Cisco Preps for Olympics Trial

LAS VEGAS -- 2010 International CES -- Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) plans to use its Olympics deal with NBC Universal as a proving ground for a new video-heavy data center, company officials say.

Cisco announced its Olympics role here this week, saying it's going to help NBC deliver content from the winter games in Vancouver to mobile devices and PCs as well as on multiple TV networks, an expansion over the network's 2008 coverage of the summer games in Beijing.

The vehicle for doing that is an architecture called the Media Data Center, a video-heavy twist on the Universal Computing System (Cisco's data-center switching package) that borrows aspects of the "medianet" (Cisco's term for the video-enhanced IP network). (See Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity and Cisco's Video Transformation .)

The Media Data Center is essentially a UCS that's stacked to handle lots of video -- and, of course, Cisco claims it's got a unique twist on doing that. "That optimization is not something that comes through on any of the off-the-shelf or any of the competitive platforms," says Pankaj Patel, senior vice president of Cisco's service provider group.

The media data center comes with enhanced quality-of-service capabilities, for instance. It also uses larger pools of buffer memory, because video creates large file transfers that can't be interrupted or interspersed as easily as typical IP traffic, Patel says.

It also uses Data Center Ethernet, a lossless Ethernet transport created by Cisco and being molded into an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) standard.

Now, Cisco keeps preaching that video will take over the network, so you'd think the Media Data Center would be the company's description of the regular data center of tomorrow. That's true, Patel concedes. But Cisco is fighting a bit of a PR battle, in that IP transport still isn't trusted in broadcast TV circles. Cisco wants to notify carriers and media companies that it's done extra-credit homework to make the network as reliable as a regular TV operation.

"Otherwise, people are going to think about the typical file transfer that takes place in the enterprise," Patel says.

Even in 2008, IP's worthiness was in doubt. That year, Cisco helped NBC with the Beijing games, but only as a freighter, sending video from Beijing to editing teams in New York.

Now, with the Media Data Center, Cisco claims it can help NBC send way more video over the network, in turn helping it expand its mobile and online offerings. The primary possibility is in highlight reels. NBC should be able to chop up every event for quick viewing on any kind of device.

TV gear will still be used for recording the events, but after the video goes through NBC's control room, where graphics and/or background music gets added, it will be split between a regular TV stream (beamed by satellite to houses the normal way) and a panoply of IP streams that will be delivered on the AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) network.

It's those IP streams that will let NBC slice and dice the content, prepping it separately for mobile devices, online viewing, or cable TV video-on-demand viewing, for instance. One of the streams could even be used to create highlight or event packages that could be sold on sites like iTunes, says Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media for NBC Universal.

NBC also plans to make available the camera views that TV doesn't have time for, such as the figure skating practice rink or "beauty" cameras at the Olympic village. NBC's producers could also film longer segments of analysts (is that actually a good thing?), going beyond the TV time constraints. NBC likes the possibility of getting viewers to watch more ad-supported Olympic content on more devices, of course. But the digital obsession's roots are really in plain old penny pinching. Take 2008. The network would normally send its video editors to the Olympic city; keeping them in New York was a bit of a breakthrough.

"We're actually trying to get smaller," Miller says of his Olympics team (which has enjoyed NBC's exclusive U.S. broadcast rights for about two decades now). "We had to make this transition from living in a baseband world to living in an IP world, because the weight of television technologies is very heavy, relatively. It's costly and it doesn't necessarily work on all these platforms."

The Media Data Center will be behind the scenes, but you'll have plenty of chances to get sick of Cisco during the games. It's given Flip cameras to U.S. athletes and NBC commentators. These won't be used during the events. (It would be amusing, but the Olympics people frown on that idea.) But the videos they generate will probably find their way into NBC's coverage.

Cisco also wanted to try the idea of getting athletes to use telepresence to talk with their families from the Games. (The families would do this from the telepresence rooms in local hotels.) That didn't happen to come through this time, but it's a possibility for the London 2012 games, says Murali Nemani, director of service provider video marketing at Cisco.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

chechaco 12/5/2012 | 4:45:08 PM
re: Cisco Preps for Olympics Trial

And watch it all then stuck in narrow info-pipes out of Sochi. Highways, not to mention info-highways are hard to come by in Russia. (Favorite Russian saying: "There are two problems in Russia - highways and morons") Beam me up, Scotty!

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:45:07 PM
re: Cisco Preps for Olympics Trial

Ha! That's funny, Checaco - but I also like your point. 

This came up during the interview, after Perkins Miller made a sigh-of-relief comment about how Vancouver wouldn't have the time-zone difference that Beijing did.  But I pointed out: If, from China, you get some packet loss, some lengthy pixelation problem, or even an interrupted feed -- I think people will cut you some slack. You're broadcasting from CHINA, the other side of the world.

But if they can't make this work perfectly from VANCOUVER ... that's trouble.

And I don't know much about Sochi, but I'll take your word for now ... and I think it's a given that Sochi will be drastically different from London.

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