Case Study: Microbrewery Taps Flash For Live Coverage of Annual Cycling Event

Posted in Reports, Streaming on Mar 27, 2008

The definition of broadcasting continues to change as more companies and service providers move into the business of video streaming. More live video broadcasts over the internet are happening with the proven ability to reach new audiences, and the video quality of both live and on-demand broadcasts increase. One recent example is the New Belgium Brewing Company, which produced a successful live, mobile Flash broadcast for its Tour de Fat event in Ft. Collins, Colorado last fall. StreamGuys, based in Arcata, Calif. is a streaming media provider offering a variety of streaming media solutions and tools, and a content delivery network and streaming service for distributing audio and video signals via the internet. The company, which has been in the business of streaming since 2000 after the company partners planted the seeds while in college, provided the live web streaming services for New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat festival stop in Ft. Collins. The success of the event has opened the door for more collaboration between the two companies in 2008, while also proving the viability of the Flash streaming format for live web broadcasts.

In 2000, New Belgium Brewing launched an annual event called Tour de Fat, named after the brewery’s popular Fat Tire Amber Ale. Initially planned as an annual "philanthropic bicycle festival" in six cities, the unique event started with a morning bike ride followed by musical and theatrical events in the afternoon, with plenty of beer and food throughout the day. New Belgium teamed with bicycle or environmental non-profit organizations in each city, with earnings from beer and merchandise sales going to the non-profits. The idea was to create a theatrical spectacle with an important social cause.

The quality of the entertainment increased as the event grew in size and popularity. The tour expanded to 12 dates in 2007, with a full-time road crew of six members and spectator attendance in the range of 6,000 to 10,000 at each stop. Tour de Fat now regularly raises money for local charities, raises awareness for reducing waste streams, and culminates in a car/bicycle swap where the winner receives a custom Black Sheep New Belgium Commuter bike.

Choosing a Delivery Solution The popularity of Tour de Fat, which is unlike anything else in the U.S. beer industry, encouraged New Belgium to produce a live webcast of the Ft. Collins event in the autumn of 2007. The main objective of the webcast was to produce an inclusive event with people that would otherwise have been unable to participate, using internet media to tell the story. The chief live streaming event was a five-mile bike ride parade that would bring the costumes, decorated bikes and entertainment to a global audience. The brewery contacted StreamGuys to provide consultation and a robust streaming network with global delivery of a live Flash event to thousands of viewers. StreamGuys supports a variety of streaming formats, including Windows Media, Flash, QuickTime and mp3. New Belgium requested Flash video service for the live stream and on-demand streaming following the event.

StreamGuys utilized the Wowza Flash streaming server for the Ft. Collins event. The Wowza server was relatively new technology at the time, with New Belgium being one of the first clients to use it with StreamGuys, a preferred technology partner of Wowza. The Wowza team was extremely helpful with technical support as initial deployments began, with a quick learning curve.

The Wowza server was a very cost-effective alternative to the Adobe Flash Media server at the time, with a unique feature set that includes TiVo-like fast-forward capabilities (Fast Play) and the ability to re-stream Shoutcast MP3 stations in the Flash format. New Belgium estimates that the choice of using the Wowza streaming server cut its costs in half.

The end-to-end signal flow begins with the hardware rack solution. Two types of hardware build-outs are available: single-channel and aggregate platforms that require more than one live channel or a mix and match of streaming services, such as podcasting or on-demand streams.

The New Belgium event required only a single live channel. The brewery opted for StreamGuys’ more economical managed infrastructure for this application instead of a customized hardware rack solution. This allowed for a plug and play configuration using an existing bank of streaming servers for single channel live and on-demand applications. The approach allowed New Belgium to take advantage of a fully managed, single-channel streaming service with a la carte services to match the format and bandwidth requirements.

The Wowza software server was installed on a StreamGuys hardware node and lit with a single channel, otherwise referred to as a publishing point. A Linux OS hardware platform was used to ensure stability of the live single-channel stream. The Wowza server can be configured for multi-channel streaming in more expansive applications by simply lighting up additional publishing points.

The New Belgium team crafted the live player for its website, led by Aaron Reid, Web Creative Designer for New Belgium Brewery. StreamGuys provided a 512Kbps connection on a Flash stream to ensure outstanding video quality for viewers.

Reid was also in charge of producing the live video for the event, filming the proceedings as he rode his bicycle through the five mile bike parade. A Panasonic DVX100 handheld video camera (Reid steered with one hand and filmed with the other) filmed the video for the live stream, with a bike trailer hitched to the rear of his bicycle to contain the ancillary equipment.

The camera communicated with a Windows XP Pro laptop via a FireWire connection, and the laptop included a Sprint DVB-O wireless broadband card and a booster antenna for signal strength. The live video was streamed using the On2 Flix Live software encoder, and Reid had two uninterruptible power supplies connected to the solution to eliminate downtime.

