Cisco speeds up NBC's Olympics WAN

How to make already-fat pipes perform better

Video editors and shot selectors for NBC Universal's massive U.S. coverage of the Olympic Games will have to rely on their co-workers for Beijing souvenirs, because they'll be staying home, thanks to Cisco Systems' WAN acceleration technology.

"Footage" of the games, actually in the form of digital files, will travel all the way to New York and other North American locations for editing. This will happen nearly in real time despite the roughly 6,000-mile distance between Beijing and New York, according to Cisco. The company's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) technology makes an already-fat pipe across the Pacific work like an even fatter one, allowing the broadcaster to deliver more content than ever and avoid the cost of sending 400 more staffers to Beijing.

Over the two-week course of the games, NBC will provide 3,600 hours of coverage, more than the combined total of all previous Summer Olympics. Content will be available on the Web and mobile phones, as well as on digital and analog TV.

To send those images from Beijing to the U.S., NBC will use an IP network consisting of three 150Mbit/sec. connections coming through a Cisco 12004/4 router as a single 450Mbit/sec. pipe. Cisco Quality of Service technology sets aside 400Mbit/sec. of that for high-definition video and about 20Mbit/sec. for voice. That is enough bandwidth to send a one-hour high-definition video file to the U.S. in just three minutes.

The WAN will also be used to support the new system for remotely editing video, said George Kurian, vice president and general manager of Cisco's application delivery business unit. As high-definition video is shot at the various events, Cisco video encoder technology will convert it all into smaller, low-resolution MPEG-4 files. Editors and shot selectors in North America can edit that footage instead of the high-definition originals, so shots not needed for broadcast don't take up precious WAN bandwidth, Kurian said. Information about their choices is sent back to Beijing to determine what high-definition video goes across the Pacific.

Just 35Mbit/sec. of the pipe is devoted to the MPEG-4 files, along with all other types of data traffic, including scores and teleprompter scripts for reporters in Beijing. However, WAAS makes that portion of the pipe the equivalent of 140Mbit/sec., Kurian said. WAAS reduces the inherent latency, or delay, in TCP/IP networks. It also recognizes the parts of a video stream, such as stationary objects, that don't change from frame to frame and sends them just once.

"We can easily say, 'I've seen most of that data before; I don't have to send it again. I only have to send the incremental data,'" Kurian said.

The speed gains from WAAS effectively erase the distance between Beijing and the U.S.

"It feels to the guys in New York like the application is in New York," Kurian said.

A major payoff of the improved network efficiency is that NBC can offer its audience more options, Kurian said. In addition to the TV coverage, NBC plans to offer 2,200 hours of video on demand for viewing on the Web and 3,000 hours of highlights and other video items.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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