OTT Video Biz Gains Support For Smoother App Performance

Marty Roberts, CEO, Wicket Labs

Marty Roberts, CEO, Wicket Labs

Startup Automates Tracking of APIs that Activate Functions Crucial to Viewer Experience

By Fred Dawson

October 31, 2016 – It looks like the legion of premium video providers putting ever more eggs in the OTT basket may have one less thing to worry about when it comes to malfunctions that can disrupt consumer experience at any moment of engagement in today’s app-dominated entertainment arena.

This particular gotcha has to do with a lack of attention to how all the cloud-based functions that go into supporting any given app are responding to the API (applications programming interface) calls that are triggered with each user’s engagement with that app. While the market is awash in application performance management (APM) solutions, there’s still a gap in the ability of many of those systems to ensure app consistency.

Marty Roberts, former co-CEO of thePlatform and now CEO of startup Wicket Labs, says his new company intends to fix this “blind spot in the cloud.” “We’ve been working with over a dozen companies in trials, including cable networks, broadcasters, MCNs (multichannel networks),” Roberts says. “Anyone building business around media is a good candidate for our solution.”

The need for a solution that can automatically keep tabs on how all the APIs associated with any given app are performing became apparent while Roberts was at thePlatform, the Comcast-owned online video publisher that provides OTT support services to many major broadcasters and other entities. “At thePlatform we were doing about 18 billion API calls per month,” he says.
“Often we’d have operational problems with APIs that didn’t show up until consumers started complaining.”

Sometimes, he says, it would take 20 to 30 minutes to figure out which vendor providing support for a given app had a problem. And then it took more time for the vendor to figure out what the problem was.

thePlatform was staffed to deal with such issues on as timely a basis as possible, but individual media companies relying on internally managed apps typically aren’t equipped to set up and run monitoring of all the APIs that connect cloud-based vendor software platforms to their apps. “We started our company six months ago with the mission to lower operational downtime of client sites,” Roberts says.

In a nutshell, Wicket Labs creates a digital map or “Wicket” for each API which automatically identifies API changes and client-impacting errors or outages through a process that mimics inquiries into the API on a predetermined frequency. Wicket Labs’ clients gain dashboard access to a customized Wicket Scorecard that continually tracks performance on all the API connections that contribute to their app’s functionality.

Given the vulnerabilities incurred with reliance on complex apps that require support from multiple cloud-based elements, it’s surprising to learn how unequipped many providers of premium video are to deal with potential issues. But it is a problem not just in entertainment, but across business operations of every description that depend on cloud-based apps, notes Julie Craig, a research director at the consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates.

Describing results of EMA research in a recent blog, Craig says two thirds of surveyed IT professionals either don’t track API-triggered transactions or do so through the cumbersome process of monitoring API Gateways. Just 32 percent of respondents said they rely on APM solutions to manage the API transactions.

“In essence, the Gateway has become another monitoring silo, which IT organizations are utilizing in standalone mode to track transaction performance and availability,” she says. “So at a time when software is becoming increasingly business-relevant, IT teams are, in too many cases, retreating to the silo monitoring techniques of the past to track and troubleshoot application performance.”

Such manually intensive approaches are impractical for media companies dealing with millions of API calls daily, which means they typically fall into the category of firms that rely on other tools measuring subscribers’ experiences with apps to learn when something is going wrong. As a result, they have no way of identifying causes related to the malfunction of a specific API transaction.

The risks of relying on smooth performance of multiple vendor contributions to a given app are magnified by the number of touchpoints engaged by the media app during the viewing experience. “If you look at a media company’s website, it might have 14 different vendors driving some part of that user experience,” Roberts notes. They can be pulling and using data related to advertising, content management systems, video management systems, presenting thumbnails and content descriptions and much else. “All of those are API calls that go into that app,” he says.

While, theoretically, media companies could put together a means of using data from engineering and other sources to figure out what’s going on across their app APIs, Wickets Labs believes boiling everything down to readily accessible, constantly updated data that gets to the essence of API performance will prove to be the better way to go for  most companies. “With so many APIs updating all the time, you need to automate the monitoring and analysis process,” Roberts says.

The Wickets Labs team does the heavy lifting building the Wickets for each API relevant to a client’s app or apps. “We can look at any of these APIs, fill out the information about it, modify the URL and put it into the roster,” Roberts says.

With so much duplication in vendor resources used for different apps across the ecosystem there’s a cumulative benefit to all who rely on those vendors’ APIs as new Wickets are added. “The more Wickets we build, the better it is for our customers,” he says.

The Wicket Labs platform knows how to call into vendors’ APIs and identify error codes, analyze the performance on those API calls as measured against expected norms and determine how quickly and effectively remedial action impacts performance. “If the vendor is sophisticated enough to have a user testbed or sandbox environment, we can be that user acceptance test for our customers,” Roberts notes.

The Wicket Scorecard uses an intuitive Web and mobile user interface to alert business owners to developments that define how any given Wicket is categorized at any given moment. In the case of “Problem Wickets,” the system presents details about issues and changes impacting the consumer experience, such as outages stemming from timeouts or HTTP server errors, “brown outs” caused by intermittent data errors or slow response times and glitches from unacceptable responses in a data field.

There are also alerts pertaining to “Notable Wickets” which identify and explain changes in an API that are not expected to have a meaningful impact on consumer experience, such as an API schema change or a relatively imperceptible slowdown in performance. And there’s a “Good Wickets” category where customers can view the performance history of a currently smooth functioning API, including the number of times the API has entered a problem state or a notable change has occurred.

The company has found vendors to be ready and willing to share data essential to keeping tabs on how the APIs are working. “One of the things we looked at early in the process was whether vendors would be okay presenting data back to us,” Roberts says. “But the vendors we’re working with have been great.”

They, like other stakeholders including Wicket Labs partners as well as customers, recognize they need to know why the user experience is broken. “If you receive a phone call asking about what’s happening, it’s better to have more clean data to reference for answers,” he says.

Wickets Labs offers potential customers free access to three Wickets and then charges monthly at various tiers depending on the volume of Wickets included in the customer’s Wickets Scorecard. While the company is focused on building its business in the media and entertainment domain, Roberts says it recognizes there are many other industry sectors that could benefit from a system that tracks API performance with their apps.