Comcast has seen its IP, multiscreen video future, and its name is VIPER.
After developing in relative secrecy in recent years, Comcast is now starting to shed light on VIPER, a largely “home grown” cloud-based, IP video infrastructure that’s been built to deliver a broad mix of on-demand video, live TV streams and an assortment of other digital media to an array of connected devices that’s expected to comprise everything from PCs, smartphones, gaming consoles, IP client boxes, and smart TVs.
Comcast senior VP and chief software architect Sree Kotay (pictured) outlined some of the baseline aspects of VIPER earlier this month in this blog post, and recently discussed the MSO’s new broadcast-quality, IP video pipeline in more detail with Multichannel News.
Kotay said VIPER represents one of three “pillars” spawned from Xcalibur, Comcast’s next-generation video initiative that got under way a few years ago. The first two pillars are now represented by X1, Comcast’s application infrastructure, and the Reference Design Kit (RDK), a pre-integrated bundle of software for hybrid QAM/IP and IP-only gateways and other video devices.
VIPER, Kotay explained, is Comcast’s highly scalable, cloud-based video pipeline and distribution system.
Boiled down further, VIPER is the system that ingests all the forms of content that Comcast is (and might) deploy, whether that includes professional linear content, on demand content, as well as what’s on the horizon, including a cloud DVR service and, potentially, an origination spot for the distribution of “personal recordings and personal media.”
VIPER, Kotay said, is about “how we build a cost-effective and robust pipeline for that video delivery. With VIPER, what we really wanted to do was build this normalized solution that gave us a lot more capabilities and a lot higher grade video quality for our customers.”
Comcast has done a good job keeping VIPER quiet, as the label has been in place for more than a year and a half. VIPER also grew out of the IP video and online video projects that originated at Comcast Interactive Media/Comcast Labs.
In fact, several trials and real products launched many months ago used, or still use, the VIPER infrastructure. Comcast tapped it early on to run some initial IP video trials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and likewise uses it now to power the Xfinity app that delivers IP VOD to the Xbox 360 console. Rather than going “over-the-top” using a customer’s best-effort broadband connection, video shipped over VIPER to the Xbox is a managed IP video stream.
And that same VIPER pipeline will now put Comcast in position to deliver IP video services to not just game consoles, but other IP-connected devices, including tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs. Presumably, VIPER will also be able to feed managed IP video to the Xi3, Comcast’s new IP-only HD client device.
Over the last 12 to 18 months, Comcast has been “stamping that [VIPER] infrastructure into all of our products,” Kotay said.
For example, the version of Comcast’s Xfinity Player app update released in June swapped in the VIPER infrastructure as the operator moved away from third-party software clients. “We now have our own [software] clients that we put on Android devices, and PCs, and set-top boxes,” Kotay said.
VIPER is primarily being used to deliver VOD over IP, but live TV streams are starting to factor in as well. Comcast is also starting to use VIPER to deliver a subset of live TV channels to authenticated customers via PCs and Macs, but isn’t yet talking about when it will add more channels to the mix and when those live TV streams will reach a greater number of devices.
“You might presume that there are more [channels] coming,” Kotay said. “Our goal with VIPER is to turn all of these technology problems into business problems.”
Scaling Up For IP Video
VIPER is also an adaptive bit rate (ABR) video platform that ties into Comcast’s IP content delivery network architecture and uses a process that, Comcast believes, will enable it to scale to support the exploding ecosystem of IP device ecosystem as well as a swelling video library that can feed them.
Instead of creating dozens of different versions of every video asset for every device and at multiple resolutions, Comcast is keeping this operational and storage scalability issue in check through the use of a technique and technology called Just-In-Time-Packaging (JITP).
For JITP, Comcast uses a common media format that enables it to package a video asset into the correct device format and at the correct resolution being requested by the user pretty much on the fly. JITP, Kotay, said, can do that for a variety of ABR formats, including HTTP Live Streaming , or HLS (for iOS devices), Smooth Streaming (Microsoft) and Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming, while also supporting multiple digital rights management systems.
That, Comcast believes, will help it scale its streaming operations for today’s major streaming platform and devices, and allow it to quickly adjust when existing specs change or another platform reaches the market. Before JITP, Comcast would have to reprocess its entire video back catalog whenever a new device or platform came out, a process that could take weeks or months. “With JITP, it’s just a software upgrade and our entire catalog is now available,” Kotay said.
The JITP approach also means Comcast doesn’t have to store 20 different versions of a video at multiple resolutions. “That materially helps the economics of storage, especially when you get into personal recordings,” Kotay said.
And will Comcast eventually sell access to VIPER to other MSOs? Stay tuned. “You don’t want to rule anything out,” Kotay said. “Right now we’re focused on scaling the [services] we’re doing.”