Startup's journey from "terminal illness" to Azure success

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This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of CRN magazine.

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Startup's journey from "terminal illness" to Azure success
Jason Webb (left) and Peter Diggins

Australian integrator Object Consulting and local extreme sports start-up Xpreshon launched a new streaming media service for Xbox Live, built completely on the cloud. 

CRN: How did this project begin?

Jason Webb, Xpreshon:  About three-and-a-half years ago I was diagnosed with a terminal disorder with motor neurone disease. My body started shutting down. After about 18 months of investigation and testing, it turned out it wasn’t actually motor neurone disease, and that my prognosis was not in fact death, and I was able to recover.

But I got very sick. My immune system was killing nerves throughout my body, to the point where I wasn’t able to feed myself or take care of myself in any way, and I was completely reliant on my wife and my family for my care.

Some of the experimental treatments that I was having actually re-booted my immune system and that kick-started the process of recovery. As I’ve sought to reconnect into the working world, I was no longer interested in defaulting back into the corporate lifestyle. I wanted to pursue my passions; combining action sports with technology sounded like a whole lot of fun.

So [co-founder Christian Spagnardi] and I sat down and started talking about ideas. It was birthed out of both of us trying to break free from a corporate lifestyle, coupled with my health challenges.

Do you have a background in action sports?

Jason: Growing up, I was very keen on skateboarding, motocross, riding motorbikes and BMX. I moved to the south coast of NSW in my early 20s – learning to surf down there was lots of fun, and I absolutely fell in love with the water.

How did Object Consulting get involved in the project?

Jason: We were keen initially to develop an Xbox application, so needed to find a development partner that was appropriately skilled and accredited. Object was one of the names we were given.

We felt really at peace with the relationship right from the start. That’s where it all started.

Were you part of those initial discussions, Peter?

Peter Diggins, Object Consulting: Microsoft had indicated to us that they wanted to expand what was happening in the Xbox world, because at the time it was really tied down. It was games or invite-only media apps produced by the big media organisations: ABC, SBS, Channel 10, Foxtel.

So, the first engagement was a prototype – to be honest, at the time we weren’t 100 percent sure what we were going to be allowed on the platform. It stretched the capabilities of what we thought the platform could do, but it provided a vision that we could sell. Then it was frustrating that we weren’t getting the approvals from the Microsoft [Xbox] team to move ahead.

Windows 8 was coming out, so we decided to focus on that. We wanted to keep the momentum going that we generated with the prototype and the Windows 8 platform enabled that. The launch provided a vehicle for more publicity. From an architectural perspective, we built a back-end media distribution video subscription platform, with a lot of different heads. There was an Xbox client, a Windows 8 client, a Windows Phone client. A lot of the content providers already had their own web distribution platforms, and the unique selling point for Xpreshon was being able to get on the Xbox platform.

What were some of the advantages of launching on the cloud?

Peter: The beauty of Azure is the ability to only pay for what you use. In the beginning, we could use our own internal servers to be able to build and host demos. Then when Jason wanted to be able to show it to other people, we could run up a very small production platform that didn’t have a lot of capacity, but also wasn’t very expensive. We could turn it on and turn it off in the early days to make sure that it was there, but not costing too much.

Jason would call us to say, ‘Can you get the platform ready for me?’, and it was literally a case of three or four switches, and it became available. It was a low-cost start.

The contents are stored in Azure Media Services, so we upload a single version of the content, a high-res version of the content to Azure Media Services. It then does all of the conversion on upload time to produce all the different level formats. We used a third party digital rights management company, so the DRM is actually encoded into the video stream at the time of encoding. That means you don’t need to do that encoding on the fly, so it gives you a better run-time performance.

Were you aware of the advantages of the cloud from the beginning?

Jason: I’d known that it was available, but in saying that, as part of our initial plans, we had expected that we’d be filling somebody’s garage with servers. So being able to do it and have the flexibility and the scalability of dialling servers up and down based on user demands in a really cost efficient manner – that was the benefit of the Object team’s experience.

Kevin [Object Consulting’s Kevin Francis] arranged a number of meetings between Xpreshon and the team at Azure and we’d talk through different pricing and things like that, and it’s paid for itself over and over again. Every time we have a live event, with a few clicks of the mouse, we can add a server in a certain geographical area, and then we’ve got extra capacity for the extra users that are on the system.

Peter: If you’d been running the app off servers in the garage, then scaling out to support a worldwide rollout would have been extremely difficult. You would have been constrained by the pipe between your ISP and the rest of the world.

It should be noted that we used both Azure Media Services and Azure Media Services Live Streaming before they were released. They were built for the Summer Olympics and then the live stuff came for the Winter Olympics. Microsoft put an awful lot of money into making sure that they were correct for that. We got access to the live media streaming before the Winter Olympics, so we were one of the first people to have access to that outside of the Microsoft team.

We’ve built a bunch of things that sit on top of the Azure platform. There are the standard compute instances, all of the Azure storage options that we’ve got, then Media Services looks after the encoding and the smooth streaming and the delivery of all the video.

What were some of the technical challenges?

