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Are Now TV doing enough testing?

Thousands of customers (myself included) were left disappointed yesterday as Sky’s on-demand streaming service, Now TV, suffered major outages minutes after kick off on the title deciding final day of the Premier League season.

The concept for Now TV is simple. Pay £9.99 and get 24 hours access to all of Sky Sports channels. A pay as you go service, there are no subscriptions charges and no contracts. This was my first encounter with the service, and like many customers around the country was using it to watch the climax of this seasons thrilling Premier League season. With both Manchester City and Liverpool vying for the right to be called champions of England on the final day of the season, I was certainly excited to see how things panned out.

Unfortunately my excitement quickly turned to frustration as the stream of the Man City game suddenly stopped two minutes after kick off and was replaced by the error message ‘Oops something went wrong. Please come back later’. When attempting the login process again, I was constantly referred to the ‘Now TV help’ page. A first time user, I had previously heard good reviews about NowTV; after this episode, I'm unlikely to use it again. On the biggest day of the football season, to have a stinker like this is unacceptable. My thoughts were echoed by countless people on social media. 

This isn’t the first time Now TV have faced problems. In April, customers and fans of the hit HBO show Games of Thrones were unable to watch the season four premier due to similar outages seen yesterday. I asked my colleague, Richard Bishop, for his opinion and asked him whether more testing could have helped to prevent this problem.

Is Sky doing enough testing for Now TV?

Richard explained that Now TV appear to Unicast technology to stream their content to users. This means that for each viewer who is viewing their content, they need to maintain a separate data stream as shown in the diagram below. 

Multiple data streams (unicast transmissions) aren’t inherently bad, provided that you have sufficient bandwidth and/or use a robust CDN to help share the burden. The BBC, for example, successfully use Akamai as a CDN provider for both live and recorded content. The high bandwidth use of unicast streaming makes bandwidth (or lack of it) a potential bottleneck capable of causing problems under high load.

Of course it’s difficult to ascertain the true cause of the outage without “inside information”. Other possible causes of the outage could be network or other communication failures so perhaps alongside performance testing some “chaos monkey” testing could be used root out single points of failure and reduce the risk of future problems.

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With Richard’s comments in mind, it is difficult to determine the cause of this problem. Bandwidth bottlenecks, other capacity problems or hardware/network failure could all be potential reasons for the outages on Sunday. Comprehensive testing helps service and content providers to prepare for the unexpected. As well as the obvious performance testing to ensure that capacity problems don’t result in outages, some “chaos monkey” testing to identify potential single points of failure may also be useful. NowTV will almost certainly be running regular tests of thier system, the question that has to be asked it whether they're doing enough and expencting the unexpected.

The reputation of Now TV has taken a significant bashing after its latest blunder. Whilst it will hope the promise of a full refund will appease customers, it will take some time before those affected will even contemplate using them again. In the end, the climax of the football season was fairly uneventful with City comfortably beating West Ham to win their crown. Just imagine the outrage if the season went down to the very last second…

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