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NBC Olympics partners with Akamai to deliver online streaming and site delivery to viewers tuning in from any device, anywhere for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics
The Olympic Games are arguably the most watched spectator event, adored by sports fans and even non-sports fans. Unlike most other live-streamed events that occur on a single day within a specific region, the Games span 18 days, with events happening simultaneously at multiple locations and viewers tuning in from around the globe. During this "marathon" of online events, fans seek access to both live and on-demand streaming video content on a 24 x 7 basis. As such, this event is a true case study for broadcasters and enterprise organizations alike looking to satisfy the demands of online audiences, ensuring an uninterrupted and superior-quality viewing experience regardless of device type, network, or location. With the expectation of instant and replay access to all 98 events of the 2014 Winter Games, the stakes were extremely high; NBC Olympics recognized the importance of working with an experienced media delivery partner to tip the odds of success dramatically in its favor.
For the Winter Games, Akamai provided:
Delivery of high-quality streaming video and other content to nearly 62 million unique viewers using NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app
Support for record peak consumption (More than 2.1 million people watched the authenticated live stream of the men's hockey semifinal between the United States and Canada.)
Integration of enabling media delivery technologies within a complex, multivendor workflow
Changing Consumer Expectations
With the rapid adoption of networked mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, consumers increasingly expect to engage with their favorite content across multiple screens. IDC estimates that 67 million tablets and 137 million smartphones shipped in the United States in 2013, propelling the installed base to 135 million and 181 million devices, respectively. This growing installed base is driving demand for multiscreen web experiences that make streaming video, websites and apps accessible across platforms.
This is especially true for important live events such as the Olympics: Consumers increasingly expect major events to be streamed live and on demand over the Internet. The Olympics is a flagship event, marking a pivotal moment in the development of TV Everywhere (TVE) and multiscreen services because of its sheer scale and global reach.
In the United States, NBC Olympics has been instrumental in driving awareness and adoption of TVE services that make video streaming across devices available to subscribers of pay television services from cable, satellite and telco TV providers through a process of authentication or verification. During the Winter Games, viewers who subscribed to pay TV services from any one of some 225 providers were able to access video content via the web and mobile apps. Shortly after the Games, NBC Olympics announced that nearly 62 million people tuned into the Games using NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Olympics Live Extra app.
Key Enabling Technologies
The technology required to support live and on-demand video streaming of major events such as the Olympics is in a constant state of evolution. New cloud-based content ingest, transcode and video hosting solutions have emerged; dynamic ad insertion technologies optimize monetization opportunities; and subscriber authentication or verification solutions protect existing business models and allow paying subscribers to access more content. These technologies combine with CDN, web security, monitoring and media analytics solutions to form the multivendor workflow and technology platform required to support website and stream delivery for events such as the 2014 Winter Games.
NBC OLYMPICS AND THE WINTER GAMES
NBC Sports Group, which is part of NBCUniversal (owned by Comcast), consists of broadcast, cable and regional television properties as well as radio and digital sports assets. These include NBC Sports, Golf Channel, NBC Olympics, 12 NBC Sports Regional Networks, NBCsports.com, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app. NBC Sports Group has partnerships with the International Olympic Committee, the NFL, the NHL, the PGA, Premier League, Tour de France and many other leading sports organizations.
NBC Olympics owns the U.S. broadcast rights for the Olympic Games through the 2020 Summer Games. (By 2020, NBC will have presented 11 consecutive Olympic Games — and 17 in total.) The Olympics attracts both record-breaking audiences and media attention focused on the advanced online services available during the Games. NBC's presentation of the 2012 London Olympic Games, with more than 217 million television viewers, was the most watched event in U.S. television history. The Olympics has also become a leading driver of multiscreen viewing, as each event sets new records for over-the-top viewership. During the 2014 Winter Games, nearly 62 million users accessed Games content on their PCs and mobile devices via NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app.
NBC Sports Group offers a multitude of events throughout the year that require website delivery and streaming video support across PCs, tablets, smartphones and other connected devices. However, the scale of consumer engagement with the Olympics sets it apart from many other leading events that drive online engagement and video streaming.
