Virtualization the Disney Way, The Future of Web TV, Free Wi-Fi and More

This issue of Trendlines from the 10/01/08 issue of CIO magazine covers how the Disney Channel used virtualization to capture the tween market, the explosion of Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide, Intel and Yahoo's partnership on Internet TV and Home Depot's new CIO

Virtualization the Disney Way

You don't have to be a tween to know that the Disney Channel original movie Camp Rock was a summer sensation, drawing some nine million television viewers. To capitalize on the success, Disney decided to post the movie on Disney.com for a day, along with interactive features like the ability to chat online with other viewers, and take polls.

With a window of 60 days to get the movie on the site, Disney's Interactive Media Group relied on a combination of virtualization, load balancing and content delivery networks (CDN). About 25 servers were provisioned for different parts of the architecture to balance the load of the anticipated increased traffic, says Bud Albers, the group's CTO.

The group had done virtualization projects before, but never of this magnitude. The strategy was to scale server capacity based on demand, he says. Deploying a physical infrastructure was not an alternative. "There wasn't time to do it any other way,'' Albers says, since Disney had to gather requirements, features and content, and then come up with a production schedule. The goal, adds Adam Fritz, principal software engineer for the interactive media group, was to ensure capital and operating efficiencies as well as the ability to remain agile by relying upon virtual machines.

Other Disney sites, including ABC news and ESPN, are hosted by the same facility, "so we were able to spread our load and use 25 different machines that weren't at a peak time. We were able to hold the peak load and there were no incremental capital costs," says Albers.

Disney.com also used a dynamically integrated environment incorporating video, game images and community elements, which were rolled out to Disney.com when the site relaunched 18 months ago. The group relied on two CDNs, Akamai Technologies and Limelight Networks, to help meet the volume for multiple types of content delivery. Instead of having the user requests come in to Disney's group, they were sent to nearby CDN nodes, says Fritz.

According to Disney's internal tracking, the site hit a daily record with 3.2 million visitors, increasing traffic to Disney.com by 37 percent on June 23. It received more than 860,000 video plays for the one-day event. Albers says the event proves the scalability of a virtualization scheme, which will be an advantage for future events where huge online traffic spikes are anticipated.

Major events with mass appeal require a flexible architecture and the ability to reallocate existing server capacity, agrees Melanie Posey, a research director at IDC (a sister company to CIO's publisher). "That's the advantage of virtualization technology,'' she says—using a combination of load balancing, CDN and corralling underused servers. "Having the ability to reallocate server capacity that already exists is easier and more time efficient for the company that's providing the content than getting a physical server, installing it and configuring it."

-Esther Shein

Wi-Fi Just Wants to Be Free

Wi-Fi hot spots have exploded during the last several years. Best-guess estimates range from 33,000 WLAN hot spots worldwide to more than 250,000.

Customers now expect wireless LAN connectivity inside everything from restaurants to airports, hotels and hospitals. But something else has also become part of customers' expectations: free Wi-Fi. Nearly 50 percent of respondents say they would only use a free hot spot, according to a recent In-Stat survey.

Cost is one factor, notes In-Stat senior analyst Daryl Schoolar. What also factors into reluctance to pay for the service is the perception of a lack of value. "You pay X dollars per session, and you can only use it at a few locations," he says. The proliferation of free Wi-Fi hot spots, he notes, also "makes it challenging to get people to pay."

It's not surprising, then, that In-Stat data showed hot spot access revenues are not keeping pace with usage growth. "The explosion of free sites is really driving the market," Schoolar says. So hot spot operators are looking at other ways to generate revenue.

"Operators have started bundling hot spot access with other services, such as fixed and mobile broadband," according to the In-Stat report. And collecting hot spot revenue is easier in some captive settings, like an airport or hotel, Schoolar notes. "Hot spot owners are still charging if they control a prime location like airports, where there is no alternative," he says. Other WLAN operators charge for access because that's their business model. However, a decline in access revenues will begin in 2010 in the U.S., Schoolar predicts.

-Thomas Wailgum

Intel and Yahoo partner for Internet on TV

Coming soon to a TV near you: widgets.

Intel and Yahoo are developing a hardware and software platform designed to meld television and the Internet. TV sets, cable set-top boxes and optical media players built with special Intel processors and supporting a Yahoo software framework will allow people to integrate lightweight "widget" applications into their viewing experience that complement TV watching with online functionality. This includes interacting with friends and buying products online, say Intel and Yahoo.

The Yahoo TV application framework is called the Widget Channel and is designed for consumer electronics devices built with the accompanying Intel system-on-a-chip media processors. Widget Channel developers will be able to create TV applications using languages like JavaScript, XML, HTML and Flash.

While there have been past attempts to merge TV and the Internet, Yahoo and Intel are confident their approach will strike a chord with the mass market. TV viewers will get access to a widget gallery where they can choose applications. The widget approach is designed to be nonintrusive and to adapt to the TV experience by, for example, not requiring viewers to use a keyboard but rather use remote controls for interacting with the applications.

Yahoo and Intel expect to see devices hit the market in early 2009. Companies planning to develop and deploy widgets include Blockbuster, CBS Interactive, Disney-ABC Television Group, eBay, GE, MTV and Samsung Electronics. Yahoo will generate revenue through advertising on the service.

-Juan Carlos Perez and Agam Shah

Home Depot Nails Down New CIO

Home Depot has found a replacement for CIO Bob DeRodes, who announced his decision to retire from the home improvement retailer last April. Home Depot has hired Matt Carey as its new EVP and CIO. Carey most recently served as eBay's SVP and CTO. In his new role with Home Depot, Carey reports to Chairman and CEO Frank Blake. DeRodes will remain with Home Depot until Carey's transition into the company is complete. Prior to eBay, Carey worked for Wal-Mart for more than 20 years. His accomplishments there include managing the rollout of its radio frequency infrastructure, large mainframe systems and data warehouse. He was also involved in the development and integration of Walmart.com and Samsclub.com.

Southwest Airlines hired Bob Young as its new VP and CTO to lead its infrastructure teams, which include test and deployment, application and data architecture, tech services operations support, and tech services field support. Young flew into Love Field from a multibillion-dollar electronics company where he was responsible for supporting a $20 billion business unit.

Scottrade promoted Joan Albeck to CTO. Albeck's promotions comes two months after CIO recognized her as a technology leader to watch. She is the online investment company's first CTO. Albeck had served as Scottrade's director of IT infrastructure. In her new role, she oversees all IT infrastructure-related design, implementation and support, and leads a team of 100 associates who support the data center and corporate network. Albeck has worked for the company since 2005.

-Meridith Levinson

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