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Innovation showcase

UK horse race series sets video streaming and betting records, thanks to Phenix technology

Phenix’s scalable, real-time platform, running on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, handles traffic volumes, spikes seamlessly during four-day Cheltenham Festival.


By Rob Preston | April 2021


The famed crowd roar that rises at the opening of the Cheltenham Festival each year gave way March 16 to a virtual roar, as most of the usual 250,000 live attendees at this annual four-day series of horse races were kept away because of the UK’s COVID lockdown.

A record number of fans were still able to watch (and even place real-time bets on) the 28 hurdle races and steeple chases taking place at the Gloucestershire, England, venue, thanks in part to reliable real-time streaming video powered by Phenix Real-Time Solutions, running on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.

Stats Perform, a Chicago-based sports data and analytics company, worked with Racecourse Media Group (RMG) to deliver from Cheltenham Festival a peak of 478,000 concurrent video streams for a single race—the 3-mile, 2-furlong Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup on Day 3 of the event. The total number of streams from the festival, independent of broadcast rights, was up 60% from last year’s pre-lockdown event. Betting volumes were way up across the board as well.

RMG now delivers real-time streaming experiences from its 61 racetracks to sportsbooks across the UK and Ireland, including streams to individual customers who view the races and place bets on their favorite sportsbook apps. At the Cheltenham Festival, streaming traffic for 9 of the 28 races broke the previously set RMG record, culminating with the 478,000 streams on Day 3, thanks to Phenix’s proprietary technology, built from the ground up on the WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) protocol.

 

“You have to be able to predict that initial volume—that’s a science in itself—but you also have to be able to react as more people come [into a stream]. And you can’t do that manually.”

Steffan Birrer, Cofounder and Chief Software Architect, Phenix Real-Time Solutions

Phenix’s software delivers real-time streams with latency of less than half a second. while synchronizing traffic across all end-user devices—critical factors with sporting events, especially for betting purposes. The Phenix streams are also of the highest quality, owing to the company’s Adaptive Bitrate technology, which dynamically transcodes streams into the resolution and bitrate most suitable to a viewer’s connection speed.

Phenix streams video at “broadcast scale,” notes Cofounder and Chief Software Architect Dr. Steffan Birrer, who says the most challenging part of scaling is adjusting to the rate of change of viewership—especially difficult with a horse race, for which a very large number of people tend to tune in within a 3-minute window before the competition. “You have to be able to predict that initial volume—that’s a science in itself—but you also have to be able to react as more people come in,” Birrer says. “And you can’t do that manually. That’s almost impossible within 3 minutes because by the time you understand what’s happening, it’s already too late.”

Phenix’s software algorithms anticipate traffic loads and automatically provision new virtual server instances as needed, each one taking only about 14 seconds, he says. The same goes for scaling down, so that customers don’t have to pay for unneeded capacity.

No other company’s platform delivers that combination of streaming speed, synchronization, quality, and scale, Birrer says.

Why Oracle?

The Phenix platform runs on a combination of cloud infrastructure providers, mainly Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) and Google Cloud Platform. The goal of Phenix’s multicloud strategy, in addition to ensuring there’s enough CPU capacity worldwide, is 100% redundancy and seamless failover, Birrer says.

Each cloud vendor’s data centers worldwide are connected to a private fiber network that enables Phenix to minimize packet loss over long links and maximize throughput. Customers connect to the Phenix platform to view streams from the nearest point of presence in order to minimize last-mile connectivity challenges.

Sean Flanagan riding Jeff Kidder on their way to winning The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 16, 2021.

Sean Flanagan riding Jeff Kidder on their way to winning The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 16, 2021.

Birrer says Phenix was attracted to OCI’s price/performance—prices up to 40% lower than those of competitors to run CPU-based workloads and 70% lower for basic data networking. OCI’s flexible compute offering, specifically its E3 virtual machines, allows Phenix to customize each VM instance to the exact number of cores (1 to 64) and memory (1 to 64 GB per core, up to 1,024 GB total per instance).

“OCI’s flexible compute is an amazing revolution—a game-changer, just with its raw performance alone,” Birrer told the OCI Blog in January. “The true value is actually in cost-performance that outpaces anything in the market we’ve seen today out of all the cloud vendors.”

Phenix also is looking to take advantage of Oracle’s extensive data center coverage, Birrer says. Oracle opened 12 new “cloud regions” in 2020, bringing its total worldwide to 29 regions—22 for commercial customers and 7 for governments. Oracle plans to open another 7 by the end of this year, bringing its total to 36, the most in the industry.

Betting on real-time

Phenix, based in Chicago and founded in 2013, now has more than 30 customers. A high-profile one is Disney-ABC, which selected Phenix to stream a real-time “audience cam” during the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony that captured celebrities chatting and socializing.

It’s in the sports betting arena where Phenix’s synchronous, real-time streaming platform is an absolute must—and has the potential to create substantial new revenues for its customers. “Microwagers” placed during sporting events—say, on whether Lionel Messi will miss the penalty kick he was just awarded or if Serena Williams’ next serve will be an ace—are generally higher-margin than bets placed before, notes Phenix CMO Jed Corenthal. During the Cheltenham Festival’s Marsh Novices’ Chase, a 2-mile race on Day 3 of the event, favorite Envoi Allen fell at the fourth fence, prompting supporters to scramble to place bets on other contenders.

Meantime, microwagers—bets on every single play or action during a sporting event—mean more business for the bookmakers. And by keeping fans engaged even when the outcome of the game, match, or race is all but decided, real-time sports betting also boosts engagement, and thus viewership, leading to more ad revenues. Birrer also talks about creating a “social living room,” where friends chat and even challenge each other to mini-competitions during an event over text or social media.

To succeed in promoting such continuous engagement, the industry needs the kind of predictable end-to-end video delivery that Phenix provides, synched to the fraction of a second across everyone’s devices so that no bettor or rabid viewer sees the action before anyone else.

The industry is taking notice. During the last 18 months, the type of potential customer Phenix is seeing “is radically different and exponentially larger” than ever before, whether it’s a sports property, sportsbook, entertainment company, broadcaster, or conventional telecom company, CMO Corenthal says. “Cheltenham shows that we can scale,” he says, “and once you taste real time, it’s hard to go back.”

Photography: Michael Steele/Getty Images and Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Rob Preston

Rob Preston

Rob Preston is a senior director and story writer at Oracle. He was previously editor in chief of InformationWeek. You can follow him on Twitter @robpreston.