This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of OnWindows
Prior to the launch of Next Generation Sports Network (NGSN) in the US, football (soccer) fans had limited access to game broadcasts. Because most games are scheduled at a certain time with no reruns, the majority of foreign games aren’t televised – even on expensive, sports-package networks.
Harry van Streun, CEO and president of NGSN set out to change that. First, he acquired the live broadcasting rights of seven key European and South American football leagues. His ultimate plan was to provide football fans with a 24-hour, live-streaming, on-demand sports network that offered HD broadcasting of entire football games from all of these leagues over the internet – an industry first.
But here was the challenge: at the time, the small four-person NGSN team had little technical knowledge of internet broadcasting. Even with the right partners, building a global broadcasting network to deliver on this plan could take up to a year or more. Not only did van Streun want to go live in months, but he wanted an infrastructure ready to serve millions of subscribers around the world.
To help move his ambitious plan forward, van Streun turned to Microsoft and Azure cloud services.
The Microsoft team quickly got to work on a comprehensive architecture. To provide the necessary level of development flexibility and scale, the team used Microsoft Azure Media Services – a comprehensive end-to-end media workflow solution designed to reduce the costs associated with integrating multiple products and providers.
Azure Media Services provided everything NGSN needed to operate a cloud-based video platform for live events and video on demand. End-to-end live streaming in the cloud included live transcoding and adaptive bitrate streaming. Video on-demand services came with encoding of summaries and full matches with adaptive bitrate streaming. Azure Media Services also provided seamless integration with Azure CDN, enabling delivery of high-bandwidth content to end-users around the world along with point-and-click provisioning.
The solution was developed using Visual Studio Online and a full suite of Azure Services. Multiple partners were used to build out other components of the broadcasting infrastructure. To streamline the workflow with partners, Azure Active Directory was used for authentication on the management portals. To finalise its build and launch, NGSN was supported by Microsoft Premier Support Services which also provides ongoing 24/7 business mission critical customer support.
The combination of Azure Media Services with other Azure Platform as a Service components proved to be an ideal for NGSN, combining a complete media solution with the scale and reliability to deliver to a global market.
With its comprehensive suite of tools and partners, Microsoft Azure dramatically reduced the time to market versus a similar, on-premises solution. “The depth and breadth of services available through Azure is much bigger than I anticipated,” says van Streun. “Azure provided us with an end-to-end media platform that helped us deliver a very complex solution in a very short timeframe. This project would normally have taken a year, and it was delivered in six months.”
The Sochi Olympics project had already highlighted the benefits of Azure’s unmatched scale. Azure provides the largest hyper-scale and distributed global scale cloud infrastructure in the world. In fact, Microsoft currently has two times as many regions as Amazon Web Services and five times as many public regions as Google Cloud.
The Microsoft hyper-scale cloud platform allows for very fast scalability. As the company’s needs increase, the option to scale-up is just a few clicks away. This will help NGSN scale from its current US market coverage to markets around the world. “With our earlier solutions, growth would have been a catch-up game. Now it’s a scale-out game,” says van Streun.
Azure can handle sudden traffic spikes and heavy loads without new infrastructure costs or capacity worries on the customer’s part, and its enterprise-grade active redundancy and failover support throughout the network help assure reliability. This is especially critical to NGSN, where major football matches can place enormous demands on the network.
Later this year, NGSN plans to expand beyond football to serve the needs of sports fans worldwide. But the successful realisation of the initial launch is still very much on the minds of the team at NGSN. “When I saw our first live transmission out of Russia – that was a real moment of joy,” says van Streun.
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