MediaOne Group Inc. is about to break new ground in
network-operations management using a software-based system designed to reduce the
guesswork and inefficiencies associated with delivering an ever more complex menu of cable
The MSO's first step in this direction -- using
techniques developed by Boulder, Colo.-based Probita Inc. -- involves preparations for a
video-on-demand trial, which, sources said, will take place sometime next year in Atlanta.
MediaOne plans to use a component of a new product line
Probita is introducing at the Western Show next week to help it model traffic flow over
the VOD system, vice president for digital technologies Steve Dukes said.
"We're looking at the Probita system initially as
a design tool to help us optimize use of network resources for the VOD trial," Dukes
said. "With VOD, there are issues of managing spectrum and program distribution that
require new approaches to running a cable system."
The MSO announced in September that it would use gear
supplied by Diva Systems Corp. for the trial. But it has not said where or when the trial
would take place.
While near-VOD is a broadcast service with time-shifted
programming delivered on a fixed basis, true VOD is a "more customer-centric"
service that requires a careful balancing of resources, Dukes said. This means engineers
must design the system to ensure that customer demand doesn't overwhelm the capacity
allocated to delivering the service, but also that there's not an overallocation of
capacity that deprives other services of spectrum.
The biggest challenge in managing traffic for VOD occurs at
the coaxial end of the hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network. A movie streamed on a dedicated
basis from the headend-based server across the fiber rings to hubs and to the local fiber
node is delivered in broadcast mode to all customers on that node. At that point, the
video is occupying everyone's channel space, even though only one user may be
authorized to receive it.
"We have bottleneck and security issues, and I'm
sure there are other things we don't even know about yet," Dukes said.
"That's why we're involved with field trials."
Dukes declined to say how many movie options would be made
available or to discuss other technical details. But he made it clear that the level of
sophistication required for planning and managing VOD and other dedicated services on an
ongoing basis demands new tools, which the vendor community is only now beginning to
"This is the first time I've seen this level of
detail," Dukes said, referring to the management control afforded by the Probita
system. "But I wouldn't be surprised if many of the VOD or server manufacturers
are looking at this."
As cable moves from a purely point-to-multipoint
broadcast-service model to one involving a growing array of dedicated virtual
point-to-point services, it needs the types of traffic-management systems that have been
core components of the telephone industry for decades.
But in cable -- where each vendor's products in each
service category typically come with some system for overseeing operations -- the
challenge is to create an overall traffic-management system that works with all of these
"Basically, network management is treated as a side
lobe of a specific application, which isn't an efficient way of doing things,"
Dukes said. "As we move forward, we need a means of managing the network across all
This is what Probita has in mind with the new "Provise
Network" product line it will introduce soon, CEO Don Burt said. "Our initial
product is a resource-planning and management tool, but that is just the beginning of what
we're doing," he added.
"At the outset, you need a high-level
strategic-planning system that allows you to look at your network-design options and how
you allocate business resources against various economic models," Burt said.
"At the next level, you need to be able to simulate
real traffic loads based on various demand levels so that you can do your
traffic-management modeling," he added. "And then, once the service is in
operation, you have to have oversight and the ability to maintain control of all of the
This requires the traffic-management system to stitch
together all of the proprietary application-operations systems so that the operator can
control all element managers within those systems from a single platform.
Probita's background -- doing systems planning for
digital-TV operations and voice and data services in numerous MSO and Cable Television
Laboratories Inc. projects -- allows it to develop an "excellent abstraction of these
functionalities" and an ability to project those functionalities onto the equipment
in the HFC hierarchy, Burt said.
Using the SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol)
telecommunications standard, Probita's software allows operators to configure how the
management system interacts with all of the subsystems. "You tell our software what
you want and set the parameters," Burt said.
One of the benefits such a management system brings to the
chaotic cable-operating and planning environment is a means of communicating between
marketing and engineering departments.
Today, marketing executives have their own approach to
developing service and economic models, which they then must leave to the engineers to
execute without knowing whether the execution plan really does what they want, because
they can't speak the engineers' language.
But there's a long way to go beyond the initial
planning tool to having the means to dynamically manage the full load of diverse traffic
running over today's cable systems, Dukes noted. "I define dynamic control
fairly rigidly, which means it's done by a machine automatically, without human
intervention," he said.
"Ultimately, what I see machines doing is applying
tools like Probita's to deliver bandwidth to each node on the infrastructure as
it's needed to avoid bottlenecks and to overcome network failures," Dukes added.
"I think this is imperative, especially as ever more of your traffic becomes more IP-
[Internet protocol] and DOCSIS-oriented [Data Over Cable Service Interface
Burt said the timing of further releases of the Provise
Network system will depend on the way demand shapes up as MediaOne and other MSOs evaluate
But he made it clear that there's a lot of work to be
done in the trenches, where the individual service, equipment and architectural aspects of
each cable operation must be fully understood to ensure that the network-management system
does what it's supposed to.
"With MediaOne, we're going to do
network-resource planning around the equipment they're using," Burt said.
"We have to look at the video server, the number of channels allocated, the node
sizes and frequency of anticipated use. Then we have to figure out how to manage traffic
flows in the context of other service requirements like telephony, and how to handle the
trade-offs in bandwidth requirements as they change in real time."
Operators currently approach these services piecemeal, with
major project trials and launches planned around already-allocated fixed resources with
another layer of fixed resources added in.
But integration and coordinated management of those
resources is clearly essential to completing the transition to the next-generation MSO,
which means the cable industry won't know for sure that it can make that transition
until vendors demonstrate that they can provide the necessary management systems.