Multicasting Megachurch Makes the Case for an MSP
The demand for video is growing, and not just in the types of organizations we typically discuss. For the Houston-based Church Without Walls, a 20,000-member megachurch with three campuses, video struggles were the straw that broke the camel's back, leading the organization to ditch its existing best-efforts infrastructure for one designed, implemented, and managed by Plano, TX-based managed services and cloud communications provider Masergy.
"We are one church in three locations," Andy Seale, technical director of The Church Without Walls, told me. The organization wanted to simulcast sermons and Bible study sessions from one campus to another in as real-time a manner as possible so that "remote congregations could feel as though they are contributing to the service and not just watching," he explained. To achieve this, The Church Without Walls needed not only high-quality audio and video, but also as little latency as possible.
In theory, modern video streaming technologies should make it possible to unite the church members at its three disparate locations into one congregation. In practice, however, The Church Without Walls struggled with bandwidth, latency, packet loss, and application problems. Performance was unpredictable, according to Asa Baldwin, the Masergy sales engineer who handled the church's implementation.
"Every attempt to solve the multicast issues was a struggle of some kind," Baldwin said. Seale concurred. The Church Without Walls implemented seven T1 lines, then learned that "it would be cost-prohibitive to have fiber," Seale said. When it came to the church's hardware encoders, multiple vendors—including vendors in direct competition with those whose products the church used—claimed that the church should not be experiencing problems with their setup. Other encoding solutions the church explored didn't provide all the necessary features. The church's ISP insisted that there was nothing wrong with the lines. And the buffering appliance the church tested significantly improved video quality but increased latency an unacceptable 5-10 seconds.
"This increase was not going to allow two-way communications between campuses: with a round trip of 10-20 seconds, it is hard to hold a conversation," said Seale.
Masergy offered The Church Without Walls a Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network solution that would support the church's multicast needs as well as the rest of its application and data needs, at a price comparable to what the church was paying for its T1 lines.
Of particular interest to the church was Masergy's video Quality of Service (QoS) guarantee of 100 percent packet delivery, in sequence, with less than one millisecond of jitter. Masergy is able to provide that thanks to the greenfield nature of its network. Masergy builds its networks from scratch, Baldwin said, so that every asset is QoS-aware and controllable. "It's literally an end-to-end treatment of applications," Baldwin said, adding that "no one else offers the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that we do."
"The guarantees were backed up to the point that it was a no-lose situation for us," Seale said.
Among the services Masergy eventually implemented for The Church Without Walls were MPLS, IP multicast, video and voice service planes to protect video and voice QoS, and intelligent network analysis. Masergy used Ethernet handoffs to Masergy-managed routers and their on-premises "intelligent bridge" device, which takes any media type and turns it into an Ethernet handoff for the customer. The provider edge platform that aggregates all the church traffic is the carrier-class Alcatel-Lucent SR-12.
Deployments don't always result in immediate perfection. The Church Without Walls experienced some additional struggles after implementation, Baldwin admitted. What saved the day was Masergy's willingness to send personnel on-site to assist the church, including configuring the backend, LAN side of the premises, to ensure success.
The Church Without Walls is currently satisfied with Masergy's solution. Video looks better, and dropouts are greatly reduced, Seale told me. Additionally, the church "went from 10MBps to 50MBps, with the ability to get more if needed," he said.
The church no longer has to scramble technicians to its remote sites to deal with broadcast issues during sermons. "At this point, when we have to simulcast, which we do weekly, we are a lot more relaxed. We know that it is going to work," Seale said.
Jude Chao is executive editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.