ESPN turns to Aspera for data delivery of World Cup coverage

As ESPN puts together its distribution infrastructure for coverage of the 2010 World Cup, beginning in June, a lot of considerations have to be taken into account. Although the network captures and produces content in a file-based environment, moving those files between facilities can be problematic and expensive using traditional bandwidth services.

There’s also the physical distance between the various venues throughout South Africa and the network’s facilities in Bristol, CT, and Los Angeles, CA, and the issue of maintaining the quality of the HD signals over that long distance. Large volumes of edited video segments will be moved as files over fiber links using high-speed file transfer software. To accomplish this, ESPN has turned to Aspera, which specializes in high-speed content delivery of all types.

For the past five years, Aspera has worked with a variety of sports and news organizations, such as CNN, Time, the BBC and Agence France-Presse to move huge amounts of data quickly over existing infrastructures. Another client, James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment, selected Aspera’s file transfer software for moving the massive visual effects data required during the production of the blockbuster “Avatar” between their Los Angeles studio and a partner studio in New Zealand.

According to Francois Quereuil, director of marketing at Aspera, all of its clients have done it without costly infrastructure upgrades or compression techniques that can degrade quality. The software — available in different modules to address different applications — also allows clients to deliver full-resolution digital assets in much less time than it would take via traditional methods.

Aspera provides its transport software to be installed in flexible server/client configurations at both ends of a file transfer. The company leverages commodity IP networking technology so its software can be installed on any Internet line or private IP network. It can also run on most operating systems or platforms, including variations of Linux.

“Our software takes over from TCP, which has a number of big deficiencies, including the fact that its throughput is greatly impacted by distance and that it tends to slow down when it encounters any kind of problem,” Quereuil said. “Therefore, the bigger the files, the greater the distance, the more chances there are for data transfer interruptions, and, in most cases, the transfer times are impractical for production purposes. In the world of broadcast video, that can't be tolerated. It does not matter how big your data pipe is; you’ll never be able to fill it with TCP-based technologies.”

File transfers can be managed in a variety of ways, including setting them up to be totally automated. The software technology, which is a one-time cost, is agnostic to the type of data being sent, and files can be sent at the maximum speed the network and storage infrastructure will allow — up to hundreds of times faster than FTP.

Aspera began working with ESPN when the sports network was building its digital broadcast center in Los Angeles in 2003 (the facility officially opened on June 7, 2004). ESPN needed a cost-effective way to link its new facility with its main headquarters in Bristol. The file transfer had to be seamless to the operators on both ends, and it had to be totally reliable between the two sites. There are now two 10Gb/s connections on which Aspera software is being used for file transfer.

A software solution was implemented that now allows the staff to transfer files directly from ESPN’s numerous Quantel eQ edit workstations in L.A. or Bristol to an on-site Aspera server. This data would then be automatically transferred at high speed to the other facility.

“We’re not talking about a stream or a real-time transmission,” Quereuil said. “What we’re enabling is the ability to move file-based content at maximum speed over long-distance wide-area networks — in this case, back from South Africa to Bristol in a store-and-forward model. Our software enables speed gains that make global content production workflows possible.”

Using an underlying technology called FASP (Fast and Secure Protocol), Aspera offers different modules as part of its platform to send uncompressed data that can be encrypted for security. Files can be automatically de-encrypted immediately after they have been received for production purposes or can remain encrypted until the intended recipient accesses them. The software also includes a file-streamlining technique that facilitates the transfer of a large directory of small files as efficiently as sending a single large file without pretarring the files, which saves significant amounts of transfer time.

Quereuil said Aspera is looking to keep its technology open and accessible to third-party storage and encoding vendors to make implementation within existing facilities smooth. The company has been particularly successful on the content ingest side, where clients like Comcast Media Center, Hulu or the iTunes Store use Aspera software to manage the large amount of files that are uploaded on a daily basis.