Video-on-demand's evolution to a point at which cable operators can offer thousands of hours of programming each month carries with it a complex web of interlocking technology, ranging from encoding, pitching and catching to transport.
All of that hardware needs lots of software to make the content flow smoothly through the VOD-delivery chain, and that's the job of asset-management systems.
Server-vendor companies have developed such systems to store, propagate and manage content on their servers. Companies like N2 Broadband and TVN Entertainment Corp. also have asset-management systems that transfer content through various parts of the delivery chain, including catchers or server docking stations.
To get content flowing from those catchers or docking stations to the server, MSOs have different options. In some cases, it's software from the server vendor that goes and gets the content from the catcher or docking station.
In other cases, MSOs are using a TVN or N2 asset-management system.
And in some cases, an MSO may look at another software supplier to bridge the gap between server and catcher.
For N2 and TVN, developing an asset-management system was a natural outgrowth of their VOD distribution businesses.
The three major premium subscription VOD providers — Home Box Office, Showtime Networks Inc. and Starz Encore Group LLC — and pay-per-view programmer In Demand have bought N2 pitchers to upload content, which amounts to about 1,000 hours each month.
N2 has deployed more than 200 catchers with various cable systems, principally Time Warner Cable's systems but also Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and AT&T Broadband.
"We have a catcher that was created in early 2002 and was meant to be a lower-cost single unit catcher," said N2 Broadband senior director of business development Raj Amin.
Initial catchers cost $22,000, he said, but that price has dropped to the $13,500 range.
"We've gone with a very aggressive pricing model," said Amin.
A single catcher typically stores about 40 hours of content, he said. The asset management system goes hand-in-hand with the catchers.
"We've had pretty significant deployments this year," said Amin, making note of what's believed to be the TWC systems. "We've trials with two other MSOs," plus Blue Ridge Communications Inc, he added.
In N2 Broadband's technology, the asset-management system acts as a back-end content warehouse to manage the content inventory heading to the VOD server, said Amin.
"The content goes into the AMS cache, which is 0.5 to 2 terabytes. It gets housed in the AMS. The rules are set by the MSO."
N2 runs the content from a Sun Microsystems Inc. server, which can store more than 500 hours of programming. The AMS checks on that content and related metadata, validates it from the content specification and accounts for localization, such as different set-top boxes, servers or guide applications, he said.
"The second piece is the caching function, which acts as a way to handle surges of content as you deal with fairly constant ingestion rate of VOD servers," said Amin.
Since most MSOs employ a variety of vendors within their VOD chain, asset-management systems help to coordinate disparate functions.
"The AMS provides a national management infrastructure and a point of consistency to set rules across all systems," he said.
N2 also offers cable operators a business-management system.
"It is the whole network abstraction layer for the headend," and integrates with MSO back office systems, Amin said.
Charter, Comcast, Adelphia Communications Corp. and Insight Communications Co. are among the principal MSOs that use TVN gear. That vendor, a third-party aggregator, ships more than 1,300 hours of VOD fare each month.
TVN has about 80 docking stations in the field, according to senior vice president of business development Jim Riley. It promotes the efficiency of its delivery system, in that an MSO can use a single docking station to receive content from many different SVOD or VOD sources.
The docking stations started with 70 gigabites of memory, but that has increased to an average of 210 gigabites to handle the content shipped each month, Riley said.
From there, TVN's Automated Digital On-Line Network Interactive Scheduling System (ADONISS) takes over.
"We automatically move it on to the server," he said. "We have proprietary software that sits on the docking station. It knows the server type and does the translations" for the specific server vendor and set-top provider in the system.
The ADONISS asset-management system is agnostic with respect to the hardware platforms of other VOD vendors in the equipment chain.
ADNOISS also watches over content delivery throughout TVN's distribution network, handling multiple feeds of different programming to a variety of sites nationwide. If there are errors in the delivery of content to a docking station, ADONISS makes sure the content is redelivered.
TVN also will send a superset of metadata to its docking stations, alongside the content provider's metadata.
"SVOD may get delivered to the box, but sometimes those assets have metadata that is subpar to the functionality of the VOD servers and we have to enhance it," Riley said. That also holds true for guide integration.
Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. will soon ship the A17 version of its interactive programming guide, with new VOD enhancements.
"We want to make sure they can take advantage of whatever functionality is in A17," Riley said.
Added TVN chief technology officer Dom Stasi: "Asset management is becoming ever more important to this space. We're now dealing with independent assets stored remotely."
That's another way of saying that programmers want to be sure that their content cannot be pirated or damaged — and will be displayed correctly — once it's inside a cable operato's server. That's the job of asset management.
In addition to protecting content, asset management systems are expected to play a greater role in collecting information in a timely fashion, so cable marketers and programmers can better understand usage and buying patterns for on-demand content.