Participate in Oracle Customer Programs
From Tuesday through Sunday, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents take part in an interactive quiz show that is the first of its kind in Asia. Participants use their TV remote control to answer questions in real time, with the winner(s) sharing a cash prize. Launched in February 2011, ATM (Action to Money) is the most talked-about show in Hong Kong, with many believing it represents the future of television programming.
The organization behind ATM is now TV, one of the world’s largest and most successful commercial deployments of internet protocol television and Hong Kong’s largest pay TV provider. now TV is delivered by PCCW Media Limited, an operating division of HKT Group Holdings Limited (HKT). HKT is a wholly-owned subsidiary of PCCW Limited, Hong Kong’s premier telecommunications provider and a leading player in information and communications technologies.
Delivering a real-time game show requires powerful, reliable, and scalable back-end technology to ensure 100% uptime and instantaneous responses to participants. For now TV, one of the key technologies was Oracle Coherence Grid Edition. The solution ensures the company can support hundreds of thousands of concurrent players over the hour-long program and achieve 0.5-second response times. Since the show began airing, now TV has experienced no downtime during the six-days-a-week, live broadcasts.
now TV serves Hong Kong with more than 190 channels of local, Asian, and international programming, including premium content, such as Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, English FA Cup, French Open, US Open, ATP World Tour, BWF Super Series, World Snooker Tour, and PGA Tour. now TV can be enjoyed on PCCW eye2, a portable media center with an embedded now TV decoder. Selected now TV content and interactive applications can also be accessed through the PCCW Group’s 3G mobile network and broadband service. In addition, now TV is a leading producer of news, sports, and infotainment programming and a provider of a wide range of interactive services.
“We wanted to create something that was exciting, innovative, engaging, and allowed audiences to participate in real-time,” said Keith Huang, vice president of product management, technology and operations, now TV.
The result was ATM, one of Asia’s first interactive game shows. Viewers use their TV remote control to register to play and answer eight multiple-choice questions. They must choose an answer from four choices within 45 seconds. If they choose the wrong answer or fail to answer in time, they are eliminated immediately. Those who answer the eight questions correctly are eligible to win or share in a daily prize pool of US$12,855 (HK$100,000). The number of winners and the amount they have won appear on screen at the end of the show. If there is no winner, the prize money is jackpotted to the following night.
“We set out to create a show that is in itself a very entertaining TV program, which viewers will enjoy enormously―but with the added feature that those viewers who want to participate can do so using their remote control at home,” said Felix To, vice president of now HK. “This is a first of its kind for the citizens of Hong Kong and ATM offers viewers in Hong Kong a truly new, immersive TV experience.”
To make this vision of a real-time game show a reality, now TV required a rock-solid backend database and network infrastructure. According to Huang, there were four critical criteria.
“The most crucial requirement is reliability,” he said. “With a real-time, interactive TV show, there is zero tolerance for downtime. If the system fails because it is overloaded, or if there is a malfunction and we can’t process viewers’ responses, it would literally kill off the show. The solution had to be 100% failsafe.
“It also goes without saying that the system has to be powerful and linearly scalable,” he added. “We currently have more than 1 million subscribers. If every one of them wants to play the game, we need to be able to support them. That’s without taking into account new subscribers who sign up because of the game. The solution had to be expandable to accommodate sudden and large increases in subscriber numbers.”
The third criterion is extremely fast response times. “We need to let viewers know immediately if their answer is right or wrong,” explained Huang. “We don’t want them repeatedly pressing the buttons on their remote control, thinking that the lack of response is because their answer didn’t get through. Viewers want to know right away, otherwise they will get bored, frustrated, and switch off.”
The final criterion is accuracy. With viewers projected to number in the tens of thousands, the database has to aggregate large amounts of information in real-time: viewers’ personal details, their answers, whether they answered correctly or incorrectly, and do this in the timeframe allocated.
A comprehensive evaluation of Oracle Coherence Grid Edition revealed that the solution offered the performance, reliability, scalability, and accuracy required for the interactive gaming platform.
The ATM quiz show was launched on February 9, 2011. To attract viewers to the new show, now TV invited its more than
1 million subscribers to a free trial between February 9 and February 20.
Tension was high on the first night of the live broadcast, with everyone from senior station executives to the full production team and system and network specialists in attendance. Oracle technicians were also on set every night of the 10-day trial period, to provide support for Oracle Coherence and Oracle Database in case anything went wrong. However, there were no issues on the first and subsequent nights.
“The Oracle system performed admirably on the first night, when more and more players signed up to play the game during the login time,” said Huang. “We had no issues with latency. When players answered the questions, it took less than 0.5 seconds for the system to confirm if they had the right or wrong answer.”
The number of players rapidly increased and the Oracle system scaled to support these players with ease. “We did not have any system issues during the trial period and everything has been smooth since we switched to a paid subscription model,” said Huang. “Oracle Coherence has delivered 100% failsafe performance.”
In future, now TV believes TV production teams can develop many more innovations based on the Oracle Coherence and Oracle Database infrastructure of the ATM interactive game show system.
now TV’s previous system architecture was very database-centric. While the database provided a robust platform for data storage and transactions, it did not address the unique requirements of a live TV game show. “For example, the load pattern during the one-hour show means the system has to handle sudden bursts of traffic in a scalable way,” explained Huang. “Both throughput and latency are highly critical because it is a live show and TV audiences expect immediate and accurate responses.”
The company also wanted to minimize risk for the development team. “We needed to balance an out-of-the-box solution that was easy to use and which offered support we could leverage, with our desire to develop components of the platform ourselves,” explained Huang. “By choosing the solid, proven Oracle Coherence software, we were able to focus on our own development and ensure a quick time to market. The software removed some key uncertainties because we knew it would deliver what it promised.”
As a long-time Oracle Database user, now TV was familiar with Oracle’s product capabilities. “We have tried most available technologies in the market and matched them against our very unique requirements,” said Huang. “Our performance, reliability, and scalability requirements were comfortably met with Oracle Coherence.”
now TV also liked that it could use Oracle Coherence Grid Edition Management Pack to monitor the performance of Oracle Coherence.
“We asked the Oracle consultants how we could be more certain of the system’s status and performance,” said Huang. “Thanks to the management pack, we have an in-depth understanding of the system and how it works. We can access reports that detail the system’s health, which helps our operations team.”
now TV faced two challenges during the implementation. The first was related to testing the system, as it was difficult to simulate a similar load to projected audience numbers for stress-testing. The second challenge was related to the system design, which needed to be linearly scalable to accommodate future business strategies. The complex design also required specialist knowledge to program the extreme transaction processing model.
During the implementation, the now TV team pushed the Oracle Coherence system to its limit to handle anticipated loads.
“The Oracle Coherence programming model is quite simple and intuitive,” said Huang. “Our core development team has long used database technology to build mission-critical transaction processing systems. They were very surprised with the capabilities of Oracle Coherence and the level of performance, scalability, and reliability it brought to our interactive gaming platform.
now TV also had assistance from Oracle technicians on some of the more complex settings of the testing environment, including verifying the performance metrics, loading algorithms, and system parameters.
“The Oracle team assisted us on the architectural validation and provided best practice Oracle Coherence development guidelines to our team,” said Huang. “We received useful suggestions on how we could fine-tune the system performance.”