SportsTechLA: UCLA, Pac-10 Lead the Way in File Exchange

By Carolyn Braff

During this week’s SportsTechLA event, held on the UCLA campus and sponsored by Intelsat, Salzbrenner Stagetec, and Sennheiser, attendees were treated to a how-to on digital file exchange, led by the experts that built the Pac-10 Conference’s unique digital file-exchange system. UCLA Senior Network Engineer Chris Thomas explained how the system works, using BlueArc’s Titan system, and how it gives coaches a competitive advantage.

The digital exchange system has been operational at UCLA for four seasons of football and is now in place for women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball as well.

A typical 20-GB football game, which must be transferred in high-resolution because of its wide-angle shots, takes 3 minutes and 20 seconds to transfer over UCLA’s 800-Mbps connection. Connection speeds differ even within the conference, so Stanford requires five minutes to transfer the same game (at a 500-Mbps rate). Smaller, lower-resolution files for basketball and volleyball typically fall in the 60- to 80- Mbps range, taking 20-30 minutes to transfer.

“The bottleneck on speed is almost always local, at your computer or departmental network,” Thomas explained, noting that the effective speed of exchange is the speed of the slowest connection, not an average of the available connections.

“If he’s at a terrible connection, I can’t utilize my bandwidth because I’m as fast as he is slow,” added Ken Norris, UCLA director of video operations.

Factors limiting that speed include traffic congestion on the network, firewalls, and intentional speed-restriction devices. “National networks are hardly ever the problem,” Thomas said.

Other ways to speed up the process include software tuning options, using a desktop instead of a laptop, a wired connection instead of wireless, and two or three disks in RAID-0 array instead of single hard disks or solid-state disks.

Private networks, Thomas noted, are the solution to many of these exchange-speed problems. The Internet2 network is UCLA’s solution. Internet2 is a consortium that manages the Abilene Network, a high-speed pipe that accommodates the amount of traffic UCLA has to run through it on a daily basis.

In addition to the FTP file server, the second piece of the Pac-10 exchange model is a graphical user interface.

“The file server takes files that somebody gives it and puts them on a disk as a package of files,” Thomas says. “It didn’t occur to us immediately to do it this way, but it’s obvious to us now that breaking this into two pieces is the way to design such a system. The interface is designed by users, so it’s very much user-friendly.”

Thomas discussed the advantages that a server model provides over a peer-to-peer exchange model, including the ability to have all the expertise in a central location and be able to download files at any time.

“Something that’s critical to the success of this is, you need to convince your coaches to have a reasonably open exchange policy,” he explained.

Norris added, “We have a gentlemen’s agreement that you put up your files first before you download. For the most part, we in the Pac-10 Conference all get along every well, and we honor that. When we give non-conference opponents clearance to access the server, we ask them to do the same: put their files up on our server, because it’s going to go a lot faster, and then download the files that they need from us.”

The video content exchanged on these servers is primarily for coaching analysis, so commoditizing and marketing it is not a priority, but getting it to the NFL dub center for scouting purposes and archiving the content are priorities.

“We have a couple TB Firewire drives, so we can put a season on there and just put it on a shelf,” Norris explained. “We’re looking at options right for long-term storage. UCLA has one of the largest libraries in the country, and we’re looking to them to help digitize our film archives as well.”

The Pac-10 model is so successful because Norris and Thomas are on hand to manage it on a daily basis, a reality that is less feasible at other conferences with staff expertise concentrated in other areas.

“It would be nice to have central servers at each conference,” Norris said. “I think that’s early on what the vision was, to have central servers that each conference can tap into with permission to access content from certain teams. Because of how quickly this hit the college ranks, I don’t think we were able to get to that point. We have Pac-10 meetings coming up so we will be discussing our options then.”

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