Are network service providers finally ready to embark on full convergence of multimedia services into the long-discussed anytime, anyplace, any-device service mode?
One important sign that talk is translating to action is Alcatel-Lucent's introduction of a highly concentrated "federated-services" platform that taps long-held as well as new technologies to enable multimedia convergence. "We're introducing a lot of technology here that came out of Bell Labs – things like intelligent delivery and smart downloading – and that we've been working on for a number of years," says Shane Guthrie, vice president of business development and partners at Alcatel-Lucent. "We had to wait for the market to mature to where IT engineering and consumer demand reached a point where it made sense to introduce this type of product."
The introduction of a product suite that consolidates media operations, ties together all networks and employs advanced digital media delivery techniques to enable multi-screen service comes in response to requests from multiple customers, Guthrie says. "You'll see announcements over the next few months as to who the specific service providers are that we're working with," he adds, noting they include cable MSOs, telcos and other entities.
As described by company officials the Multimedia Solutions suite consists of all the foundation components essential to unifying the delivery of Web video, TV programming and other multimedia content to any connected device. "These solutions build on our strengths in IPTV, mobility and content delivery to bring our customers – and their subscribers – a consistent multimedia experience on every screen," says Kenneth Frank, president of Alcatel-Lucent's solutions activities. "We are creating new opportunities for everyone in the digital media value chain by providing a foundation on which new multimedia services and content can be offered to consumers quickly and easily, based on market demand."
There are three fundamental components to the product suite:
* The Multi-Screen Foundation, which helps service providers consolidate media operations to create an open foundation for a broad set of targeted multimedia solutions, such as multi-screen video;
* The Multi-Screen Video Solution, which ties together existing networks, allowing service providers to extend their fixed IPTV or Cable TV service to smartphones, PCs, tablets and a host of connected devices;
* The Velocix Digital Media Delivery Platform, which consists of a series of appliances that service providers can deploy to support their own dedicated advanced digital media delivery capability, as an alternative to relying on shared content delivering networks (CDNs).
At the core, the Multi-Screen Foundation provides a common service layer that brings together all the internal services essential to supporting a converged multimedia service. These the internal services that interact with data from back-office components, policy servers, ad campaign management platforms and much else, so that all relevant processes can be applied to any given piece of content in the context of its use on any given device.
"Such a foundation is vital to delivering converged services," says Tom Fuerst, senior director for solutions and marketing at Alcatel-Lucent. "It leverages the information the operator has on subscribers across all screens and gathers that into one data base to execute on things like content marketing, advertising, cross-screen promotions, reports and payments."
Operators can expose the high-level layers in the federated services architecture to third parties, such as middleware suppliers, so that existing and new functionalities can be seamlessly incorporated into the core processing platform, Guthrie notes. "This is the embodiment of the AES (applications enablement suite) that can consolidate most screens into one single exposure with other Alcatel-Lucent components or that can modularly integrate into what the service provider already has in place," he says. "Everything lives together in the common plane."
For example, Guthrie notes, "We're a premier [Microsoft] Mediaroom partner, so an operator can use that middleware as a pre-integrated service delivery platform on top of this foundation." Or the operator can add middleware that may not be part of the Alcatel-Lucent partnership ecosphere. "We expose all the APIs (applications program interfaces) to support both applications that have been pre-integrated into the platform and ones that the operator wants to add," he says.
In the case of advertising, an advertising management system passes all information pertinent to placements on all media streams into the foundation, which then processes and distributes that information for action by various external components such as ad servers, splicers and collectors of viewing metrics. In fact, Guthrie adds, this multi-application flexibility allows the foundation to be used as a core to wholesale as well as retail business models, where third parties can operator their own applications layers to deliver branded retail services over the operator's multi-screen network. "We provide a single view of all the data collected from multiple attached systems so that you can publish a federated view out to third parties," he says.
The second component of the new product suite, the Multi-Screen Video Solution, is the first consolidated applications set designed to run on the foundation. It handles all the headend processing for multi-screen distribution, including ingestion, massively scalable storage, formatting, encoding and transcoding and managing digital rights management on all streams. "In the headend portion of our solution we've designed a common storage layer so that we can perform all the workflow requirements on all assets," Guthries says.
Alcatel-Lucent has partnered with two key suppliers, Harmonic and Isilon Systems, to support some of the key processes required in the Multi-Screen Video Solution. Isilon is a provider of scale-out network-attached storage systems that are designed to work in complex workflow and processing environments. Harmonic is supplying its fully integrated multi-screen formatting and encoding/transcoding systems.
"We use Harmonic's full-set solution as a sub-system of ours," Guthrie explains. "We provide the business logic essential to supplying the media profiles that drive their work-flow manager. They recognized the need for a pre-integrated solution that provides this business logic, so they came to us to partner on this solution. We tell their system what profiles we want to transcode and which screens they apply to, and they push the instructions out to their encoders and other modules using their own internal proprietary codes."
The third leg of the Multimedia Solutions suite is built on the Velocix CDN that Alcatel-Lucent acquired in 2009. Guthrie says the new Velocix Digital Media Delivery Platform extends the efficiencies of the original technology to the network edge, thereby providing service providers a set of content publishing, storage, delivery, routing and management appliances that allow them to differentiate video stream quality and accelerate file downloads at reduced costs.
"We've combined the Velocox intellectual property with our multimedia streaming technology to create a CDN platform that accomplishes unicast deliver with near multicast efficiency," he says. Rather than operating in the usual hierarchical style of traditional CDNS, he explains, the new system provides mechanisms that allow a caching point directly served from central storage to share content with other local caching points on a peer-to-peer basis rather than requiring all of them to connect to central storage.
"Today we do multicasting in a hierarchical way that is very efficient," he says. "But when you start looking at ever increasing volumes of on-demand content that need to traverse the network, the more efficient mechanism is to pre-cache content out to the edge and then push it from there in linear fashion to additional caches." The pre-caching process relies on algorithms that set priorities on content so that the entire cluster is continually able to access content that's in relatively high demand.
One of the features built into the new Multimedia Solutions suite is what Alcatel-Lucent calls Mobile Smart Loading, which serves to provide users more valuable applications and content loaded into the device than they might otherwise have. "Because the network is fully aware of the device state and location, we can use the intelligence in the foundation to ensure there's always relevant content on the handset," Fuerst says.
This not only makes for a more compelling user experience, he says; it also cuts down on the amount of signaling and live transmission of on-demand content and applications within a given cell coverage area. And, he adds, if the user is connecting to an operator-controlled Wi-Fi hot spot, the intelligent network can distribute higher bandwidth-consuming content such as full-length TV shows rather than the news and weather updates that might be more appropriate for delivery over the 3G network.
The new multimedia platform is also integrated with the applications suite that comprises Alcatel-Lucent's ng Connect Program, which supports collaborative approaches to business models such as connected-car services where service providers must affiliate with multiple suppliers to enable a specific service (see January issue, p. 14). Officials say the company will continue to release new applications to expand the ways service providers can use the multimedia solution.