Peter: From my perspective, it all happened pretty easily. The stuff from Microsoft was production quality right from the word go. The challenge was combining products from Microsoft, like the Microsoft Azure product and BuyDRM, and being able to get the combination of the digital rights management happening. Remember we’ve got to geoblock some of the material. Say Xpreshon has licences for the distribution of some content only in the Asia-Pacific region, so we’ve got to ensure that it can’t be seen in other regions.

We also used a subscription management platform called Recurly; we’re using PayPal as the payment gateway; and there’s half a dozen different platforms in there that we pulled together to make the Xpreshon platform.

Jason: Integrating those all together is probably the most difficult part of the whole process, but in saying that, it all seemed to go together fairly well.

Peter: That’s the value that Object provides. That’s what we do. That’s our bread and butter. We see ourselves as a system integrator these days, but not from a hardware perspective – it’s from a software perspective. We’ll work with our major customers to make their banking systems talk to their web front ends.

We’ve been pushing the cloud since the cloud was first mooted in 2007 and 2008. I remember sitting in a room at a hotel at one of our Big Day Out conferences, discussing the merits of the cloud and whether or not we believed that it was here for the long term, and it was almost unanimous that the belief that utility computing was the way of the future.

Did you face any problems around speed, latency or capacity?

Peter: There can be latency issues when you’re working on the cloud, but the most important thing is to make sure that your connection to the internet is up to scratch, if you’ve got a very poor, flaky connection, or if it doesn’t have enough bandwidth to cover all the people who are trying to use it.

With Xpreshon, we were talking about pushing production-quality video around our internal network. So we did have some stressors that we needed to iron out. To be able to test these production servers, we needed to be able to run content, and to be able to see the content scale up and down across the different devices. That was coming into Object’s internal network, so on a number of occasions, we had the IT people screaming, ‘What are you doing to our internet connection?’

We put fibre directly into our office and once we did that, a lot of those issues disappeared.

Since Xpreshon went live, the Xbox One has launched. Can you tell us where different platforms and consoles fit into the strategy?

Jason: We absolutely see Xbox One as a destination for Xpreshon, but initially the Xbox One is by invitation only. They are not entertaining other partners until the middle of this year, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t at this stage. But in saying that, we also acknowledge that the larger Xbox audience is the Xbox 360.

Peter: The sheer volume of Xbox 360s out there in people’s living rooms makes them an extremely important platform. Typically, they’re connected to the biggest screen in the house and that’s the goal – to get these high-quality action sports videos onto people’s television screens.

What about other, non-Microsoft platforms?

Jason: We’re talking with Object about iOS and Android development. While recognising that we have a poetic Microsoft story at the moment, for the sake of growing our business to the next level, we need to be on these other very large, strong platforms. I think even before Xbox One or in parallel to the Xbox One development, we need to explore iOS and Android.

What are the hurdles in doing that?

Jason: The only real challenge is licensing. We’ve been buying high-quality content for our application. With regards to the movies, that would be the largest challenge to us, because a lot of them [other media providers] have tried to position themselves, for example, on Apple TV or Samsung. So we’ve specifically put ourselves in the Microsoft corner, because we’ve started our business and it’s easy for them [content owners] to grant rights in a place where they’re not.

The reason for us leaning towards Microsoft platforms is because it’s been largely untapped for action sports entertainment, whereas the Apple platform has those big brands already on there, as does Android.

Were there any challenges building that initial relationship with Microsoft and how did Object Consulting help?

Jason: Our initial goal from the start was to be on that Xbox 360 platform. Every time we made calls, sent emails, turned up for meetings, we were finding it very challenging. But [Object Consulting’s Kevin Francis] through his existing relationships, was able to open doors that we, as an unknown business, were unable to.

Kevin still had to work hard to keep it all moving, but with the Windows 8 particularly, it was a smooth transition with the Windows 8 team. Kevin did all those introductions and handed it over and that was fantastic. The strength of the consulting relationship with Microsoft has been absolutely beneficial for our business.

Peter: I think it’s more than just relationships; it’s the experience that we have with different platforms. Xpreshon wasn’t our first Xbox 360 project, we’d already built the Tenplay App for Channel 10, we’d built the Xbox 360 app for Quickflix; so it was on the back of successful projects that we built a credible relationship with the Xbox team

Of the developments we’ve done, we’ve had significantly lower defect rates so that’s given us the credibility to be able to go to [Microsoft] with ideas.

Jason, how important are third-party suppliers for Xpreshon?

Jason: As a very small start-up with only two people, having an interest doesn’t necessarily give you all the technical ability to build your own applications. We believed we had a great idea, but weren’t able to pull it off by ourselves, Very early on we recognised that we had to build strategic partnerships within the IT community and within the action sports community to appear as a legitimate competitor in that space.

Among the action sports audience, authenticity is everything and you have to appear to be very real and genuine to them or they just walk away. So having the depth of experience with Object, particularly on the development and IT side of things, allowed us to build a platform that when we flicked the switch and said ‘OK, we’re now live’, it worked. We haven’t had any problems since it launched.

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