Big Brother has finally had his say. The television show, whose eventual winner was cheeky Liverpudlian Craig, has been watched by most of the country for 10 weeks, with images streamed live on the Big Brother website 24 hours a day.
Demon Internet was one of two internet service providers (ISPs) chosen to provide the streaming infrastructure for the site.
How did Demon get involved with the Big Brother website?
Demon has had a relationship with Real Networks from day one. We went to the Real conference in Paris and they were looking to do a Big Brother broadcast in the UK. This was about two or three weeks before Big Brother started.
Why was Demon chosen? Was it because you have a large subscriber base?
No. It was to do with us being a large ISP in the UK, and because we have end user connections coming straight into our networks.
What sort of infrastructure did you need to set up?
We chose some Compaq dual CPU servers with 2Gb of RAM because the traffic adds up to about 1000 streams per CPU. We set it up so that each server could cope with twice the capacity we needed.
We bought 11 servers, with one for redundancy. Those 10 servers could handle 20,000 streams. Terra [the company that handled the live streaming and bandwidth provision for Big Brother] wanted 10,000 streams per ISP.
It seems you were working to pretty tight deadlines.
We built up all of the kit, racked it up and sorted the network within a week, and to be honest there were a few configuration problems. One of them was that originally the traffic was distributed randomly between us and Freeserve - the other ISP chosen for Big Brother. This meant that loads of Freeserve customers were using our servers and vice versa, which was a complete waste of bandwidth.
How did you solve this problem?
We changed the configuration of the RAM file - the metafile that tells a client's browser which server to connect to. We set it up so that with initial connection it would check the IP address range to determine if it was a Demon or Freeserve customer.
If it was in the Demon range it would kick the user towards us, and if it was a Freeserve customer then it would point them in the direction of Freeserve. If they were neither Demon nor Freeserve it would distribute them randomly.
It was a two-stage process. First you connect to the right ISP, and second you connect to the least loaded server. That took a few days to get right, but once it was in place it worked.
How did the video stream get from the Big Brother house to your network?
There were encoders in Bow, east London, which encode video and audio into Real format. That was then streamed to Real servers hosted by Intel in Reading where the website was hosted. Those servers then used a technology called splitting, which pushed streams to us and Freeserve.
Because they were live streams, you only had a single, proper connection. It's not like a video stored on disc, it's just a single, continuous stream coming out.
Did you experience any failures?
We did have one failure - on a Compaq box - but that didn't affect the service because there wasn't a single point of failure. That box was replaced the next day, disks were swapped around and everything was back up and running. It was a physical failure on the motherboard.
Were there any problems due to events in the house itself, like Nasty Nick being booted out?
That was all handled by Terra. They didn't actually turn the feed off, they just put an engineering test card saying "This transmission is being ceased." The live feed was still going out, it just wasn't showing anything.
Now that Big Brother has finished, what do you plan to do with the equipment?
We're going to keep it and use it for other things. Big Brother has attracted a lot of interest in streaming, and we're hoping to be a part of any future plans in the UK.
There are various bodies - such as in the fields of entertainment, sport and the UK government - that are interested in streaming and have already approached us.
In the US, streaming is pretty big; it's not quite equivalent to TV yet but it's getting there. Over here we are catching up. Digital subscriber line (DSL) is emerging, and next year the unbundling of the local loop occurs. Demon is part of that - by putting equipment in local exchanges we can then offer competitive services against BT.
When you have broadband access to the home, video streaming at a decent bit-rate is feasible. You can really start to produce high-bandwidth video-on-demand applications. VHS-quality video over asymmetric DSL is a reality.
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