The future of converged IP platforms is already here

Comcast’s next generation, silo bustin’ video network architecture isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s already a reality.

Comcast started developing its organically grown Viper platform several years ago as a way to build a cloud-based, IP video infrastructure that would deliver live streams, full linear lineups, on-demand video, cloud DVR service and other digital video products and services to the full range of IP devices.

“Viper actually is an acronym,” said Comcast’s Allen Broome, network systems engineering. “It was a little bit contrived but it actually stands for ‘video IP engineering and research.’ It’s a team that we built that was sort of an offshoot of the Xcalibur project with roots going back to Comcast Interactive Media. The group is located in downtown Denver and its responsible for building out our next generation video platform.”

Viper can handle all of Comcast’s multi-screen needs today but it can also be leveraged as the company’s all-IP platform whenever Comcast is ready to cut over.

The Viper platform is a common programmable video pipeline supporting all new Title 6 and TV Everywhere video services. In addition, the Viper team is starting to look at how it could be leveraged for more traditional QAM video delivery, which would dovetail nicely with Comcast’s X1 platform that uses hybrid boxes.  

“We’ve layered the Viper platform into all of Comcast’s video products today,” Broome said. “All of Comcast Interactive Media has been migrated over to the Viper platform. Everything that we’re doing on the IP side that we’ve launched is on the Viper platform, and we have tons of new products that are launching this year that will be on the Viper platform.”

Comcast did a good job of keeping Viper under wraps before openly discussing it last summer. Broome said the Viper name was first used two years ago, but the groups within the Viper team have been around, in one form or another, for about five years.

“It’s really a cloud-based, common video delivery, programmable pipeline, that’s what we’ve been calling it,” Broome explained. “A lot of it was driven off of when we first started Xcalibur. We had lots of different video vertical platforms for every new product that we were launching. The purpose of Viper was to consolidate all of that into a common infrastructure for a common way of dealing with video and delivering video.”

Go team Viper

In order to build a unified video platform, Comcast separated the core video platform into a set of reusable services for all of its new applications. Viper is comprised of six separate groups or teams: content ingest, alternative content, big data and real-time analytics, player platform, security, and service delivery engineering.

“We have a group that focuses on content ingest, so that’s transcoding, packaging and origination of linear and VOD,” Broome said. “We have a team that is focused on alterative content, which includes emergency alerts, blackouts and dynamic ad insertion.

“We have a group that focuses on big data and real time analytics, and that’s really just collecting usage data across all of these different platforms so we can improve the video delivery, so we can monitor and improve video quality and just build out a more robust platform, and improve that customer experience.”

Not surprisingly, the player platform team develops a common player platform for all IP devices ranging from PCs, iOS, Android, set-top boxes, connected TVs and gaming consoles.

“We’ve developed a common API for all of our players that abstracts the complexity of video delivery,” Broome said. “It abstracts the adaptive bit rate logic, the authentication, DRM, analytics and provides a common API to all of our application teams.”

The Viper security group handles all levels of security from hardware specifications for Comcast’s set-top boxes, code signing, keying, software security audits to authorization and entitlement systems.

Lastly, the service delivery engineering group builds tooling for configuration management, deployment, monitoring and capacity management.

Similar to the Reference Design Kit that Comcast pioneered, the Viper platform turbo charges the whole multi-screen ecosystem by establishing common requirements for higher service velocity, better video quality, lower bitrates, larger libraries, and new capabilities such as dynamic ad insertion. 

“One of the big important pieces of it is it makes it a lot easier to launch new products and services,” said Comcast’s Jim Weiss, executive director, service delivery. “We’ll be able to get to market more quickly and efficiently using our infrastructure.”

Comcast’s Kyong Park, director, product development engineering, said Viper could be a full replacement for the cable delivery system that is in use today. He said the current system was inefficient in terms of scale, standards, regulatory obligations, and security obligations to content providers. All of which are hard to do from vertical silos. 

“It (Viper) even needs to support new things like linear streaming, advertising and swapping out security components,” Park said. “That requires us to establish new standards, invent new technologies and come up with something that’s actually carrier grade going forward.”

Just in time packaging

In order to simplify the process of ingesting all of the video assets for all of the different devices across the various streams, Comcast came up with an in-house solution called “just-in-time-packaging.”

“When we started looking at this, we were taking video in with any number of bit rates and resolutions,” Broome said. “If we’re doing 10 different profiles that’s 10 copies of an H.264 asset. Then if we’re delivering those 10 copies in three different formats, now we’ve got 30 different copies of that video asset sitting on storage and sitting out in our CDN cache. It creates a very big asset dispersion problem for our CDNs.

“We thought the cost effective way to do this was to do just in time packaging. It allows to us only package into the formats and the bit rates that people are actually using and requesting. It also allows us to do more flexible things with DRM where we can package or even flip DRMs on the fly if one DRM is compromised and we need to switch to a different technology.”

Just-in-time-packing can handle the various adaptive bit rate (ABR) formats, including HLS, HTTP live streaming, Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming and Adobe HTTP dynamic streaming.

Viper strikes

“It was really a core part of the architecture that we decided we had to design and build for,” Broome said. “It is a little bit more complicated than pre-packaging. Of course we started off with pre-packaging and then developed the different type of packaging technology and the architecture and have migrated to it now.”

The Viper team has also helped shape industry specifications, such as CableLabs’ ESAM, ESNI, EBP and metadata 3.0, and standards for the SCTE, including SCTE-35 2012.

Viper already has its coils wrapped firmly around many of Comcast’s current products and services. Using Viper’s managed IP video pipeline, Comcast announced in February that its cloud-based DVR service, along with the ability to watch live, in-home streaming on mobile devices via a new app, had launched in Boston.

Comcast also uses Viper for its IP-delivered “Xfinity on Campus” multi-screen service, which is being trialed by the University of New Hampshire, Drexel University and Emerson College. Previously, Comcast trialed a managed IP video service at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.)

“We’ve been delivering full IP linear and VOD service to MIT for almost three years now,” Broome said.

During the Sochi Olympic Games, the Viper platform was used in the “Instant On Demand” feature where Comcast made NBC’s primetime broadcast of the Games available on Xfinity On Demand minutes after it started airing live.

Comcast moved its Xfinity TV Go app to the Viper platform in 60 days, which improved the overall video quality and user experience. Another example that highlighted the power of the platform was the recent launch of the Xfinity On Demand app on Samsung Smart TVs. With little to no oversight from the Viper team, Samsung was able to use the common Viper components to build and launch the app and the user interface. 

Using the Viper platform, late last year Comcast updated its mobile viewing app, Xfinity TV Go, to allow subscribers to watch 35 live TV channels on their Apple and Android devices outside of their homes.

“We’ve built out an infrastructure that can be leveraged with any new video platform that our business or product team brings to us.” Broome said. “We’ll be adding lots of new capabilities over advanced advertising and alternative content.”

The Viper platform is also in use for X1 and the X2 update, the latter of which includes the XI3 Cisco DVR that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts showed off at The Cable Show last year

Comcast declined to say whether it would license the Viper technology to other cable operators. Comcast is working with Cox Communications on licensing the X1 platform, so maybe there’s hope.

As for the next big thing for Viper? Pretty much anything you’ve got, according to members of the Viper team.

“The big thing is just deploying it out and moving more and more services over to the IP platform,” Broome said. “As we start supporting full IP set-top boxes, those will be on the Viper platform. The platform is in place so it can be used no matter where we go.”