This summer, we witnessed the future of broadcasting, and it wasn’t the first time the Olympics were involved. When the Games were first held in Tokyo in 1964, it made history for being the first live televised broadcast. Fifty-seven years later, with the help of 6,700 pieces of Cisco equipment, NBC Olympics was able to deliver more than 7,000 hours of coverage across multiple platforms. The ingenuity behind the scenes was Cisco helping power the first all-IP production in the host city for NBC Olympics’ coverage of the Games.

IP networking is a proven and robust technology, as evidenced by the IP-based enterprise networks that support so many businesses and organizations. The tremendous benefit of IP is that it enables new workflows that simply aren’t possible with legacy video technology. These new workflows enable broadcasters to fundamentally transform how they create and deliver content while lowering their operating expenses. And they can do this without negatively impacting the reliability or real-time delivery of content.

Improving Capabilities & Visibility

Consider a workflow like distributed production (see Figure 1). Traditionally, all participants in a live broadcast, from those being filmed to those doing the filming, had to be in the same location. With distributed production, each group can be in its own location. A host or commentator could be on one continent while athletes are on another, and the production team is yet again somewhere else. This allows for a lighter onsite crew and for production teams to work in their home production studios with full access to all of their usual tools and equipment.

Figure 1: A distributed production workflow allows production, participants, and commentators to be located anywhere in the world.

This was truer than ever for NBC Olympics because of COVID-19. Production was split between crews in Tokyo and employees back at NBC Olympics’ studios in Stamford, New York, Englewood Cliffs, Miami, and Sky Sports in the UK. There was increased importance on being able to send content back to the video team for editing and post-production before being distributed. Reliability, always important, was even more vital due to the scale of these Games.

Delivering Live Production

To deliver live production, the IP network at the IBC had to guarantee reliable transport of uncompressed video (SMPTE 2110). Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches, deployed in a hybrid spine-leaf network, made this possible running with Cisco’s innovative Non-Blocking Multicast (NBM) technology. NBM provides end-to-end bandwidth guarantees for all multicast flows without relying on the traditional “equal cost, multipath-based” load balancing of flow. The flexibility of IP ensured that all flows within the IBC were reliable while meeting the capacity demands. Along with NBM, the Nexus 9000 switches distributed timing at scale using Precision Time Protocol (PTP). This ensured all endpoints were always in sync with nanosecond precision.

In addition, Cisco Nexus 9000 switches powered by Cisco’s Cloud scale ASICs, provided granular visibility into critical aspects of the network, including tracking the bitrate of every multicast flow and following flow paths as signals travelled through the network and streaming all of this information real-time using software and hardware telemetry to Nexus Dashboard Fabric Controller (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Flow analytics track the bitrate of every single flow in the network.
Figure 2: Flow analytics track the bitrate of every single flow in the network.

Simplification and automation were critical given the live nature of the Olympics. There wasn’t time for a tech to log into a switch and scan a session log to figure out an issue. Using the Nexus Dashboard and Cisco Nexus Dashboard Fabric Controller (NDFC) gave NBC Olympics a single pane of glass approach to network management. Combined with the granular visibility of Cisco Nexus 9000 switches (see Figures 3 and 4), NDFC provided real-time insights into network performance, all the way to the application level. This enables NBC Olympics to identify and resolve issues before they became problems that can impact the quality of broadcasting.

Figure 3: The Cisco Nexus Dashboard provides flow information.
Figure 3: The Cisco Nexus Dashboard provides flow information.
Figure 4: Monitoring precision time protocol performance on Cisco Nexus 9000 switches.
Figure 4: Monitoring precision time protocol performance on Cisco Nexus 9000 switches.

In addition to increasing reliability and simplifying management, NBC Olympics also recognized substantial operational savings with an all-IP distributed production approach. While COVID-19 necessitated a reduced crew on the ground in Tokyo, the technology enabled teams in different countries or regions to do their work from their home base.

The flexibility of all-IP production also enables network and production investment to be used in different events around the world. This reduces the overall carbon footprint of the entire industry and create long-term operational savings while optimizing workflows.

“The technology itself, the network, the connectivity, the bandwidth—it all worked flawlessly. It was not something we had to troubleshoot. We were able to focus on the product. In Games past, there’s usually been some kind of anomaly or something that’s impacted us, that’s hampered our ability to focus on other aspects of the production. Our Cisco technologies, services and support worked flawlessly in these Games.” — Dan Robertson, VP NBC Olympics IT


Ronak Desai

Senior Vice President & GM

AppDynamics & Full-Stack Observability