In 2006 when BBC iPlayer was still in embryonic form a new way of delivering content was commissioned by the BBC from Red Bee Media called the On Demand Production Service.

The service was ground breaking for 2006. It delivered 600 hours of Television programmes each week to BBC iPlayer. But seven years later iPlayer audiences have increased to over seven million per day on four screens and on over 1000 devices and platforms. The experiment in delivering video over the internet was proven to work, the demand was there but the infrastructure was aging and needed replacement.

So Monday the 30th of September was an important day for BBC Online. because it marked the end of the On Demand Production Service ODPS and the launch of Video Factory.

I’m Marina Kalkanis the head of the engineering teams that have built Video Factory. In this post blog I shall be telling you about how it’s built and how it will allow us to continue to improve the BBC iPlayer service.

This year the BBC will publish about 50 thousand hours of TV content and nearly 100,000 clips online on iPlayer, News, Sport, and on programme pages.

In 2013 we put content onto four platforms (PC, mobile, tablet and TV) and onto more than 1000 different devices.

Because BBC iPlayer has been a big huge success loads of people rely on BBC iPlayer to catchup on their favourite programmes. We get complaints when programmes take too long to become available. Live progammes are particularly challenging for us because we have to do all the online processing after the broadcast completes. This is even more challenging when many live programmes all broadcast at the same time. The 6:30 regional news bulletins are a perfect example of this. 16 live broadcasts that all end at the same time.

This usage pattern is ideally suited for delivery using elastic cloud computing so Video Factory has moved live processing into the cloud. Cloud computing is computing services sold on demand, on the internet, typically by the minute or the hour; it is elastic - a user can have as much or as little of a service as they want at any given time. This means we will have the flexibility to scale (up or down) and only pay for what we use.

The other advantage of using cloud services is we don’t have a fixed amount of storage so we no longer have to limit the hours of content we can process nor do we have to limit the hours of HD content we can handle. And because it is easier to add in new services our system is much more flexible in creating content for new devices.

Our live workflow is quite simple. We capture live broadcasts and send these to cloud storage where they get picked up by a transcode job and either sent to an idle transcoder or if the queue is full and all transcoders are busy, a newly started transcoder. Once transcoded the media either goes back to the cloud storage to be packaged on demand when a request from the internet comes in or it is pushed through to one of our other distribution services.

To get accurate start and end points for the live programmes Video Factory receives messages from the BBC playout systems giving the exact start and end frames for programmes in the TV broadcast.

Transcoding from Live TV

This diagram appears simple but behind the scenes there is a great deal of processing to capture the broadcast, make sure the right media is created for each type of device, that all the access service components like subtitles etc are produced and that the correct online rights are respected.

Video Factory is developed by engineers in BBC Future Media. We are working with leading providers of media transcoding and packaging. Our roadmap for Video Factory is packed with features. We are improving quality, increasing the amount of HD content, greatly expanding the online catalogue and the formats and getting live programmes available much more quickly.

Turning off ODPS has meant discontinuing some older workflows and formats. We have moved the transcoding and post-processing service off of MS Windows servers and as a result of this we will no longer be offering Windows Media video downloads.

We won’t only be renewing our TV workflow. We also have an Audio Factory project that is getting underway. We have similar plans being laid to completely refresh the systems we use for publishing Radio programmes online. The BBC publishes more than 50 radio stations online, both live and as catchup and many of the benefits of a new TV publishing system also apply to Radio.

Some of my colleagues on the Video Factory team will be blogging soon with much more detail about how we built and system and how it operates. In the meantime I’d welcome your questions and feedback.

Marina Kalkanis is Head of Live Services, Programmes and On Demand, BBC Future Media

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by Paul-A

    on 11 Nov 2013 01:19

    Hi Marina

    Thanks for a detailed explanation of the new system for transcoding programme material.
    Two questions arise from what you said.

    Firstly, the use of a non-Windows platform (even a cloud-based service) does not rule out coding WMV files. If the service does not support a specifc CODEC then that, for sure, would be a problem - but the platform itself should not be an issue. The reason there is so much demand for WMV type downloads is that many users need an open standard file that can be moved to another platform (different computer, tablet etc) and played there with a standard player (Windows Media Player is just a god player that most people have already and it supports DRM coding, which you seem to think you need). MP4 or some other standard would work equally well - the problem is when you choose to develop your own proprietary player and then refuse to make it available on all platforms and make the files transportable. You don't have to do any of that if the file format is playable on software that already exists.

    Secondly, if you are transcoding programmes specially, why do they have to be taken from the off-air feed? It is of little use to have a preview of what is on next, or on-screen messages advertising programming later in the day - when you are watching the show days later.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Dan

    on 10 Nov 2013 21:16

    Argh!!!

    You've written a whole lot of gobbledy-gook that at the end of the day says nothing useful, just makes poor excuses, and results in bad encodings!

