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Activate: Ready for All Demands

When a ship is built, it goes on a "shakedown" cruise to discover if anything is going to shake loose while at sea. A new facility may get the same kind of testing before deployment, but of course, not in the literal sense.

(click thumbnail)Shown is Activate’s ‘Grand Central’. Like the New York train station, the control room has lots of comings and goings.When a ship is built, it goes on a “shakedown” cruise to discover if anything is going to shake loose while at sea. A new facility may get the same kind of testing before deployment, but of course, not in the literal sense.

And then there’s the Seattle streaming media provider Activate Corp.

“We did our official launch in February of last year,” said the company’s senior product marketing manager Anne Paper. “We had a huge party, (with) 300 people and then the next day was the earthquake!”

Activate’s new $20 million facility survived Seattle’s 6.8 shakedown last year with nary a problem.

“The thing that was amazing was that it was an incredible testimonial,” said Paper. “Not a paper out of place.”

Big stream

Its building has survived several previous Seattle shakedowns. Built in 1914 to house clothing maker The Black Manufacturing Company, it has survived long enough to gain status on the National Historic Register.

Besides its apparently earthquake-resistant building, Activate faced a number of challenges in the design of its facility. Primary among them was the ability to receive a large number of signals and serve a large number of streams.

“It’s not unusual for us, on any particular day, to have a peak stream output of about 10,000 simultaneous users, which from a streaming perspective is a large number,” said Jon Brown, vice president of engineering at Activate.

Until recently, Activate was a majority-owned operating company of CMGI Inc. In September the company announced that it had sold Activate to Loudeye Technologies, a streaming-media infrastructure company.

“We will be consolidating operations, the major result of that would be the addition of a large-scale media archiving system,” said Brown. “We will also absorb their current video work. Loudeye’s investments in radio, music and ad insertion technologies complement Activate’s experience in those areas and that’s a positive for customers in those segments.”

(click thumbnail)Rooftop satellite dishes frame Mount Rainier. The building is in the National Historic Register, which prevents the company from installing dishes permanently.
Loudeye announced it would move its operations into Activate’s quake-tested, award-winning, state-of-the art facility.

“Activate has a fabulous facility,” said Joel McConaughy, Loudeye’s chief technology officer. “By combining their live-broadcast capacity with our ability to warehouse massive amounts of data we’ll have a complete, end-to-end live, on-demand, Real, Windows – you name it, we can run with any digital media situation,” said McConaughy.

In November, Activate’s facility won Network World’s 2001 “Best of Test” Award for multimedia. The award from the information technology magazine honors IT products that have succeeded through 12 months of hands-on testing.

Activate managers knew from the beginning that it would require a robust infrastructure to handle many sources going to many destinations. The answer was a pair of routing switchers: it installed a 256-by-512 nVision/ADC wideband router and a companion 64-by-64 PESA Switching Systems router dedicated only to audio.


September’s terrorist attacks tested Activate’s flexibility.

“The primary, immediate impact was adding additional streams for news-based stations,” said Brown. “Traffic increased 30-40 percent on our radio overall.”

The company plans to serve more radio stations in the future. The majority of its streaming serves businesses that conduct meetings virtually via the Internet. Thus the drop in corporate travel since Sept. 11 is proving to be a long-term positive for the company.

(click thumbnail)Activate’s building originally was the home of The Black Manufacturing Co., a sewing factory.
Industry observers have said this trend should continue to grow. Jupiter Media Metrix projects that the enterprise streaming market will double from $290 million this year to $580 million in 2002 and will grow to $2.8 billion in 2005.

“We’ve also seen an increase in our live-event Webcasting for enterprise customers,” said Brown. “The impact of that increase is felt more by our production staff than in terms of bandwidth or number of streams. The ‘Grand Central’ facility certainly has adequate capacity to handle that increase.”

Activate named its control room Grand Central, after the busy New York train station.


Activate’s ability to handle spikes in its business apparently validates decisions it made during the design process. Originally the company had looked at a 1,024-by-1,024 router, but after examining its needs the company scaled back on that and some other equipment.

“We had to get it more appropriately aligned with our budget and sized right for the amount of business that we have,” said Brown.

But he said the foundation it built is capable of growing quickly with demand.

“The important things that we did are still going forward in terms of building all the base infrastructure for the whole thing, just in case.”

