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Streaming Media Steps Up to the Plate (Web Techniques, Feb 2002)


Infrastructure

No amount of synchronization and metadata can save a business, though, if performance issues make the site appear broken to customers. To mitigate those familiar server load issues caused by streaming video on the Internet, MLBAM relies on a content distribution model called edge caching.

In this context, edge caching is the use of strategically located servers to distribute the load of streaming video across the Internet. This relieves the pressure on individual network segments and streaming servers. In the traditional server-side delivery model, when the user requests objects,Web and application servers process the request, and the objects are sent from the server back to the end user's browser or client application.

The traditional server-side delivery model places a higher load on the servers, which typically results in a slower response to requests. With edge caching, objects are put ongeographically dispersed servers throughout the Internet and placed as close to the end user as possible.This method puts less stress on the hosted servers, reduces the need for larger pipes, and typically delivers the video much quicker than sending it across many Internet nodes.As fans request digital streams, the closest or fastest responding server (in this case, Akamai servers) responds to the request in a load balanced fashion. For Custom Cuts, MLB.com utilizes the Akamai FreeFlow product, which isdesigned to distributestreaming mediareliably and quickly to a large number of users, in as many locations.

A Grand Slam?

MLB.com's relaunch looks to be paying off. Non-subscriber traffic volume to the site has climbed. And according to Nielsen/NetRatings, more than 21 million office workers viewed streaming media on the Internet in September 2001—up 21 percent from September 2000.

It isn't all high-fives for the staff, though. By mid-June, a total of 83,000 subscribers had signed up for audio streams from MLB.com. While this may sound impressive, the number of viewers is not even the equivalent of two sold-out games in the major leagues. According to spokesman Jim Gallagher, MLBAM isn't worried by these figures. "We're predicting profitability in the middle of our second year," he says.

During one of the first games of the 2001 season, MLB.com stumbled when the site went down due to high traffic volume. Rather inauspiciously, it was just one week after MLB.com began charging for audio content. Getting hit with the worst-case scenario right off the bat may have been a boon, though. The response to the problem— the edge caching delivery model—could turn out to be a magic bullet that makes streaming media more viable in terms of image and performance quality.

Today, MLBAM's team looks back on the Custom Cuts project's development with little regret. Given the potential grief in a project of this scope, Choti says the problems were minimal. Partnering with Real Networks and Virage avoided "a lot of pain and heartache to MLB.com and its fans," he says. "To develop this completely in-house would probably have taken three times as long, [cost] ten times as much, and we would have had massive bumps along the way."

Naturally, in the aftermath of a launch and a long season, developers have compiled a list of ideas about how to improve Custom Cuts, particularly with regard to the assets. For example, Major League Baseball issomewhat unique in itsscalability requirements, says Shaffer. For this reason Shaffer believes MLBAM would definitely benefit from centralizing the data store for all video-related metadata. Baseball also has the unique requirement of moment-by-moment fluidity. "Due to the nature of baseball statistics, past rulings and decisions are constantly being changed, which currently forces both Virage data and MLB.com data to change." In the future, the MLBAM team plans to ensure that Custom Cuts is seamlessly updatable in real time.

MLBAM would be wrong to assume its problems are all in the past. But it does seem to have the most debilitating bugs worked out for the second revision of Custom Cuts, which is slated for next season. Currently, the development team is working on what Shaffer calls a "rock-solid" architecture that will support Custom Cuts for the coming years.

"We are definitely anticipating changes in streaming media and Web development technologies, but have the benefit of amostlyunchanging platform to base our products on," says Shaffer. Add to that the benefit of the fans, unchanging in their loyalty, and MLBAM is set to be the most complete baseball portal around.


Jennie Rose is a freelance technology writer and former Web developer. She welcomes your feedback at jenneric@pacbell.net.


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