Trends focus on building better, faster, stronger services

In many ways, the central philosophy driving trends in video-on-demand technology these days can be summed up using the old line from the '70s cult classic, "The Six Million Dollar Man": We can build it better, stronger, faster.

While the architectures and systems have pretty much matured, there are nevertheless several new streams of VOD thought that may improve capacity, efficiency, speed and, ultimately, profitability for the services cable operators field.

Thousands of hours

Better and stronger does appear to be the theme for VOD content, with larger libraries sporting a wider range of titles. Case in point is Comcast Cable's VOD service, which has grown from about 1,400 titles in late 2003 to more than 3,400 today, with total views rising from 21.2 million to 106.9 million during that same period. The recently announced deals with Starz On Demand will add more than 1,500 films per year to that count.

But VOD is no longer just about movies. Cable operators are increasingly looking beyond film content to other genres, including music, games and interactive offerings.

In fact, not counting its recent deal with Starz!, Comcast's 3,400-title VOD library contains only about 400 free, premium channel or pay movies.

Comcast has seen a major influx of music titles, and that, along with kid's content, sports and movies, make up the major content types on the MSO's VOD service.

"It's the same good stuff that built cable," says Mark Hess, senior vice president of Comcast's digital TV business and product development.

Jim Riley
Jim Riley, executive vice president sales and business development at TVN Entertainment Corp., also points to more interactive applications like karaoke as another new branch in the VOD content tree. As a content aggregation service, TVN is seeing an explosion in new content packages.

"That is driven largely by the fact that companies like Comcast and our other affiliates are engaging in a sort of widescale on-demand offering, largely led by this free on-demand model," he notes.

Not surprisingly, VOD server vendors are continuing the trend toward higher-capacity server products. Bob Chism, chief technology officer of Concurrent Computer Corp., notes cable operators will be asking for servers with 4,000 to 10,000 hours of capacity next year.

All of that is leading to more sophisticated management tools to handle the flood of content. Dave Bartolone, vice president of technology at TVN, notes that when the VOD content delivery and distribution service set up shop five years ago, it dealt primarily with simple 90-minute movie fare.

"That represented a certain number of files that we sent out per day and had to track," he says. "What's happening now is with three-minute music videos and the new CableLabs spec that will allow ads to be put in there, we're looking at 30-second files and one-minute files. So for any given day, we are going to be sending out a lot more files."

Faster comes into play as cable operators look to add content—particularly events—more quickly to their VOD menus.

Bob Chism
"A lot of companies, from the NFL to Outdoor Life to Sundance Channel and [The] Weather [Channel], and the leagues like Major League Baseball, are looking for the ability to either take feeds down in real time and encode them and spit them out to the rest of the industry, or take them in near real-time and get them out on a regional or national basis," TVN's Riley says.

Concurrent's ingest gear can bring in more than 100 hours per day, and designs support upwards of 600 hours a day, "and my expectation is that will just continue to go higher, with more content needing to get into the system and the types of content having a shorter period or duration on the system. So you are having more content with less time to get it onto the system," Chism says.

The navigation problem

The swelling content library also ups the ante for better navigation tools, and there is a major trend afoot to move beyond simple keyword indexes.

"If you actually think about how you display 10,000 hours of content, it's pretty mind-boggling," says Braxton Jarratt, vice president of marketing at Tandberg Television. "It's got a lot of people thinking about how you should browse that—should it be Internet? Should it be search? Should it be targeting based on things you've already viewed? There are lots of ways to do that, and I think all of the cable operators are looking at better navigation schemes for VOD to drive the kind of business they want."

Yvette Gordon-Kanouff
Navigation may also reflect the growing interactive programming included on VOD platforms. SeaChange International Inc. recently debuted a voice-recognition-driven browser at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, and Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning Yvette Gordon-Kanouff notes there are some interesting efforts to present search results in graphics rather than text on the TV screen and store browsing preferences set by the viewer.

"There are options out there that are really fun and exciting—there is a lot of technology ability there," she says.

Indeed, Comcast also recently showed off a demo of its video rich navigation guide, and it is looking to get more graphics into the search engine.

"It's a lot easier to find a movie, for example, if you see the poster art than just the title," Hess says. "All of that I think will be beneficial to improving the search experience."

The MSO also is looking to test a server-based search engine that can tap into the entire VOD library base—rather than requiring individual searches by content provider, as is the case now.

"I think at some point in time—we're going to trial it this year. The ability to search across content areas will be a huge step forward," Hess says.

RAM versus disk

Burgeoning VOD libraries and customer usage also are spurring the trend toward hybrid central-distributed architectures that try to fit demand with location, with less-viewed content loaded onto more centralized disk servers, and more popular content shuffled upstream to disk or even RAM-driven edge servers.