Highly Scalable Delivery with Website Security and Stream Protection
Strong consumer engagement with NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app during the 2014 Winter Games validates the growing consumer demand for multiscreen video content services and TVE. For NBC Olympics, it was critical that media performance expectations were met to ensure positive consumer experiences and drive engagement with other TVE offers across the NBC portfolio. Beyond the delivery of websites and streams, security was also of utmost importance as high-profile events are a prime target for denial-of-service attacks. To this end, NBC Olympics needed to partner with a vendor that could provide highly scalable media delivery with web security and video stream protection and it has that partner in Akamai.
Seamless Multivendor Collaboration
The technology stack utilized by NBC Olympics for the 2014 Winter Games included many different vendors — a dozen or so partners in total. The focus, however, was on three primary partners: Akamai, Microsoft and Adobe, which together constitute a workflow that extends from live stream ingest all the way to media delivery to consumers across a multitude of devices and networks. For NBC Olympics, solutions were already in place to support an existing library of video content, including ongoing live events. However, the stakes are raised for a high-profile event such as the Olympics, in which consumer demand for content spikes beyond normal traffic levels and website security and stream protection are critical. As such, the Olympic Games present a particularly important set of challenges, including:
Media delivery that can scale rapidly to unexpected demand peaks
Site video and content delivery
Support for a wide range of devices
Continuous availability of streaming video
Each challenge becomes a critical element of success for the partners involved. Akamai's cloud services and content delivery network (CDN) solutions deliver results across each of the five elements. The Olympic Games deliver record- breaking events — at quality levels requiring high bit rates — and the capacity of the CDN solution for website and video stream delivery is critical. For NBC Olympics, partnering with the largest CDN is not just about moving bits but also about doing so optimally, in which Internet traffic loads are balanced to reduce latency and buffering and improve the overall consumer web experience.
Web security is a constant concern and NBC Olympics requires a partner with a robust solution to ensure that stream and website content is not hijacked, websites are not made inaccessible and rights are being protected. While web security is arguably no more important for the Olympics than for all other events, the degree to which a high-profile website and streaming event may be attacked puts greater strain and emphasis on web security solutions.
Availability is critical, requiring fault-tolerant systems and redundancy throughout the workflow. To avoid degraded consumer web experiences, failures and congestion, Akamai had to anticipate unexpected demands and build strategies into the systems architecture to address them. Experience is critical in developing high-availability systems.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
The pace of change in consumer technology makes planning future services difficult. The rapid emergence of smartphones and tablets, for example, increased the complexity of delivering online video as new technologies — both proprietary and standards based — had to be leveraged to enable widespread access across many devices. As new media delivery, consumption and monetization technologies emerge, content providers and their technology partners must work to stay in front of changes in the market.
These specific media delivery solution requirements do not address all the value NBC Olympics looks for in its technology partners. Other benefits that NBC Olympics noted include:
Media delivery vendors that act as advisors
Knowledge of and experience integrating with other vendors in the ecosystem
It is in this regard that technology solutions provided by a given partner constitute only one facet of a vendor's overall value. Deep industry knowledge, experience integrating with other vendors and the ability to apply this knowledge and experience in a trusted advisor role are highly valued by NBC Olympics.
Akamai is a leading provider of cloud services for delivering, optimizing and securing online content and applications. The foundation for the company's solutions is the Akamai Intelligent Platform, a globally distributed network of servers and software that delivers web content and online experiences to a worldwide user base. The Akamai Intelligent Platform provides highly scalable content delivery, security threat protection and usage analytics and monitoring and Akamai's solutions are relevant for both large and small-scale online experiences. Akamai also offers KONA Security Solutions to mitigate security threats.
Akamai offers a wide range of capabilities that enable partners like NBC Olympics to deliver compelling user experiences at huge scale. Akamai's capabilities range from website and video delivery to security and advisory services. Akamai has become a valued partner for NBC based on scale, security and various intangibles that add value beyond the specific technology components of its solutions (see Figure 1).
Delivering the Optimal Consumer Experience at Scale
Scalability is a notable feature of the Akamai Intelligent Platform. One of the challenges of enabling an event such as the Olympics is scaling to support spikes in consumption that far outstrip typical traffic patterns. Scale involves not just the volume of content delivered but also the number of different devices and browsers that need to be supported, as well as the networks over which the traffic flows. Moreover, usage peaks can be unpredictable during a live event. Akamai ensures flawless delivery in the face of these challenges through network intelligence and a large and capable services team. Eric Black of NBC Olympics summed it up simply by saying "Akamai delivers."
