Sporting highlights: Using Azure Media Services to stream live sports events

Broadcasters of the world’s biggest sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and the World Cup are increasingly relying on Azure Media Services for their streaming services. We find out why

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 14 April 2015
Sporting highlights: Using Azure Media Services to stream live sports events

For the world’s biggest broadcasting companies, being able to stream major sporting events is something that is taken extremely seriously. Take the recent Super Bowl. Over 11 hours of content were streamed to 2.5 million unique users with a peak of 1.3 million concurrent viewers. Meanwhile, the 2014 Winter Olympics was watched by over 100 million viewers around the globe, with roughly 2.1 million concurrent HD views when the US and Canada faced off in the men’s hockey semi-finals. And last year’s World Cup football match between Cameroon and Mexico in June set a new record for simultaneous viewers at 2.8 million.

Microsoft Azure Media Services, along with its broadcast customers and technical partners, delivered the video for all three of these events flawlessly, with no service-affecting outages.

“For this type of broadcast, there is no compromise on the need for 100% uptime,” explains Martin Wahl, principal program manager in Microsoft’s Azure Media Services team. “Broadcasters cannot afford to have outages in service when they’ve invested so heavily in particular events.”

Microsoft Azure Media Services is a comprehensive platform built on the public cloud for media companies to build scalable, cost-effective, end-to-end solutions. This lessens the amount of money and resources which broadcasters and premium content owners need to spend on hosting, managing, supporting and distributing their media.

“For broadcasters, the infrastructure required for streaming can be very expensive, depending on how many channels they are streaming or the functionality they want to offer,” Wahl explains. “The benefit of Microsoft Azure Media Services is that it’s hosted in the cloud so it has an elastically scalable architecture – it can virtually create as many servers on the fly as needed. What’s more, it’s built around a shared cost model. Customers like the fact that they only pay for what they use.”

Recognising the importance of security, Azure Media Services now offers a content protection service which includes encryption and digital rights management technology. This provides broadcasters with end-to-end content protection.

“Piracy is a big issue for broadcasters and it’s something we take very seriously,” says Wahl. “Azure Media Services offers encryption on the fly, for both video on demand and live streaming. Data will be encrypted by the server before it is sent out, and decrypted by the client to view. This allows video data to be transferred safely between the server and client, and makes the video data unreadable by any parties who intercept it in between.”

In addition to these extra security features, Microsoft has announced the availability of a new speech recognition service that indexes and stores all speech found in the video as searchable metadata. The indexed text can then be used for close captioning, transcriptions and searching. “This is really valuable for broadcasters who, until now, have had to spend significant sums of money in transcription and translating,” Wahl says.

Microsoft is also launching an entirely cloud-based encoding solution that enables broadcasters to send high quality broadcasts via MPEG-2 transport streams to any Azure data centre and have it encoded and transcoded into multiple bit rates right in the cloud.

“This eliminates the use of any additional on-premises hardware needed to simulcast and deliver their programmes online,” Wahl explains. “Our system is already set up to instantly convert those live streams into on-demand assets so broadcasters and content owners can continue to monetise their content long after the event has occurred. This ‘cloud DVR’ feature is unique and could possibly eliminate the big set top boxes with hard-drives that are taking up way too much space in our family rooms.”

Looking to the future, Wahl believes that the unmatched hyper scale of the Microsoft Cloud will continue to deliver rich and interactive live media to millions of viewers quickly, easily and cost effectively.

“It’s clear to me that, over the coming years, the amount of streamed content will grow exponentially,” he says. “Younger audiences are increasingly viewing content via their mobiles and I expect this trend to continue. Broadcasters need to embrace this so that they don’t lose out. They need to make advertising more relevant too. We’re now in the process of creating a cloud-based solution which can replace adverts during streamed content on the fly so that they are more relevant to the viewer.”

This will be just one of a number of solutions that the Azure Media Services team will release in the months to come. “Azure is the future of Microsoft,” Wahl concludes. “The media industry is not just something we are dabbling in – we are absolutely committed. Over the coming year we will be continuing to innovate and release new features. Watch this space for some very big announcements.”

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