RTÉ Digital – A Technology Past, Present, and Future

Hello World!  My name is Jonathan Lundberg, and I am the Technology Infrastructure Manager here at RTÉ Digital.  I lead up the team of Infrastructure Engineers responsible for the back end systems which manage and deliver our Internet content (so if you’re reading this, it means everything is working as it should be right now…).  This involves making sure we have the right technologies in place and running effectively to power our web sites, streaming audio/video, and mobile apps, for example.

This is the first of our new RTÉ Digital Blogs, and I hope you will find it an interesting read.  There will be plenty of blogs posted here into the future from various areas responsible for RTÉ Digital’s output, including Production, Content, Design, and Development.  I hope that my team will write some fairly in-depth articles for the technophiles among you, and provide interesting insights into some of our decision making.

I’ve been working at RTÉ since 2000.  At that stage, the Web was part and parcel of life for my generation.  However looking back, it really was in its infancy.  RTÉ already had a successful web site generating about 5 million page impressions a month.  We even had live and on demand TV/Radio streaming.  However using Real Player with a postage stamp sized video window running at a paltry 32Kbps was enough to stress out the 56K dial-up modems that most Irish Internet users had (assuming someone hadn’t already picked up a phone somewhere else in the house to kill the Internet connection, remember that?!).  RTÉ had a 2 Mb connection to the Internet, which is half or less than what you can get on a mobile phone these days, and all of the equipment needed to deliver RTÉ’s online services were housed in 4 fridge sized cabinets (… half of one of them being used to hold a 500GB hard disk array, these days you get that in an average laptop).

Fast-forward to 2012.  We have more than 20 Gigabits of Internet connectivity, and need more like 16 of those cabinets to house all of the equipment we need.  Our hard disk storage array requirements are in the order of 60 Terabytes and growing fast.  These changes are down to both the phenomenal growth in use of RTÉ’s online services, as well as the addition of new key services.  Our page impression count now hits 135 million a month, but amazingly about half of those come from mobile devices.  In fact that’s almost entirely down to the RTÉ News Now App on iPhone and Android.  RTÉ Player provides our video streams at 512K (and has resulted in our traffic peak moving from 4pm to 11pm), but we’re about to change that to Adaptive Streaming and boost the quality to 1Mb.  This was unthinkable 12 years ago, and we will not be stopping there.

In the future (and not too far into it either I suspect/hope), RTÉ Player content will be streamed in High Definition.  The sheer power of servers and the advent of Cloud Computing may mean we see all of RTÉ Digital’s server space requirements being met in the confines of only 4 cabinets again.  The Second Screen (and may be even Third Screen) will become a vital part of the TV viewing experience for a lot of broadcasts (we’ll write more about this later).  Connected TV’s running RTÉ Apps will be the norm and not the high end exception.  Social interaction will be a huge development driver over the next few years, and audience expectation will centre on feeling socially connected while experiencing video and other online services.

And it is that audience expectation that brings us back to the past, and the present.  It is the one constant through it all, and the factor by which ideas and services live or die.  You get to decide.  The things you like, we keep.  The things you don’t, we don’t, because it doesn’t make sense.  You like our mobile services.  You like our RTÉ Player.  You like our online News services.  We put a lot of energy and focus into them, and constantly rethink our approach based on audience need.

I’m often asked about the technologies we use to deliver our content online.  We use a wide variety of both commercial and open source software.  We have bespoke back end Content Management Systems named Epic and Clipper, to manage our web and streaming content, respectively.  These are built on a Microsoft .Net stack, and have the ability to output to a variety of targets (static files, databases, feeds, etc.).  We rely on software from Digital Rapids and Kulabyte to handle our audio/video generation, while Adobe’s Flash Media Server generates the streams that get sent to your browser/app.

On the delivery side, the heavy lifting is done mainly by Open Source software, with Varnish Cache, Apache Web Server, and MySQL providing the backbone.  Our web delivery was traditionally static, but we are moving towards dynamic content generation, with the recently launched RTÉ.ie Sport website our first pillar site to use the Python Django Web Framework to generate the web pages.  RTÉ Player has relied on Python Django for metadata feeds since it’s launch in 2009, and it has proven itself a great technology.

Any one of those areas of our technology stack has enough in it to write some full blown tech articles for this Blog, so if there is anything you think might be particularly interesting please let me know in your comments.  If something stands out then we’ll see if we can put something together.

I hope you have found this to be an interesting read whether you are a techie or not.  I think this Blog is going to provide us with a great opportunity to give insights where we haven’t had the platform before.  It’s a two way street though, so if you have anything interesting to tell us about your experiences of our services, or stuff you have come across elsewhere, please let us know!

You can follow me on Twitter at @Jonathan_RTE_ie

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