Part of that scalability is the EMC Corp.’s Celerra File Server, which provides storage for material that is not streamed live. As clients feed them pre-produced material for later streaming, the facility won’t run out of space to cache it.

A pair of large-screen displays that monitor incoming and outgoing signals visually dominates Grand Central. But the heart of the operation is composed of the individual workstations.

A major challenge was to design workstations so that the fewest operators could do the most work and so that operators wouldn’t have to move around the facility to complete a task. That meant packing a lot of capability into each workstation.

It called for a great deal of design work from systems integrator Doyle Technologies. Each workstation is dense with equipment.

“It’s packed: front, back, side, bottom, top, underneath, everywhere, shoehorned every which-way,” said Barry Ballanger, director of engineering at Doyle. “Very elegantly put in there, but it’s full.”

Brown made sure the equipment and operators were in separate rooms.

“It’s a much cleaner operation, not allowing anyone to touch the equipment. That way they can’t monkey with it.”

While Activate’s facility is designed to handle video as well as audio, it planned to provide Internet radio service when the facility was designed. Internet radio business has ebbed and flowed.

“A lot of the integrators of the day have gone out of business,” said Brown. This caused Activate to cultivate the corporate market in order to level out its revenue stream. Today, a big chunk of its business lies in streaming earnings forecasts and shareholders’ meetings.

Still, Activate is bringing station streams back online by working directly with the stations or groups.

At present, it provides streaming services for NPR affiliates KLON(FM), KPLU(FM) and KWMU(FM) and commercial stations WBIX(AM), KTIS(AM-FM) and WUFL(AM).

(click thumbnail)Compaq Proliant encoding stations line a wall in ‘Grand Central’.
Ad insertion

Getting into the stations helped Activate come up with a strategy for the design of its Internet radio ad-insertion technology.

Brown said, “We developed it with RCS because what we wanted to do is to get a station-side plug-in to the encoder that’s already there, that could read their log and create the ad breaks appropriately.”

The object was to create something that was simple and didn’t require the station personnel to do a lot of work on it. The system looks to the station automation system to tell it when a break is coming.

Then it sends the ad for the break to the player on the user’s PC, where it is stored until the break itself. When the automation signals the break itself, the encoder creates a window in the stream and the player inserts the ad at the PC.

Will Activate’s ad-insertion technology handle targeted ads?

“Absolutely,” said Brown. “The need hasn’t arisen yet, but the original design was for targeting.”

So that the server knows what spot to send an individual user, the user’s player sends information back upstream, including the genre the listener is tuned to, the listener’s age and location.

Station side

Audio encoding for Internet radio stations is done at the station facilities, then delivered to Activate via frame relay. Why frame relay rather than phone lines?

“That gives us a clean signal from them to us and we don’t have to worry about any problems that happen in distribution that will affect the entire audience,” said Brown.

He said phone-line delivery can get expensive.

“We can do a frame relay through Qwest for only about $200 a month. To lease a local phone line for 24 hours a day, it starts to add up, unless you’re local.”

Streaming audio that comes in via phone line at Activate typically is from events.

Brown’s advice to radio stations is simple.

“You have to really be paying attention to what type of encoder equipment you have and the codec you’re using.” Brown said a high bitrate stream sent by a station can be down-converted to a lower bitrate for modem listeners, but trying to up-convert a low bitrate stream won’t work as well.

It’s also worth noting that if a station is going to stream in both Real and Windows Media formats, Brown said, it has to encode and send a stream of each.

Weird organic growth

How much high-bandwidth listening is going on?

Activate’s research finds a 40-60 split, with 40 percent of the listening being done at high bandwidth. It found that the high point of streaming listening comes on weekdays at 2 p.m., demonstrating the oft-cited maxim that much Internet listening is done at work.

A terrestrial broadcaster’s mindset is “the more listeners, the better.” But because Internet radio streamers pay for the bandwidth incrementally as more users listen to their streams, the ability to cap the number of listeners is of keen interest to many broadcasters.

“That allows the station to know, precisely, ‘I will not exceed a certain amount on a monthly basis,’” Brown said. “Popular stations get weird, organic growth that occurs every month and they just keep getting slightly bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger every month.”

For mega events, where the potential audience is unlimited, Activate’s distribution network is almost infinitely scalable.

“We not only have our own network but we work with several distribution partners,” said Brown. “Depending on the size of an event, we can add as many chains as we would probably ever need.”