Video-on-demand server vendors, who have barely caught their collective breath in terms of initial VOD deployments, are knee-deep in designing second-generation equipment to meet operators' future demands.
Gigabit Ethernet ports, larger disk drives for storage and encoding-on-the-fly capabilities are among the major innovations server vendors are bringing to market.
Storage is job one, as some MSOs have requested information on obtaining units with up to 2,000 hours of capacity. Comcast Corp. set the bar when it disclosed plans to offer 1,500 hours of VOD content Philadelphia later this year.
"We have subscribers going out the door with larger storage capacity and existing subscribers budgeting for an expansion in their storage capability," said Steve Necessary, president of Concurrent Computer Corp.'s Xstreme division.
A second key focus is Gigabit Ethernet, which allows MSOs to pass more content through existing transport pipes. GigE technology requires server vendors to place GigE cards, versus ASI cards, in their servers.
"We see a strong push for GigE going forward," said SeaChange International Inc. executive vice president of strategic planning Yvette Gordon-Kanouff. "It's a lot less expensive to deploy. Operators are looking at switched networks."
Gaining more storage
The storage issue is largely being driven by the increased availability of content. All of the major Hollywood studios except for The Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures Corp. have distributed hit theatrical films to cable VOD distributors.
The big three pay TV providers — Home Box Office, Showtime Networks Inc. and Starz Encore Group LLC — combine to offer more than 400 hours of subscription VOD content. And free on-demand is picking up steam, as MSOs secure content for that facet of the business.
Add in children's fare, library product, adult and local news and information, and it's easy to see how Comcast could climb to the 1,500-hour mark.
Still, different cable systems are at different points on the storage curve, said Concurrent chief technology officer Bob Chism.
"Some operators started off with servers half-populated, and that's all their content requirement. They had 400 hours on an 800-hour server. Then they'll come back for more disks and fill them up."
Concurrent customers are migrating from hard drives with 36 gigabytes of storage to 73-gigabyte drives, according to Chism. Some have even jumped from 18 to 73 gigabytes in one fell swoop, he said.
As content storage pushes past 1,000 hours, Chism said systems are installing or designating a "library" server, for deep storage and smaller servers at the network's edge that can store hundreds of hours of content.
"We have very intelligent asset-management software," he said. "We can move content around based on demand."
The cost curves for disk storage resemble PC pricing, said Chism, in that performance improves as costs remain the same. That means a 73-gigabyte hard drive costs the same as a 36-gigabyte drive did a year ago.
Concurrent is now in the midst of qualifying a 146-gigabyte disk drive, which should be available in the next month, said Chism.
"We're shipping mostly 73-gig drives and the drives are beginning to grow," said Jay Schiller, senior vice president of broadband strategy and product management at nCUBE Corp. "Since servers scale, 73 gigs on a 2,000-stream server can accommodate thousands of hours of storage without adding any rack space."
Perhaps with the large Comcast Philadelphia deployment in its back pocket, SeaChange has already jumped to shipping 144-gigabyte disk drives, said Gordon-Kanouff.
Simultaneous-usage demands also remain all over the lot. Charter recently said it's building its systems for 3 percent rates of simultaneous usage, pointing out that usage has at this point never peaked past the 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent range.
Other MSOs are looking at higher rates.
"We have some customers who started at 3 percent and are moving to 7 percent in anticipation of multiple SVOD," said Chism. "We're specing from 6 percent to 10 percent for new launches," which require more streaming capacity, he said.
The nCUBE server scales to 50,000 streams and 200,000 hours of content to handle various simultaneous-usage peaks, said Schiller. The bigger payload gives operators flexibility to add streams and storage as needed, without rolling out a second server.
"It's peace of mind," he said. "The functions will scale to meet applications as they come online."
The second key factor changing the server game is the emergence of GigaBit Ethernet, with Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications Inc. leading the GigE-implementation trend.
"The cost of GigE transport means that with fewer larger servers, you can serve your smaller communities remotely," said nCUBE's Schiller. "You use three servers instead of 10.
