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Open Mic - May the source be with you

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 12:30pm
Bob Edwards, vice president of engineering at itaas

We must “use the source” (code) to build a better universe of entertainment options.

Bob EdwardsIn the “Star Wars” saga, the legendary Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the “Force” as an energy field that “surrounds us; it penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” In a similar fashion, the move to “open-source” software binds together the many moving parts of the ever-expanding galaxy of software and electronics devices. The concept of the “Source” or source code being shared by a community of developers and hardware devices is the impetus behind the Android operating system and, for our topic, the Reference Development Kit – or RDK initiative – introduced earlier this year by Comcast.

RDK is a pre-integrated software bundle specified by Comcast to develop QAM, IP-only and hybrid set-top/gateway devices. The pre-packaged, community-based software stack is comprised primarily of open-source modules. The goal of the RDK is to reduce development costs, reduce time to market, and provide MSOs with a broader range of system-on-a-chip (SoC) and hardware choices.

So, where are we to date with this goal? Just as the mobile industry rallied around Android, our industry is rallying around RDK. SoC vendors are now providing RDK-based solutions to hardware developers. These manufacturers have begun to deliver RDK-based set-tops and gateways to cable operators. And now the operators have begun integration and testing – with the goal to launch these RDK-based devices early next year.

Since signing the RDK license agreement in April, itaas has been involved in several RDK initiatives, providing development, integration and testing services throughout the development cycle. Our engineers are working with hardware manufacturers in their implementation of the RDK stack and helping SoC companies determine the support required for porting the RDK stack to these devices. This has led to testing of software for RDK set-tops and gateways.

At this point, RDK appears to be delivering on its promise of shortened development cycles and more choice. SoC vendors have streamlined their effort to bring up their individual RDK stacks – benefiting from prior integration and hardening of the core RDK software stack. Hardware vendors are able to shorten development time by working with SoC vendors that have successfully integrated their chip into other set-top or gateway devices. The process of getting a device up and running to an initial known state is accelerated by the use of a common user interface integrated with a well-defined set of APIs.

However, as with any development, there are challenges. For RDK, the greatest challenge is the software source control. The RDK development environment separates the open source, SoC, OEM, MSO and other third-party software in order to protect each contributor’s intellectual property. Each software component needs to be treated individually as features are added and as bugs are addressed. At some point, feature sets need to be defined, components need to be frozen and software builds need to be integrated into the core code from the many independent development paths. The administration and management of this complex structure can be daunting.

Additionally, as new versions of the RDK software stack become available, steps are needed to ensure it is ready for the broader RDK development community. Processes and procedures are needed for quality control and to verify that the new version of software is stable in order to minimize integration time among the various contributors.

And, finally, as the RDK-based hardware devices get deployed in the field and issues are uncovered, how will these issues get addressed? How will software patches get created and distributed to all affected parties? As the number of vendors and contributors grows, the timely distribution of updates will require constant coordination.

These challenges are no different than those of other software development projects. The uniqueness with RDK is a matter of ownership and scale. Previously, each hardware vendor has been responsible for their products, the resident software and its maintenance. With RDK, the cable operator takes on more responsibility for the robustness of the entire software stack they’ve deployed. Plus, updates to the RDK software will affect a much broader community.

These challenges have been addressed before on large, complicated projects, and there are signs they are being addressed within the RDK community.

The promises of the RDK will truly be realized as more and more vendors join the RDK community and leverage the advantages of the RDK’s open-source shared model. Hearkening back to Obi-Wan, our Jedi mentor, we must “use the source” (code) to build a better universe of entertainment options for consumers.

Email: bob.edwards@itaas.com

Johnny Hill, COO of Clearfield, will write the next Open Mic column.

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