The London Olympics were a massive orchestration of 302 gold medal events squeezed into just 19 days.  Multiple heats or rounds, often happening simultaneously, across 32 sports, challenged content providers to deliver flexibility to viewers in just about every time zone worldwide who wanted to choose  what, when, and how they’d watch the events, be it live, mid-event and rewound to the beginning, or on-demand after the fact.  The rise of smartphones and tablets has fed this need for anytime, anywhere, any device viewing.  Gartner says in 2011 60M tablets were sold worldwide, with forecasts for that to reach 118.9 million in 2012, and 369.2 million by 2016*. Today an estimated 130M+ people in the US own a smart phone, an increase of 38% just in the last year – and mobile device viewers skyrocketed 55% for the London Olympics v. Beijing just four years ago according to NBC.  Anytime, anywhere, from any device is the future of how content will be created and consumed, not only for the Olympics, but for video content in general. 

Two key technology enablers that help media providers and broadcaster deliver these flexible solutions are cloud computing in general and media workflow tools in particular. For an Olympics-sized event broadcasters traditionally would have had to:

  1. Buy/lease the needed networking, compute and storage hardware
  2. Deploy it
  3. Pay for power, air-conditioning, and an operations monitoring and support staff 24/7.
  4. Glue it together to meet their workflow needs for the anytime, anywhere, any device world including:
    1. Manually install multiple different types of server resources: ingest, origin, caching etc. 
    2. Manually configure and connect servers to create a “channel”.  For a large event, this would involve configuring several servers and connecting those together to create a single logical channel.
  5. Build all of it in a redundant and resilient manner. 

In April at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) we announced the preview of Windows Azure Media Services to support our partners and broadcasters in feeding the new anytime, anywhere, any device demand model.  For the London Olympics we partnered with Akamai, deltaTre, and Southworks to create the first completely cloud-based delivery model with an entirely end-to-end digital media workflow.  We enabled broad device support including Flash, Silverlight, Xbox, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.  And we provided the tools, including real-time live-to-video on-demand creation, real-time highlight editing, and the ability to easily setup and manage simultaneous content channels, to easily meet the demands of viewers globally.   Windows Azure Media Services and our partners together supported France Télévisions, RTVE (Spain), CTV (Canada) and Terra (Central and South America), covering three continents and 30 countries with a potential viewership of half a billion people.  At any one time we enabled 35 fully live HD channels, and 140 high capacity channels worldwide.

By taking advantage of Windows Azure Media Services our partners and broadcasters have access to Microsoft’s global data centers.  They pay for what they need for the time they need it.  They can scale on demand with spikes in traffic or needs.  They get redundancy and failover.  And they also get a very easy, flexible, and agile environment to take care of their media workflow needs: ingest, origin, caching, transcoding, real time video highlight editing, real-time live to video on demand, and channel management.  This allows them to serve the needs of the anywhere, anytime, any device demand for content. 

“Delivering audiovisual content to multiple devices across several OSs, and managing a huge number of user requests, has to be done efficiently and in near real-time during an enormous event like the Olympics. We were very confident with Windows Azure. It has demonstrated to us that it is the right decision to address these challenges and serve today’s content consumption demands.” – Francisco Jose Asensi Viana, Head of Business Development at RTVE (Spain).

We’re very excited about what Windows Azure Media Services has to offer our media partners and broadcasters and we’re looking forward to general availability later this year. 

Learn more about Windows Azure Media Services here and check out Scott Guthrie’s blog on the technical details of what we did for the Olympics here.

* Forecast: Media Tablets by Operating System, Worldwide, 2010-2016, 1Q12 Update, Gartner Research

-  by Eric Schmidt, Senior Director, Media Platform Evangelism