Oh, No — Not Another Switch-Out!

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For Insight Communications Co. chief technology officerCharles Dietz, 2002 ended just like it began — with a large-scale switch-out of one technology platform for another.

As the year started, Dietz was moving the MSO's cable-modem customers from the platform of now-defunct Internet-service provider Excite@Home Corp. to an in-house platform — a conversion that caught the industry by relative surprised and created plenty of headaches.

He ended 2002 on a better note, completing a less-urgent video-on-demand transition from Diva Systems Corp. equipment to gear from SeaChange International Inc., TVN Corp., Cisco Systems and Harmonic Inc.

Insight joined Charter Communications Inc. on Diva's refugee list last year, when it was forced to convert its VOD platforms in 10 systems where the product had been up and running for several years, serving hundreds of thousands of regular users.

The conversion went very well, according to Dietz and Patrick Forde, Insight's vice president of new technology integration.

"It's scary how many phone calls we didn't get," Forde said, punctuating his point.

Insight actually launched VOD in the last millennium — in December 1999 in Rockford, Ill., when its LocalSource middleware-based interactive-television service also took its first bow.

By the end of 2001, Insight had Diva-based VOD running in 10 markets, covering all the MSO's major operations, save for ongoing rebuilds in Springfield and Peoria, Ill.

As the year drew to a close, Diva's fortunes were slowly unwinding, and it was clear Insight needed a transition strategy.

Servers first

The first stops made were to server vendors. Because Insight's VOD service is so intertwined with LocalSource, Dietz said, "we try to be cookie-cutter. The biggest piece was the middleware and the regression testing we had to do to make a change."

LocalSource is based on middleware from Liberate Technologies Inc.

"We decided to go with a single server vendor until we have a more open standard," Dietz recalled. "We felt SeaChange had what we needed to do and was the best overall package."

The next pieces of the puzzle concerned transport.

Dietz looked at both TVN and In Demand, as Diva withdrew from satellite delivery last year.

"The marketing department liked TVN and technically, we could make it work," Dietz said. TVN also had completed integration work with SeaChange.

"The good news for doing this for the second time is that we knew what to look for," Dietz said. "We were able to cut back on number of streams" and to get more storage for a cheaper price than when Diva first launched, he noted.

Insight launched Diva with hundreds of hours of storage and geared for simultaneous usage of 10 percent.

The SeaChange systems range in size from 1,000 hours to 1,400 hours, but have been built to handle a simultaneous-usage factor of 4 percent, given Insight's three years' experience in VOD.

"When we started with Diva, we did one stream for every 10 customers, and I was very worried it wasn't going to be enough," Dietz said. "We went out with 4 percent this time. We think we've got enough built in to handle the new rollout."

If additional storage capacity or streams are needed, "that's success-based capital. To beef up streams means people are using the product."

Added Forde, "SeaChange seems to make it easy to add streams and content storage."

Dietz also decided to take the Gigabit Ethernet plunge. The 11 servers Insight bought from SeaChange (two servers are in the 120,000 digital set-top Louisville, Ky., market) all have GigE ports.

Content streamed from those ports travels through a Cisco Systems Inc. video switch to hubs in each system.

Insight bought 150 Harmonic NSG gateways to handle the GigE feed at each of their hub locations in the 10 VOD markets. "GigE makes it easy to feed content," Dietz said.

"We went with all GigE, which means we didn't have to buy a lot of high end transport systems," Forde said.

"The efficiency of the bandwidth is very good," Dietz said with GigE. "It works well."

One piece of equipment that remained unchanged was the set-top box. Insight uses units from Motorola Inc.'s 2000 series in all of its VOD sites, but it's starting to sprinkle in 1700 models and to look at the 2500 series, Forde said.

"All the sites were done by Dec. 15," Dietz said. "We're working out bugs in the software now."

The biggest challenge, said Dietz, was creating a good marketing plan for notifying customers. The biggest technological headache was the sheer logistics of the equipment conversions inside headends.

"There were an awful lot of connections to be moving around," Dietz said. "We wanted to get new equipment as close to the old equipment."

Insight essentially built a parallel network for each switch-out day. In fact, the MSO sent a signal to all 120,000 digital set-tops in Louisville in the middle of the night for the change, a process that was repeated in each market.

Next up: VOD rollouts in Springfield and Peoria, as those rebuilds are completed.

"We're in the planning stages to get SeaChange in by the end of the quarter," Dietz said.

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