Streaming and Monitoring While capable of uploading at 700Kbps, StreamGuys recommended the Sprint broadband card upload at 300Kbps to avoid overloading New Belgium’s upload link while supporting viewers limited by 300Kbps speeds. The 300Kbps upload speed also compensated for video quality limitations of the wireless card, an essential component due to the mobile nature of the broadcast.

New Belgium archived the video on the laptop as it was uploading live for future on-demand use on its website. StreamGuys offloads these files from New Belgium’s local servers and provides on-demand streaming over its network. The co-located servers ensure that multiple viewers can simultaneously stream these videos on-demand. StreamGuys also mirrored the network so the video will arrive from the relay site closest to the viewer’s location. The files can be seen on-demand here.

StreamGuys monitored the event live for New Belgium from its Arcata offices, with a full support team to troubleshoot and measure the audience. There were no technical problems to report, and the Wowza server handled the live streaming audience flawlessly. New Belgium registered several thousand viewers over the course of the event, and expects to build on its numbers in 2008 and beyond.

StreamGuys typically addresses monitoring in three ways: Live, real-time monitoring of single events such as the Tour de Fat; "StreamGuys Reports," a form of post-event data analysis using log files; and billing-based measurements from traffic-oriented data.

The advantage of live monitoring is that everyone who is connected can be seen in real-time. As each person connects, operators keep count of simultaneous connections from the Arcata network operations center to get a feel for the audience size and the peak load. New Belgium received feedback of this information during the course of the Ft. Collins event.

Other real-time activities in single and multi-channel applications include monitoring the bit rate of each stream and the aggregate bandwidth used. Real-time monitoring also allows for the development of graphical representations that report how many people were connected at any time.

Reporting and Analysis StreamGuys Reports are processed after the event. These reports include downloading log files from the servers and analyzing the data. Log performance data, for example, compiles the geographical reach of the stream, and how many viewers tuned in from each region. These logs also show which media players were in use, which can be helpful to our clients, such as broadcasters who are designing functionality for certain players. Meanwhile, billing-based measurements are excellent tools for managing resources and forecasting growth based on historic trends. Bandwidth analysis allows broadcasters and other streaming media providers to best utilize and budget resources, while understanding audience behavior over specific time periods.

While New Belgium was a single-channel event, StreamGuys also specializes in multi-channel streaming applications. The StreamGuys platform is designed to enable all the technology the company provides based on client needs. It allows the client to take advantage of different services by setting up, processing, and managing hundreds of different channels simultaneously, with costs focused on an aggregated amount of traffic based on the usage. That platform service allows the client to build a model that doesn’t incrementally raise costs for each individual channel.

The platform is technically provisioned in several ways, beginning with an entry level service model. Most clients aren’t certain what their audience size will be at the beginning. The base platform, which is usually Windows or Linux, starts with a small footprint (somewhere around 200Mbps based on aggregate streaming services), mixing and matching different formats upon request. Advanced services such as clustering and load balancing are enabled from there.

The audience footprint in regards to global delivery is important, and clustering allows the client to scale their system to reach more users. Capacity is added to the base infrastructure to accommodate growth. This typically means adding storage capacity, as well as parallel processing to have a set number of servers working together as an individual unit. This simple path addresses growth linearly by adding capacity to support another 200-400Mbps of total aggregate bandwidth or an additional terabyte of storage.

Load balancing is often done when growing out a cluster. StreamGuys offer three main styles of load balancing. The first is Anycast Load Balancing, which provides the fastest route to the viewer when a stream is requested. The closest node to a specific geographical data center will route the stream to the viewer based on the network routing time from all data centers. This also offers the most stable stream and a better overall streaming experience.

The second form of load balancing is a hardware-based approach that is traditional for Web servers. A cluster of servers, perhaps 10 or more, is accessed when content is requested. Those servers all come together and receive hardware load balancing so they function as a single unit. Redundancy is also in place if the main server fails. The load balancer simply removes the failed server from the queue and replaces it with a functional unit until the cluster is back to 100 percent.

The third style of load balancing is a hybrid approach of hardware and software. StreamGuys often installs a load balancing scheme on a generic "white box" that will operate in the same data center to load balance a cluster of servers. In these situations, load balancing is built into the various protocols for streaming media; this is especially true in Windows Media load balancing. This form of load balancing is especially useful in live broadcasts where signals are coming from multiple locations. This approach provides redundancy from the origin point and splits the source stream into a large number of cluster servers. This ensures the signal path remains redundant throughout the entire process. While these services aren’t necessarily crucial in a single-channel configuration, it provides a snapshot of how to effectively operate a multi-channel configuration.

The New Belgium Brewery expects to announce its 2008 streaming plans in the near future, and it seems likely there will be at least one live streaming event. With a potential Guinness Book of World Record of 3,635 people joining the Ft. Collins bike parade last fall, the event is certain to gain more attention.

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