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Music Showcase, a development perspective

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Chris Lowis Chris Lowis | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

We've recently released the latest addition to the BBC Music website - The AV Showcase. As a development team we're very proud of the work we've done, and excited about developing the showcase in the future. As we've taken some innovative decisions on the architecture of the Showcase we'd like to share them with you in more detail and welcome comments and ideas from the wider development community.

Technical Overview

The Showcase is a rich Internet application built on the BBC's Platform. It aggregates all of the short form video and audio content that the BBC produces under the genre "Music". To retrieve the clips a PHP application talks over HTTPS to the same service layer application that powers the iPlayer. This information is then rendered using HTML to provide a semantic and search-engine friendly view of the content. A layer of stateful JavaScript presents this information in an exciting way, allowing, for example our innovative "browse while play" feature. Let's examine some of the layers of technology in more detail.

JavaScript

The JavaScript involved in this project has been a major departure from what has ever been seen at the BBC before. The main inspiration behind the JavaScript architecture has been a traditional MVC pattern in conjunction with Nicholas C. Zakas' talk on scalable JavaScript architecture. This in conjunction with jQuery live events has made for an impressive system for building Ajax websites.

One of the key design challenges we face in this project is allowing you to listen to audio or video clips while browsing the showcase to find more content. There were many ways we could have achieved this. Some sites use a pop-up "player" window, while others embed a player in an iframe on the page. As Sacha discusses in his post on the showcase's design, we really wanted the playing interface to feel like part of the whole site, and to be seamlessly integrated into the navigation, while still allowing the focus - the music - to be uninterrupted by exploration of other content.

We decided that the only way to achieve this would be to use an Ajax based approach. We fetch the data in from the PHP layer and composite it on the page using JavaScript. This means that, from the point of view of the browser, the actual "page" never changes - and therefore a playing EMP is never reloaded and the listening experience is uninterrupted. When a clip is first played we reveal a <div> at the bottom of the browser window and position our Embedded Media Player (EMP) correctly on the page. If you then decide to click elsewhere within the showcase, to look at another collection for example, we reposition the EMP to the bottom corner of the screen. The content of the new page is loaded in place using Ajax.

One of the traditional weaknesses of an Ajax application is the lack of web pages to back it up. Using the xmlhttprequest header we have been able to vary whether we serve up the full page, or just the content required by an Ajax request, resulting in a full 'static' site to back up the Ajax version.

When you visit the showcase homepage, https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/showcase and then click on a link to another section of the website, for example the "Browse Genres" link, the only thing that happens at this stage is that a hash fragment is appended to the URL using JavaScript. This change in the URL is picked up by a section of the framework we call the dispatcher. The dispatcher is in charge of firing events to our model (Ajax request) and then dispatching them to the appropriate controller. The dispatcher knows which controller to dispatch to by looking at a "routes" object. This means that all back and forward button behaviour is dealt with in the same way as clicking on a link on the page.

We are currently looking at the possibility of open sourcing the framework used to make the showcase. Look out for a more detailed description of how the JavaScript code works at that time.

CSS

As a team, we're excited about the creative opportunities provided by the CSS3 spec. During development we found that adding JavaScript-based transitions and animations had a negative effect on the site's performance, especially on lower-spec computers. Where possible we have instead used CSS3 to provide these. Examples of these can be found when the 'playbar' initialises or when the 'autoplay' button slides between 'on' and 'off'. We have tested for the JavaScript counterpart of the 'transition' CSS3 property, if this test fails we then fall back to JavaScript animation if it does not impact the performance.

To keep the download weight of our JavaScript and CSS code as small as possible we use Yahoo's YUI Compressor.

Metadata

As well as providing an aggregation of all of the exciting music content the BBC has to offer from across our range of services, one of our intentions for the Showcase was to provide interesting onward journeys from individual clips. This is only possible by having a rich set of metadata for each item of content. From a technical point of view this involved looking for identifiers that were reusable and unique and 'tagging' our content with them.

The individual clips are tagged by editorial staff with Musicbrainz identifiers which represent the individual performing artists featured in the clip. Musicbrainz IDs are an example of web-scale identifiers. These are identifiers for things, in this case musicians, that are in common use across the Internet. Our use of them makes it very trivial to, for example, create links to pages on the Music site (our artist page URLs follow the format https://bbc.co.uk/music/artists/) or to retrieve related information for an artist from a 3rd-party API.

Featured artist screen gra

We will shortly be adding a "related clips" feature. When viewing a particular clip in our larger "theatre view" we will display clips which relate to the current clip. This is achieved in two ways, firstly by simply searching the available clips for others tagged with the same artists. Secondly we send the musicbrainz identifier to The Echo Nest, a music metadata provider, and use their 'similar' API to obtain a list of artists which are similar to the ones featured in the clip. If we have content for those artists we display this too. Using robust and unique Musicbrainz identifiers makes such API calls easy to implement, and also will allow us in future to integrate with other services that adopt musicbrainz.

Clips in our system are also tagged with dbpedia identifiers. This allows more general metadata to be applied to a clip, for example locations or events. While we're not currently exposing this information through the Showcase, it could allow in the future further aggregations of Music content as well as interesting horizontal journeys to the rest of the BBC's on-line content.

Artist Quick-find

To allow finding content by your favourite artists we have a "quickfind" box in the corner of showcase.

The

For such quickfind tools to be useful, the response times have to be fast. We use the Glow Autosuggest widget to provide the interaction. Powering the search itself we use Apache Solr, a Lucene-backed search engine that runs on Tomcat. Periodically, triggered by Quartz, we fetch the full list of clips available in the showcase and a list of all the artist pages we publish on /music. We weight the search results for artist pages slightly to reflect the amount of content we have for each artist. When making a search request, the parameters are proxied via a small PHP application which sorts and formats the results from Solr, and also provides a layer of caching for common search terms.

 

Solr and its indexer are running on four Tomcat application servers split between two data centres. One is designated the master; it is write only and is the instance that gets periodically updated. The other three are slaves which poll the master for updates. When an update is detected the slave will then update itself.

The indexer runs on all four of the servers but will only update on the one designated as master. If the master should fail then a new server can be designated as the master and the indexer will switch to updating that one, with the remaining slaves polling this new master.

We have been extremely pleased with the performance of the system. The average request time is around 18ms on our "as-live" system.

The Future

It's great to finally launch something that we've been working on in secret, but for the development team the hard work is just starting. There are still some outstanding performance issues and other bugs to address in the Showcase itself, but on the horizon we have some exciting features planned to improve the integration with other music services, to provide richer journeys to other content around the BBC and to allow you to share the content you find with other people. One of the main things still be tackled is full accessibility, and we are currently working on implementing full Aria support. Let us know what you think so far, and feel free to ask questions in the comments. We'll do our best to answer them!

Chris Lowis is Software Engineer, FM&T Programmes & On Demand

...and full credit to the rest of the Music development team.

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