"It's less expensive from a capital investment point of view, because there are fewer disk drives, fewer sites to manage, less power, less air conditioning."
Concurrent and nCUBE are supplying Charter with servers. Since many of that MSO's systems are spread out geographically, GigE makes a major difference.
"GigE is causing a centralization effect," Schiller said.
A fully-loaded gigabit Ethernet port can transmit 240 streams, compared to an asynchronous serial interface (ASI) port than can handle 40 streams, Concurrent's Chism said.
Concurrent is installing GigE cards using off-the-shelf PC hardware for MSOs that use GigE connections to remote hubs. The GigE video-transport stream must be received by a GigE quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) unit at the node.
Most QAM manufacturers either produce or are in the process of making GigE QAMs, or units that handle both ASI and GigE transmissions.
"Most of our deployments are going out GigE," said SeaChange's Gordon-Kanouff. "You either connect with a modulator directly or some type of switch or router."
Gordon-Kanouff said DVB (digital video broadcast)-ASI technology, used in early VOD rollouts, costs about $3,000 for a usable 150 megabit per second stream. With GigE, cable operators can get 930 mbps per streams for approximately the same cost, she said.
For SeaChange, GigE deployments are just the tip of the future iceberg.
"GigE switches can aggregate bandwidth or route video signals," Gordon-Kanouff said. "You can have hub-to-hub fault tolerance. If you have more usage in an area, you can switch traffic from there to another area."
The vision gets very close to a true switched architecture, in which operators can seamlessly switch between data and voice services, Gordon-Kanouff said.
"We're delivering to GigE sites now, [but] GigE deployments are fairly early on," and represent only a small percentage of Concurrent's 569 deployed servers, said Chism. "We'll start to see it take off next year."
On the fly
All three server vendors offer operators on-the-fly encoding. SeaChange announced a trial earlier this year with Adelphia to encode Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League games.
The on-the-fly encoding will be critical for Comcast in Philadelphia, where NBC affiliate WCAU's local news, the NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw
will be available on SeaChange VOD servers soon after they are broadcast.
Concurrent has encoded content on the fly for Time Warner's Oceanic Cable system in Hawaii for several years. To start the effort, Concurrent encoded pay-per-view boxing matches so they could air in primetime on the islands.
Later, local news and college sports from the University of Hawaii were added.
"We're taking that directly off the air and ingressing them into the server," said Necessary. An encoder is integrated into an integrated receiver terminal to capture the video feed.
"This is a real MPEG [Moving Picture Expert Group]-2 stream. We have to be able to write that into the disks on the fly," said Neccesary. "We can immediately playback out, and only have a couple seconds delay. You have to be able to handle trick mode in real time."
Concurrent is testing on-the-fly encoding in one other unnamed location, according to Necessary.
Asset-management systems from server vendors manage the content on headend and node servers, while systems from N2 Broadband and TVN Corp. handle functions related to pitching and catching.
"There is some overlap in terms of capability," Chism said. "N2 has a business-management system. So do we. We have an intelligent management system."
TWC, which uses gear from Concurrent and N2 Broadband, wants to have a single business-management system across all of its server vendors, Chism said.
Charter is using Concurrent's business-management system in initial sites, he added.
"Once the content and metadata is caught, the metadata is in the business-management system," said Chism. "We go out and grab content from the catcher's mitt. We put it on a server complex."
At this year's National Show, nCUBE introduced its own asset-management system, nABLE media mangenent. The company has not disclosed any customers, said Schiller.
In the future, "we see a tremendous amount of interest in PVRs [personal video recorders] and long-form ads," said Schiller. "We have a large as insertion business and spend a lot of time with the ad community.
"We have a number of products and planned products. There will be trials of those new products next year."
Another research project would introduce the ability to add building blocks without taking down the service, Schiller said. "That's a big focus, scaling the server without interrupting service."
Gordon-Kanouff looks out even further.
"In order for this to become a mainstream product, you're going to have to look how the whole industry is going to change," she said.
Linear-based Nielsen Media Research ratings will give way to some kind of usage gathering for VOD, she said, thus making targeted advertising tied to specific VOD content possible.