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Fast and furious: Building a network in 60 days

Wed, 09/05/2012 - 12:55pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

For CMC and its partners iN Demand and Pac-12, it’s been game on.

Assembling a network from scratch in 60 days isn’t for the faint of heart. Rarely, if ever, has it been done before on the scale of the Pac-12 Enterprises networks that will begin this month, delivering more than 850 events annually to seven linear channels, and eventually beyond.

For the Comcast Media Center (CMC) and its partners iN Demand and the Pac-12, it’s been game on since the triumvirate first agreed in June to team up and build the fledgling network, when the mantra for the three entities was: Let the games begin.

CMC's Richard Buchanan“Once we found out we had won the bid to build the network, we said, ‘OK, now how do we build this in 60 days?’ We knew we were building something in half the time it usually takes. I thought it was impossible,” said Richard Buchanan, vice president and general manager of content services for CMC.

The challenges were daunting, and time wasn’t exactly on his side, nor was the vast geography of the Pac-12, since the network is a matrix of content extending from the West Coast to the Rockies.

“Our biggest fear was getting everything to the finish line on time, especially since we started with nothing. It’s an unusual, nontraditional distribution model and speaks to how people are consuming content, with all seven channels being streamed to online, mobile and on-demand. Few networks have launched with that model,” Buchanan said.

And few have the backbone to pull it off. Buchanan and the two partners understood that Comcast indeed had the backbone and the capacity to make it work.

“We have the capacity of Comcast’s backbone and a good solid infrastructure and foundation. We brought in a team with the background and looked at the technology that was cost-efficient and had flexible solutions. It’s actually been more software-based and virtualized without respect to geography. And we’ve programmed lots of scenarios,” he continued.

Page one of the playbook, Buchanan recalled, was to address the more complicated tactical challenges, such as building core servers, equipment and temperature control stations while simultaneously constructing consoles, the library and a final operational environment.

Working with its long-time partner iN Demand proved to be the right call, he noted.

“Our long relationship with iN Demand really helped,” Buchanan said, “since the Pac-12 is looking at the network as a multi-platform, global media play to leverage its powerful sports package. They have a very progressive attitude.”

Partnering with iN Demand, a production company that brought much-needed transactional and mobile production elements to the network build, has been a key addition.

iN Demand's John Vartanian“The seven channels will be compressed on a Cisco platform with a separate VOD component. We’ll also do the metadata management and quality control, along with constant maintenance and upgrades. There is great potential here. But the challenge has been timing. This is a quick launch, with 850 games a year and a wide variety of collegiate sports,” said John Vartanian, CTO for iN Demand.

And sports, Vartanian noted, is a whole different ballgame versus movies and non-sports entertainment.

“We’ve had to upgrade the system to handle the quick turnaround of programs so they can be repeated on the VOD platform. It’s very different from how movies are handled because sports get stale very quickly,” he said.

Buchanan and CMC admitted there was no time to get stale if they wanted to meet their 60-day deadline. Enter the Navy Seals.

“We met with Navy Seals, and they told us to look at the whole team and that we’ll all succeed together. So we assembled a ‘dream team’ with lots of technical and engineering experience,” Buchanan said.

And lots of new equipment, technologies and connectivity components. All of the sports venues at Pac-12 campuses will be fiber-connected to the Pac-12 Network Center in San Francisco and the conference’s origination facility at CMC, with CMC’s Content Distribution Center responsible for acquiring live content from San Francisco and Pac-12 sports venues. CMC will also assist iN Demand with master control and other technical aspects, Buchanan explained.

Yet timing wasn’t the only challenge, he admitted. Forming a diverse group of technicians, engineers and others into a cohesive team took some doing.

“Initially, we had so many people doing so many different tasks while building, training and operating in two different environments that having them not collide was a real challenge. We were creating a network while building it,” Buchanan remembered.

Pac-12 Content Distribution Center at CMC
A key innovation in the mix is the matrix of content to be used by the national channel and the six regional sports networks. The inventory and branding will be tailored to each of the six regional networks, with CMC managing the distribution of the seven channels via fiber and satellite to local cable systems (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks are service providers in the network).

Once the dust had literally settled at the operational facility at CMC, Buchanan figured the impossible had indeed been accomplished: building a network from scratch in near-record time.

“Our success has renewed my faith in peoples’ individual initiative to keep up the velocity of the work. It’s been very impressive,” he concluded.

The full-throttle launch of the Pac-12 Networks essentially begins with the college football season this month.

For Buchanan and CMC, it will be about time.



Thinking of building your own network from scratch? Here are the key components CMC used in building the Pac-12 Networks:

  • Dalet’s media asset management (MAM) system
  • Avid’s Sundance Titan automation solution for channel origination
  • Harmonic’s Omneon MediaGrid storage system for servers
  • Front Porch Digital’s DIVArchive content storage management solution
  • Evertz core infrastructure products for routing and multiplexing
  • WideOrbit trafficking software
  • Cisco compression and encryption
  • Chyron’s Channel Box branding system
  • SportsMedia graphics for ticker technologies.
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