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Cache Flow
(Stream World Part 6)
by David English

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Case Study
Cache Flow

Imagine a computer network thats optimized for the delivery of rich media. Any user at a company could visit the corporate Web site and stream MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video files, or large Director movies, with no delays or hiccups. Need to beef up your employees customer-service skills? A worker could choose from a long list of training topics, click on the appropriate icon and stream broadcast-quality interactive video on a specific subject.

Now heres the technical challenge: How can this happen if the Web site is located thousands of miles away from the employee, the company has ordinary Internet connections, and the companys LAN is standard Ethernet? And what if you want 10, 20 or 30 employees at any location to be able to access these training videos at any time? Or, say 100 employees at each of 500 locations need simultaneous access to the same training video?

Ken Dufault
Ken Dufault, Starwood�s manager of new media

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, based in White Plains, New York, has figured out an answer. One of the worlds largest hotel companies, Starwood has a range of properties that includes Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, W Hotels, Four Points Hotels, and Caesars Hotels & Casinostotaling more than 770 hotels in 80 countries. The organization is using a new kind of appliance that assists the streaming of network-based video. In North America, all of the Starwood-owned properties will receive this appliance, says Ken Dufault, Starwoods manager of new media. Were in the process now of getting those appliances shipped, configured and communicating.

The appliance was invented by SightPath, a small startup outside of Boston. SightPaths technology is so innovative, Cisco Systems bought the company and its patents in April for $800 million. The SightPath appliances are placed on LANs, and the files are stored on the appliances hard drive. Basically, its a little beige box that plugs into the closet somewhere on the end users LAN, says Bill Churchill, president of Cosmic Blender, the Watertown, Massachusetts, company that developed the first of the video-based training applications that Starwood will deploy on the SightPath appliances. In this case, every hotel has a small LAN. And this appliance is a plug-and-play device that gets shipped to each hotel. They find an Ethernet drop for it. They plug it in and turn it on. Then they give it power and an Ethernet port, push the on button and walk away. The appliance powers itself up, logs on and identifies itself to the host studio.

The MPEG video files are distributed over the Internet from a single SightPath studio which, in Starwoods case, is located at the Starwood Technology Center in Braintree, Massachusetts. The system is smart enough to analyze the bottlenecks in the network and send the files when network traffic is at its lightest. The studio trickle-feeds rich media to these appliances at night or off-peak hours, says Churchill. It also can arrange for files to be sent between appliances when that would be faster. If there are two hotels in Singapore, they could send the rich media files from one hotel to another, instead of sending it all the way from Braintree. The appliance will look for the shortest possible route, instead of having the studio transfer to each appliance around the world. Because the Studio can distribute its workload, it can service as many as 1,000 appliances.

All of this is invisible to Starwood employees. The end user goes to the Web site, scrolls through the text and gets an employee tracking numberall the normal database things that you can do with a Web site, says Churchill. The only difference comes when they click on a request to play something thats rich media. That request is routed by the SightPath studio to the appliance. In Starwoods case, the request for an MPEG file is sent to the hotel rather than to the Web server. The request itself is a small amount of data. Its routed to the appliance, and the media is streamed from the appliance over the LAN to the end user.

Covering Your Assets
One of the major benefits of the system is the control it gives Starwood over its video assets.

The SightPath/Cisco system can be used as an asset-management tool, says Dufault. We can catalog and store or digitally archive our videos. We can create a 30-second spot, encode it using MPEG technology, put it into the studio and distribute it to any hotel. We can slice and dice our organization so that only Westin people see the Westin content, and only Sheraton people see the Sheraton content.

Because all the media calls are routed through the Internet or an intranet, employees can use their usual login names and passwords. The assets come through the Web-site security, so we have complete control over the distribution of content and assets, says Dufault. Its not a complete asset-management system, but it can be part of one.

Currently, Starwood is deploying only one set of network-based training videos: WineBUZZ 101, produced by Cosmic Blender and Starwoods beverage director, Andrea Immer. WineBUZZ 101 is a wine training program thats cross-branded, so its not just a Westin or a Sheraton program, says Churchill. Every hotel that has a food service wants to get this kind of wine-training program. We basically did a pilot overview of the subject, which is going onto every appliance that Starwood ships to its hotels. It will give their people a sense of how this form of interactive learning can work. It provides the choice and interactivity of CD-ROM-based training, along with a threaded discussion group, updateable workbook and tests.

Even though its direct appeal is limited to the sales and catering staff, WineBUZZ will allow the hotel departments to see the possibilities of the system. My job is to market this technology internally, says Dufault. Ill go to the different departments and say, This is what we can do for youcheck it out. Hopefully, some departments will step up to the plate and say, Ive got this thing I want to dothis training application, or even a communications toolcan I do this using this technology?

Dufault adds that Starwood is just in the beginning phases of setting up the system. We havent even gotten all the appliances. So far, Starwood has ordered 200 appliances and plans to place an appliance in every one of its company-owned North American properties.

In addition to using the SightPath/Cisco system for training, Starwood is considering its use for promotional videos. Some of our hotels have a large-screen television in the lobby, says Dufault. The SightPath appliance can be fitted with a composite video output, so you can come right out of the appliance and into the television. We might have a new promotion, such as stay one night, get one free. At corporate, we could develop a digital bulletin board or a video. We could take the video, encode it to MPEG, put it into the studio and set up a channel that says these Sheraton hotels have appliances, and theyre connected to televisions in the lobbies of our hotels. We could push the video out to those hotels and start looping this video in the lobbies. Our customers could be watching this video clip or a series of videos playing over and over.

(Return to Part 5) (Continue to Part 7)

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