Hybrid cloud underpins core digital strategy for Channel 5 Big Brother

Channel 5 was launched as Britain's fifth and final terrestrial broadcaster in March 1997. More than 30 million UK viewers watch Channel 5 any given week, tuning in for programming as diverse as the CSI franchise, Fifth Gear, live UEFA Europa League Football, Home & Away and Neighbours, and Channel 5 News. In April 2011 Channel 5 announced that it had agreed to bring the reality TV phenomenon Big Brother to the channel. Big Brother 2011 debuted on Channel 5 in September 2011, following a three-week run for the celebrity version of the show.

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"Claranet fully repaid our trust in them: they delivered on the guarantees they promised in their service level agreement by providing an affordable, scalable and ultra-reliable hosting and management service." Paul Thornton Jones

The brief

The acquisition of Big Brother represented the biggest original programming project since Channel 5 was bought by the Northern & Shell group in July 2010.

“From the very beginning of the project, we wanted to differentiate the Channel 5 Big Brother experience from that of Channel 4, which had been the home of the UK format for the previous ten years,” said Paul Thornton-Jones, Head of Digital Media at Channel 5.

Because the Big Brother audience is one of the most demographically valuable in the TV marketplace, and given the predominantly young audience’s preference for social media, our core strategy was to provide much greater opportunities for digital engagement with the programme,” continued Thornton-Jones.

Channel 5’s digital offerings are centred around two dedicated Big Brother services: a standalone Big Brother site providing Video-on-Demand (VoD), live updates and editorial; and a Big Brother 2011 Facebook app.

To host and manage these applications, Channel 5 needed a trusted technology partner who could ensure the highest level of availability and performance for the services.

The challenge

Channel 5’s strategy rests upon driving additional on-demand video viewing from audiences for the catch up-programmes and clips from the Big Brother House. The aim was to achieve this by encouraging user engagement through social media, which involves pushing news, content and interaction to Twitter, Facebook, and via the dedicated Big Brother website www.channel5.com/bigbrother.

Given the popularity and nature of the programme, these applications needed to be able to cope with extremely high volumes of traffic that could occur at any time.

If a Big Brother story breaks, it breaks online first; there is no way to predict when the next big story might occur,” said Thornton-Jones. The application hosting therefore needed to be able to cope with huge and unpredictable traffic spikes. To be affordable, however, this capacity needed to be scalable so that Channel 5 were not paying considerable sums during periods of low demand.

While maximising application availability is crucial to the success of Big Brother online, it is even more important that they do not affect the availability of Channel 5’s other sites, such as its catch-up service Demand 5, which provide important sources of revenue for the organisation.

A further challenge was the very short timeframe required for implementing the applications and the hosting environment: the deal with production company Endemol was agreed in April, barely five months before the transmission of the first episode. Once the digital strategy had been drawn up and the technical requirements formulated, only six weeks were left to implement and test the application hosting and management.

The solution

Channel 5 turned to Claranet, the managed services provider, to deliver the application hosting and management for its Big Brother apps. Claranet has been supplying IT services for the channel since 2008 when the channel created its Digital Media Group and selected Claranet to consolidate its contracts with multiple hosting and support providers.

For the Big Brother project, we implemented a high bandwidth, high availability infrastructure for the two applications,” explained Martin Saunders, Product Marketing Director at Claranet. “The Facebook app was embedded within the social network but was hosted and managed separately by Claranet, while the Big Brother website was hosted separately from Channel 5’s online presence to limit the risk of impact on main revenue generating sites such as Demand 5.”

Claranet’s managed application hosting, based in its own facilities, was complemented by using Amazon Web Services’ Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform, enabling dynamic provisioning so Channel 5 only pays for the burst capacity it uses.

“The hybrid cloud service is designed to handle 45,000 page impressions per second, so it can deal with the sudden surges of interest that is part and parcel of Big Brother,” said Saunders. “The very unpredictability of the programme was factored into the application hosting design, to give Channel 5 the ability to scale the service to their needs in real time, and burst into the cloud at times of peak demand.”

The issue of availability was solved by replicating the apps across three data centres, which are designed to failover to each other in the event of any outages. Claranet manages the live environment and the applications themselves to ensure they are fully optimised and available, while providing the best possible performance and user experience for the audience.

Channel 5 hosted websites

The results

The addition of the two Big Brother applications more than doubled the amount of total Channel 5 traffic; yet since the system went live, there has been no downtime, either for the new applications or for the rest of Channel 5’s web properties.

The value of incorporating “geographic redundancy” into the infrastructure was clearly shown when an extraordinary outage put a data centre out of action. The system failed over seamlessly, with absolutely no downtime whatsoever.

"With its hybrid cloud model, Claranet combined the flexibility of the public cloud with the resilience of the private, while ensuring that the applications were constantly monitored, optimised and managed in real-time to ensure maximum performance and availability,” said Thornton-Jones.

This was a big challenge to accomplish in a very small amount of time, but we couldn’t countenance failure,” he continued. “Claranet fully repaid our trust in them: they delivered on the guarantees they promised in their service level agreement by providing an affordable, scalable and ultra-reliable hosting and management service for the two apps, both of which are crucial to our digital strategy for Big Brother.”

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