Silverlight's Starring Role in Bringing Streaming Video to the Olympics Website

Lights, camera... LOTS of action! Microsoft's Silverlight is powering the live video coverage of the Beijing Olympics, so you'll soon be able to watch your favorite sport competitions live on the web. Here's how some of the pieces all fit together -- for both web developers and project managers.

How would you like to be handed this IT project: create a website that will present 2,200 hours of live, interactive video, plus integrated broadcast coverage. The site will have huge spikes of traffic, and operate under worldwide scrutiny, so it has to be designed for performance. It has to be done in the next 150 days; no schedule extensions are possible. And it must deliver a brilliant user experience.

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That's the job in front of the developers for the Summer Olympics website, which also will offer expert commentary and sports biographies and permit users to share links to favorite event videos. During the MIX 08 keynote address on Wednesday, Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media for NBC Sports & Olympics, said that this was "the most ambitious online project."

During the Olympics, the site (demonstrated in prototype form during the keynote) will deliver video interactively for 17 days. The coverage of Olympics events—built using Microsoft's Silverlight technology, will let site visitors do much more than start, pause, and stop a video. Users can rewind the video and click on replay to see a particularly astonishing bit of gymnastics. If a user sets up watch lists, an alert can pop up over the current video to remind the user that another event is starting.

A picture-in-picture feature (as you might see on a regular TV) lets you watch the gymnastics competition with a minimized view of the baseball game tucked away in the corner. The list of "most popular videos"includes multiple streams of live videos. Even granting the fairy dust of scripted demos, this is all very cool.

Silverlight 2.0's release to beta was one of Microsoft's biggest announcements at the MIX 08 conference, and every breakout session on the topic was packed full. (More so than the session on Internet Explorer 8, to my mild surprise.) To crib directly from Microsoft's press materials, which in this case is an adequate summary: "Silverlight 2 supports managed code, includes the core of the Common Language Runtime and adds over two dozen user interface controls (such as button, check box, date controls, gridview and layout) that are designed to be used right out of the box, or to be tweaked with styles. If you need full control over the look and feel, the appearance of any control can be fully determined by templates and control behavior can be modified by hooking events, or ultimately by creating custom controls."

The "rich user experience" is one thing (Don't you wish you had a nickel for every time a Microsoft person said rich?), but Microsoft also is stressing that Silverlight's benefits include total cost of ownership and monetization (by which they mean "You can integrate advertising into video, and do cool things with your banner ads").

The TCO pitch is particularly interesting to IT departments—and the Olympics site developers—as it gives admins control over streaming and progressive downloads. You can now do bit rate throttling, using Windows Media Services 2008, released last week. When a user clicks to download a video, Silverlight sets up a burst of content because the site visitor doesn't want to wait. But after 10 seconds of video, the site can be told to stay only 10 seconds ahead of the video watcher. Because few people watch every video all the way through, that single change can save significantly on bandwidth and hosting costs, pointed out Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the developer division at Microsoft.

That's the user view, though. CIO.com spoke with Matthew Rechs, CTO of Schematic, which has worked with Microsoft and NBC on the Olympics site development; he provided an overview of the project details.

The team that put this together kicked-off the Silverlight/Olympics project in January. Yes, this January, only a few weeks ago. There are 12 people writing code (plus sundry designers, managers, and executive staff)—25 people all-told, said Rechs.

That isn't a particularly big team, but they don't need to crank out millions of lines of code, according to Rechs. The video site isn't an enterprise-class project with lots of business logic; it's all web services on the back end.

Those personnel don't include those who are doing the video capture, satellite video distribution or image processing for the videos; that's done by NBC with a huge team in Beijing, said Rechs, and it's something NBC has obviously been doing for a long time. (Note that it's Microsoft and NBC, not MSNBC; the content is hosted by MSN, and distributed by NBC.) Nor does the "began in January" include the discussions about overall site design or advertising models; Schematic wasn't a party to that discussion.

One technical tidbit about the application's design:it has "application logic everywhere," Rechs said. With Silverlight, a lot more code runs on the browser; there's almost no server-side code powering the video. "There's a lot of stuff in the client rather than the server or data center," explained Rechs.

Rechs says he's genuinely impressed with Silverlight 2.0, even in its beta status. "That web demo on stage during the keynote was the real deal, no smoke and mirrors," he said. Silverlight's performance is great, he explained, with no clunkiness or jerkiness in video or animation.

Still, Silverlight is new, so the tools are different from what Schematic's developers are used to working with, such as Microsoft's Expression Suite; that does require some transition time. And, of course, it's still a beta version.

But, Rechs said, "You couldn't build something like this from scratch."

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