The process at Akamai for meeting customer requirements for large-scale events such as the Olympics is multifaceted and involves collaboration across cross- functional groups, such as the teams responsible for network streaming and storage performance. Together, these groups collaborate with the customer to optimize the solution based on factors such as the location of the customer's origin server and the geographic distribution of the expected audience. Anticipating where viewers will be and what times will see high levels of Internet traffic is critical to meeting scalability requirements. While these concepts are reusable from event to event, Akamai also works to increase network intelligence to make the process more automatic and turnkey; this has been an important component of Akamai's success over the years managing traffic for large-scale live events on behalf of a wide range of media customers.
Akamai's support of NBC Olympics is not confined to the Games; rather, it spans over a decade of work with NBCUniversal properties. Akamai has proven itself as a partner that can grow with an organization as it adds more services, more events, larger audiences and higher bit rates. Moreover, Akamai's scale supports customers' desire to innovate.
Ensuring Against Security Threats
Security is another important facet of Akamai's solution. In terms of security, customers such as NBC Olympics note that Akamai's strengths are illustrated by what we do not hear about — that is, web attacks are detected and defeated before damage is done. Akamai's KONA Security Solutions provide both website security and stream protection. Akamai protects sites from both targeted attacks and ongoing efforts to find and exploit website vulnerabilities, ranging from distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to website hijacking and defacing. While not unique to high-profile events such as the Olympics, the stakes are particularly high during major events that attract large audiences as media attention is focused on service availability and web performance.
In addition to security capabilities, NBC Olympics noted Akamai's strengths in the following areas:
Monitoring media delivery
Optimizing Internet traffic loads and caching
Support for streaming video events
Ensuring website and stream health is clearly a central priority. Akamai's ability to monitor and optimize Internet traffic loads and caching in real time is critical to delivering an optimized consumer experience and ensuring website health and scalability. Finally, Akamai's dedicated support team provided NBC Olympics with round-the-clock availability to diagnose and resolve any issues. As NBC Olympics' Black noted, "They were just a phone call away."
Trusted Advisor Relationships
Beyond scale and security, Akamai offers a wealth of intangibles that are highlighted by the team responsible for supporting the Olympics and echoed by NBC Olympics. Akamai serves its customers as a technology expert and trusted advisor. As Black noted, "Akamai's advisory role is critical." In this role, best practices gleaned from work with numerous companies can be applied to optimize the solution for a given customer. A broad knowledge of related technologies and companies enables Akamai to provide guidance with respect to vendor selection, technology implementation and solution integration. This understanding of solution architecture and knowledge of the broader web and video technology ecosystems position Akamai as a critical advisor to small and large organizations alike.
NBC Olympics' presentation of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia, achieved record- setting results, with nearly 62 million unique online and in-app viewers reported by NBC Olympics. Viewers had access to live streaming for all of the competitions and the closing ceremony, on-demand replays of all events and a library of streaming video highlights via NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Olympics Live Extra app. Moreover, the February 21 semifinal hockey game between the United States and Canada drove more than 2.1 million unique viewers, which NBC Olympics believes is the largest verified/authenticated TVE audience ever in the United States. Akamai reported that peak event traffic during the Games — posted during the U.S.–Canada semifinal — topped 3.5 trillion bits per second.
These results demonstrate both the success of NBC Olympics' efforts to make the Games available across multiple screens and the ongoing traction of TVE in the consumer market. These results also demonstrate the skills of the vendors — such as Akamai — that came together to create an integrated platform to support the event.
NBC Olympics noted that the success of this record-breaking event, including its high bit rates and low buffering times, was made possible by the entire team of vendors and Akamai's CDN and overall capabilities, which were important elements in this collaborative, multivendor solution. In fact, NBC Olympics' Black asserted that the multivendor solution should be "considered as a blueprint for others to follow."
The web and video ecosystems are in a constant state of change and evolution. New devices, standards, technologies and consumer behaviors make support for large-scale events difficult from both a planning standpoint and an execution standpoint. The coming years will see more mobile devices, larger audiences and increased bit rates associated with a move to higher-quality video and 4K streaming. Vendors must keep pace with the changes that will be required to maintain the necessary capabilities across technology development and solution integration. Service providers and content owners need to plan early, test often and choose vendors wisely. Proper preparation is essential and individual vendors, particularly in a multivendor integration, need to deliver. Akamai is a strong choice for delivering on these requirements.