100 Meter Final"; 
} 
// Save it. 
WAMSLiveService.AddtoChannelSpecifiations(channelSpec); 
WAMSLiveService.SaveChanges(); 
// Create all the necessary Azure infrastructure to have a fully functioning, high performance, HD adaptive bitrate Live Channel 
WAMSLive.Service.Execute<string>(new Uri("AllocateChannel?channelID =55"));

During the London Olympics, broadcasters were able to write code like this to quickly automate the creation of dozens of live HD streams without the need for manual installation or configuration.

When working with any automated system that works with real-time data, especially one that provides the Olympics, when video streams start and stop very often, it is critical to be able to monitor lively. For these purposes, Southworks, using the REST API of Windows Azure Media Services for working with channels, built a control panel web service that reported vital signs of video encoding, channel operation and data flows to Akamai nodes. Broadcasters had the opportunity to use this service to monitor vital parameters and the quality of their decisions.

Live video and video on demand


A key advantage of Windows Azure Media Services is that the video is immediately available for replay both during live streaming and after it (with full DVR features). For example, if a user connected to a live broadcast that had already begun some time ago, he can immediately rewind the video to the beginning of the event and start watching the event from the beginning or go to one of the noticeable episodes of the event marked with markers in the player.

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In addition, Windows Azure Media Services enables an instant transition from live streaming to on-demand streaming. When the event ends in real time, a full-on-demand video is created on the server. There is no delay between transitions, which allows a user who missed a live broadcast to immediately start watching video on demand.

Editing and pasting live video


Broadcasters need a solution that allows them to easily cut and create in real time key video moments from thousands of hours of live video stream. Windows Azure Media Services has deep integration with the Microsoft Media Platform Video Editor, a browser-based video editor that can work with live or on-demand video content. This integration allows editors to quickly create an insert of a key video moment for a couple of minutes of an event without the need to download or save video materials locally, as well as broadcast these inserts from ready-made materials located on CDN nodes. New features that have been added to the editor for broadcasters: support for the USB-wheel, dynamic change of sound, pan, lock tracks, поддержка нескольких аудио-дорожек.

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In addition to creating key points, the video editor was integrated with Windows Azure Media Services to encode inserts for publishing to mobile clients and third-party video distribution sites such as YouTube. For example, CTV used YouTube (in Canada) to expand access to the audience, in which case key moments were encoded in 4Mbps VBR H.264 format, downloaded and published directly to YouTube from Windows Azure Media Services.

Each day of the Olympics, thousands of coding tasks were launched in the Windows Azure Media Services workflows. This system allowed our customers to create and modify their content publishing workflows without regard to issues of equipment support for a large number of computing processes. The Windows Azure Media Services platform offered a scalable mechanism that automatically responded to load peaks, processed power consumption, and prioritized the need for a large amount of video encoding.

Conclusion


The Windows Azure Media Services platform enables broadcasters to leverage a significantly better and more reliable online broadcast experience. Windows Azure Media Services offers a flexible set of functions that include: consumption, storage, coding, production, monitoring and delivery, which can be used to create highly scalable workflows for live video broadcasting and on-demand content delivery. These cloud services solve the problem of complexity in building video broadcasts and at the same time offer a higher level of reliability and availability for a larger number of devices.

Currently, Windows Azure Media Services is available as a preview - you can find more information on how to use them on this link . The workflow feature for accessing content on demand is available today to anyone who signs up for a preview. The workflow functions for organizing live broadcasts that were used at the Olympics are now available as a private preview. Clients who are interested in testing this preview can join by writing to the address: mediaservices@microsoft.com. Over time, these features will become available publicly.

Any work related to the Olympics is a difficult matter, responsibility and desire to win. I would like to thank all the people in the Windows Azure and Windows Azure Media Services product teams and the Developer & Platform Evangelism group, our external development partners and most importantly the broadcasting companies for their contribution to the successful work at the Olympics. This event is a huge success story of the experience that will be applied in the future.