"The idea here that you should even try to scale by building a ginormous box which can house everything and all of these applications is something which is not going to happen," says David Yates, vice president of marketing and business development at server startup Arroyo Video Solutions. "To build this scalable network we need open-standard components and we need great networking technology."

Comcast's On Demand
The growth of Comcast's On Demand service is part of a greater industry trend toward major volume usage and rapidly burgeoning video libraries.

These systems also have to adapt quickly to fickle viewer habits. Gordon-Kanouff points out that the evolving VOD network architectures don't end with just shuttling popular content such as the Super Bowl to edge servers.

"So in supporting tens of thousands of hours of content, the easy issue is how do we address the hottest piece of content right now, because there are not that many of those," she notes. "But even more, how do we have the right infrastructure for all of the rest of the content to make sure that people can access it without bottlenecks in your network?"

For now, Comcast is relying entirely on disk storage, and because it sized its system to scale up to 10 percent simultaneous usage among VOD customers, "we've got a lot of capability there," Hess says. "We are starting to look at and experiment with RAM storage and streaming."

In storage, Comcast has tried to keep content as centrally concentrated as possible. Armed with a fiber network that touches almost 95 percent of its headends, the MSO can create some unique centralized storage, but Hess notes Comcast is still evaluating its options.

"I think at the end of the day you've got some content that if it is available everywhere, you might as well store it centrally and move it where you can," Hess says. "It'll be a hybrid but I think we'll be able to take advantage of our unique situation to have as much centralized as possible."

TVN's network monitoring center
TVN's network monitoring center now tracks an expanded range of VOD content files delivered to cable operator customers.

Big means 10 Gig

Look also for an evolution from Gigabit Ethernet toward larger 10 GigE transport, as MSOs shuttle around more content.

"It's the next step for everybody," Yates says. "If I look at the major operators, most of the major operators stopped buying 1 Gig backbones going on 12 months ago and are only putting in place 10 Gig backbones. It's just reflective of the way they need the network to scale."

Comcast has already started to employ 10 GigE in its VOD network scheme, mostly in its central ingest facilities and also from servers to larger hubs. Hess notes that the MSO generally ingests content in no more than one or two points in a region "so having that 10 Gig network to move it around is very helpful."

Still, that is being counterbalanced by the operators' need to make the most of existing network systems and justify fairly high price tags for 10 GigE switches, Chism notes.

"A lot of them have put significant investment into the current switches and fiber and so forth, but my expectation is once they are getting ready to do that next wave, from a further consolidation changing their topology again, they are absolutely going to want to take advantage of 10 GigE further down the road," he says.

Gordon-Kanouff also sees that pressure, adding that the answer probably lies in carefully mixing in the new with the old.

"I think the way to do it is to build add-on components that complement the existing base, so you can use that streaming and storage and still access something that might have your higher-speed ingest or your higher-speed streaming," she says.

Concurrent's MediaHawk VOD servers
Concurrent's MediaHawk VOD servers have scaled to fit MSO capacity demands, with the need for between 4,000 and 10,000
hours of storage likely in the near future.

Ads added in

Economics are in fact driving expansion of advertising possibilities, particularly on the free VOD services. With profit pressure ever present, MSOs are examining ways to add more targeted advertising to the "free" VOD mix to support operating costs.

Comcast is in fact working on dynamic ad insertion technology to give content providers even more incentive to provide newer and fresher content, Hess says.

Hess says that Comcast has always allowed content providers to embed advertising, if they wanted. "The real key is to be able to change it and buy it and place it."

But there is still debate as to whether that advertising will be inserted into a paid VOD stream or played within the navigation window.

"There is a huge play here from a targeting perspective," Chism says. "We feel very strongly that a lot of the promotion and advertising—infomercials and long format ads—is all going to be done within the navigational space. I don't think in the on-demand space you are going to be inserting ads into content when the consumer has purchased that content."

Open, open, open

VOD also appears to be following a familiar technology development cycle, moving from early proprietary specialized systems from a handful of providers to a standards-based systems attracting a wider vendor base. That not only allows MSOs to mix VOD gear from various vendors, but it also opens the door for more vendors to compete in the marketplace.

That's a trend Comcast wants to encourage, and it has been working to establish open interfaces, Hess says.

"It'll be vitally important in the future for vendors to fit within that structure," he notes.

Open architectures also support the growing idea of delivering VOD and other cable services via one unified multiservice network. Sharing QAM bandwidth between VOD and other servers as part of the move toward modular CMTS units and an IP delivery system also is starting to gain some traction in the cable universe.

"I think you are seeing a lot of focus in different areas on open standards for the support of how all of these pieces fit together," Gordon-Kanouff says.

With these trends flowing into maturing VOD offerings, they may indeed develop into a bigger, faster, stronger service superhero for cable operators.