Broadbus Server Brings Mass-Transit Mindset

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The acceleration of video-on-demand deployments has spurred one new startup to enter the server market with a mass-transit mindset for on-demand content delivery.

Boxborough, Mass.-based Broadbus Technologies Inc. is entering the already competitive market with a home-grown VOD delivery system that mixes random access memory and hard drive technologies to boost capacity and storage. The company gained a crucial financial boost recently via a $12 million funding round, with investments from Comcast Interactive Capital, Battery Ventures and Charles River Ventures.

Broadbus is basing its product on a VOD market that is yet to come — a market that will reach beyond just movies and select TV shows to reach "television on demand," covering the entire range of programming, movies and videos.

"Movies are logical first step toward a broader content offering that includes television, sports and news and all of the other genres that are not feature-length film," said Broadbus CEO Jeffrey Binder. "We are really focused on building a product chain around that next-generation requirement."

Home PC model

Existing VOD server vendors rely on systems that store and stream content simultaneously. In contrast, Broadbus' B1 server is more akin to a home computer — the system's RAM components handle the stream serving, while the disk is devoted to the storage.

The result is a server that can deliver 100,000 simultaneous Moving Picture Experts Group 2 (MPEG-2) streams at 4 megabits per second each, according to Broadbus.

The server design itself is proprietary, not based on off-the shelf hard-drives used by other vendors. But within that box, Broadbus uses stock components, so in the long run the units can be more easily upgraded, Binder said.

"With a proprietary solution, we are able to use things like common Motorola processors that are a commodity — that will be around in various systems maybe in increased speed grades for years to come," Binder said.

Broadbus expects to deliver a product some time in 2003. That my seem a bit tardy, given the plans of several major vendors including SeaChange International Inc., Concurrent Computer Corp. and nCUBE Corp. But Binder says that is not a concern.

"We believe that server sales and systems sales around a larger television-on-demand architecture is still in the very early stages, and incumbency is limited at best to vanilla VOD or movies-on-demand," he said. "I don't think it has any real long-term ramifications as the space grows."

But others do question the timing. Although there may be a future need for expanded VOD server capacity, the issues of limited cable capex and an already-established competitor lineup cannot be overlooked, according to Josh Bernoff, principal television analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"The problem is that capital is not something that is in large quantities among cable operators right now," Bernoff said. "Given the timing of the Broadbus availability, which is still a ways off, will there be demand for more servers at that point? Probably, but whether the operators are in a position where they can actually invest more capital is a very challenging problem."

Broadbus also is presuming the VOD market is going to be a victim of its success and won't be able to serve up enough content to meet demand. That has not become clear, Bernoff added.

"Someone is going to have to show me the exact place where the pain is so great that we need to get this server improvement to happen," he said. "It would take a whole lot of success in the VOD market to open up space for a new product like this."

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