    In the past two days I have tried to watch iPlayer Download programmes that I downloaded 3 weeks ago and haven't tried to watch until now because of the 7 day restrictions once I do start watching and my own time constraints to do so, and faced nothing but colossal encoding glitches that result in skipped playback, green screens, and whole minutes worth of unwatchable skipped content, leaving perhaps only 5 of 60 watchable minutes of each programme.

    These are for The Ottomans - Episode 2 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dwq95), original standard version, and David Frost - That Was The Life That Was (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fgvm5).

    And now neither of these are available for re-download, which I would have no guarantee would be playable anyway.

    If you're going to take away WMV files and do your own thing, at least figure out how to do your own thing correctly before doing so!

    You and Dan Taylor should be ashamed of these problems.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by onapthanh

    on 21 Oct 2013 05:26

    With my provide full HD (1920x1080) for iPlayer, in addition to the 1280x720 that Player has used for "HD" so my new platform does not support WMV what alternatives are you planning? I assume this work will make the BBC more flexible with your approach to new distribution platforms and codecs in the future? on ap standa on ap lioa

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by irene

    on 18 Oct 2013 10:48

    Fantastic. We expect nothing less from the BBC iPlayer to be head an shoulders above the competition - it's the original and the best, but even so this is mind boggling. 50,000 hours of content to 1000 devices!! Easier said than done.

    Question - does any other online TV streaming service reach out to this many platforms?

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by marina

    on 17 Oct 2013 09:09

    @Briantist – When we increase the resolution of HD content we have to increase the bitrate accordingly. Our aim is to find the best compromise between picture quality and network capacity. We don’t have immediate plans to go higher than 720 for streaming over the internet. The good news is our new service makes this an easier switch when we decide the conditions are right.
    @Trevor Wright – Happily I can report that Prime Ministers Questions appeared on iPlayer before 2pm today which is much quicker than we delivered previously. This should be what you can expect in the future.
    @johndrinkwater – No we don’t have any plans for webm at this time.
    @Alex Cockell – We do liaise with industry partners and Frontier Silicon is amongst these. I’ll pass your comments on to our Audio product team.

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by Alex Cockell

    on 16 Oct 2013 17:15

    I called Roberts - they have been flooded with complaints about people suddenly being unable to play catchup content on their Internet radios - this needs to be solved very quickly...

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by DBOne

    on 16 Oct 2013 10:52

    @8 Thanks for the reply on WMV - I realise that WMV is dead but the small file size was advantageous to many and the current desktop downloads and mobile downloads are only supported on a far more limited range of hardware.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by Christopher

    on 15 Oct 2013 13:03

    @Briantist - 1080i iPlayer material is available, albeit through the iPlayer interface on Sky+HD devices. (!) I was quite surprised when I realised as it's not discussed anywhere.

    Re johndrinkwater - I don't imagine anything except H.264 will be focused on, given WebM uses VP8 and Vorbis without wide support outside of desktop PCs. We'll all be using H.265 (HEVC) soon enough anyway.

    Re DBOne - I don't imagine any replacement for WMV will be offered whatsoever, it's a dead format to the Beeb and with all the DQF coming in there's no budget to justify offering it for a shrinking userbase. The iPlayer Mobile download facility for mobile devices is probably angled to replace this functionality, and retention periods are increasing (30 days instead of 7).

    PMQs may take a while because it's not an exactly scheduled broadcast and/or might need a bit of gentle massaging to get through the system - that or because it comes from Millbank and is fed down the line, IMO it's not quite as integrated as majority of items originated by Network. (This last paragraph is educated guesswork on my part.)

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Alex Cockell

    on 15 Oct 2013 09:53

    Re WMV content - please could you liaise with Frontier Silicon as I am angry that listen again content is no longer available on my Roberts Stream 83i - one of the reasons i bought that radio was the access to the iPlayer backend for catchup.

    I can still listen to the live content - but I am NOT impressed that I have to now listen to catchup radio on my smart TV - I quite liked being able to catch up with radio on my bed...

    Through a hardware radio.

    Already filed with BBC Complaints.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by KernowChris

    on 14 Oct 2013 22:29

    This is good news, I await the flow of the newly processed HD programming with anticipation. I suppose the legacy of being first has handicapped the iPlayer from the start, I was one of the initially invited triallists, it's tech being built on the fly as the product developed. The sight of newer European players being able to instantly run programming as it ends has always frustrated me. SVT being immaculate with it's delivery system.
    I'd really like to see a queue available on the website, explaining when programmes being encoded are likely to be available. It'd avoid frustration.
    I presume the radio product is preparation for the catch-up service to start in 2014.

    This announcement ties up a few loose ends with the BBC iPlayer Downloads launch of a few days ago.

    I trust the cloud storage acquired matches the requirements outlined in the DG's comments last week of extending the window from 7/30/7 to 30/30/7 once approved by the Trust, and the additional Radio One and adhoc channels outlined.

    I can understand the reasons for the Windows format drop now, but also can empathise with those who find it's loss frustrating. Perhaps some notice of this type of change might placate complainants in the future.

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