Espial's Next-Gen Software Draws Cable and Telco SPs

July 24, 2009 – Middleware supplier Espial, regrouped and with new wind in its sails, has introduced a next-generation version of its VOD management platform amid signs its design strategies are paying off in new sales on both the VOD and IPTV sides of its product portfolio.

Version 9.0 of the MediaBase VOD platform is designed to maximize efficient use of processing power in the latest chipsets from Intel so as to expand the range of service models that can be supported from off-the-shelf servers, says Sanjay Mehta, vice president of engineering at Espial. "With Espial MediaBase 9.0, our telco and cable customers can deliver more captures and streams than ever before," Mehta says. "They can achieve optimal economics by running VOD, Timeshift TV and Network PVR/RS-DVR [remote storage DVR] services from a single platform."

The commitment to ongoing optimization of processing power is a strong selling point, Mehta adds. "This means our customers can plan to double their storage capacity and streaming performance at least 200 percent every 18 months," he says. "At the same time, they will also dramatically reduce the physical rack space and power requirements required for their on-demand services."

Intel confirms the benefits of the Espial approach. "Espial and Intel have worked closely together optimizing Espial Mediabase for the latest Intel Xeon server platform," say Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Server Platforms Group.  "As a result, Espial is able to take full advantage of the performance and capabilities of the Intel(r) Xeon(r) 5500 platform, including the Intel(r) X25-E Extreme SSD and Intel(r) 10Gb Ethernet controllers, enabling them to provide a highly competitive product to the IPTV and cable marketplace."

Espial says it has achieved a 400 percent performance increase in the new version of Mediabase at up to 37.5 gigabits-per-second streaming from a single next-generation HP or IBM server with Intel Xeon 5500 series processors and10 gbps network interface cards (NICs).
In stress tests Espial says it has demonstrated high-volume streaming and captures that support 30,000 time-shift TV, network PVR, RS-DVR and VOD sessions per hour on a simulated large system deployment

Once known primarily as a supplier to the telco market, Espial has now built a strong beachhead in cable as well, owing in part to the fact that Mediabase was developed to work in the cable as well as IPTV VOD spaces by its originator, Kasenna, which was acquired by Espial a year ago. At the same time, Espial is finding a cable market for its IPTV middleware, which, according to Kirk Edwardson, director of marketing at Espial, has close design affinities with cable's tru2way middleware architecture and therefore fits well into next-generation service models that tap IP content as well as traditional cable TV programming.

"We realized there were some significant shortcomings in many middleware products that are browser based with thin clients," Edwardson says. "So we built our middleware with a much thicker client, allowing us to make use of set-top intelligence to support key functionalities, which has made cable operators more interested in our platform than some of the others."

"For example," he adds, "you want to support enough tuners to accommodate DVR recording requirements in a multi-room DVR application. You want to support all the back-office requirements for managing the EPG, subscriber information, billing transactions, etc."

Edwardson makes clear the company's Evo middleware is not technically compliant with OCAP [OpenCable Applications Platform, the technical name for tru2way] but adds, "Our architecture is almost identical to what OCAP would recommend. We can pull a lot of EPG information off of the existing QAM infrastructure to augment the [IP content] EPG information and develop interactivity off an IP back channel."

So far, cable interest in use of the IPTV platform has been primarily focused in Europe, where operators want to deliver on-demand content that has been positioned by suppliers for IP distribution. Now, with growing cable interest in delivering Web-based content to the TV, such middleware has come under scrutiny by North American operators as well.

"A lot of people are talking about bringing in Web content with additional EPG information," Edwardson says, noting such capabilities are routinely showing up in North American cable operators' RFPs. Eventually, this could lead to development of new applications on the cable IPTV side.

"We're not seeing an applications use case right now for the IPTV middleware in cable," he says. "But it opens up the possibility for Web-based apps. It's up to the service providers and their suppliers to put it together. You need interaction with the back office and the QAM infrastructure, which is what we're already supporting. Having done this, our existing customers are getting a sense of the ultimate value proposition that comes with the platform."

In June, Espial announced it had licensed its Evo Client middleware to Buffalo, Inc. to support the Japanese set-top maker's rollout of hybrid units that support both digital TV programming and IP-delivered content, including home media delivered over DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) home networks. Like the U.S. and many other countries, Japan is transitioning from analog to digital TV, in this case with a 2011 regulatory deadline to end analog TV services.

The requirements for digital set-tops are stringent in Japan, where TV signals are broadcast free over the air via two satellite services and a digital terrestrial service. To meet the requirements of the Association of Radio Industries and Businesses (ARIB) digital video broadcasting standard, digital TV set-tops must support up to three broadcast tuners each with their unique channel line-up and integrate with ARIB-based software stacks.

Buffalo, which is offering the new hybrid terminals through retail channels as well as through service providers, intends to cooperate with Espial to deliver the hybrid capabilities to the global digital TV and IPTV markets, says Hjime Nakai, director and member of the board in Buffalo's Broadband Solutions Business Division. "We selected the Evo Client for the rich set of applications, high performance architecture, and open interfaces," Nakai says. "This simplified integration and supports the extensive requirements for a hybrid IP, satellite and terrestrial set-top box."

The Evo middleware incorporates Espial's Evo Browser, which is also sold independently. The browser supports user Web browsing requirements on TVs and set-tops as well as mobile and other Internet devices, along with other end-user applications such as service provider portals, product menus, interactive advertising, email, chat and games.

"Our ability to stay open and modular is a core strength," Edwardson says, noting that many middleware systems have been "very locked down without much flexibility."

"We give you the toolkits and APIs for you to develop the right sets of applications as the market evolves," he says. "And we can support different business models as new opportunities come into the picture." For example, he notes, the platform is now being used by some network operators to support emerging network PVR services.

This can work in tandem with Mediabase support for NPVR on the server side or with other suppliers of VOD support platforms. Espial is marketing all its products as standalone components directly to service providers and through OEMs. For example, Ericsson is a long-time licensee of Mediabase, and Motorola is an announced licensee of the Evo Client, Edwardson notes.

Such affiliations not only help boost sales for the Canadian-based supplier. They help to drive "the product curve with the right performance benchmarks for cable as well as telco customers," Edwardson says.