New Ideas in Cable Aim to Push Cloud Benefits to All Operations

Nick Thexton, CTO, NDS

Nick Thexton, CTO, NDS

June 13, 2012 – How far can cable operators go in leveraging software to minimize costs of service and network migration? Judging from plans taking shape at NDS, the sky’s the limit, assuming the clouds in that sky are populated with the right solutions.
With Cisco’s acquisition of NDS set to close this summer the middleware supplier’s latest moves make clear just how adamant cable operators are in their desire to abstract operational intelligence to maximize hardware efficiency end to end. “The energy behind the acquisition is that together we will be able to change how our customers use technology in important ways,” says Nick Thexton, senior vice president and CTO at NDS. “For NDS it gives us the opportunity to scale our solutions to a much larger customer base.”

The degree to which NDS is in sync with MSOs’ thinking about the positioning and role of software was much in evidence with last month’s announcement that ARRIS and NDS are collaborating on tight integration of NDS middleware, DRM and user interface solutions with the ARRIS Media Gateway. The goal, the companies say, is to create a comprehensive architecture aimed at accelerating the pace of innovation and convergence between traditional pay TV and new IP services.

The integration has been undertaken in “close collaboration” with several North American cable operators, notes Bruce McClelland, group president of products and services at ARRIS. “Working together demonstrates our companies’ flexibility and commitment to using innovative approaches to deliver cable’s long-awaited whole home solution,” he says.

As previously reported (September, p. 1), the ARRIS Media Gateway is a hybrid QAM/IP platform with a six-tuner HD DVR and 500 gigabytes of storage. It also includes DOCSIS 3.0 high speed data and voice, a four-port Ethernet home networking router, CableCARD conditional access, with support for Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) 1.1+ home networking technology and an option for 802.11n Wi-Fi. It can connect with the ARRIS Media Player, a thin client device, and with other subscriber-owned DLNA-enabled devices using DTCP-IP encryption across a home network.

NDS is the first third-party supplier to integrate its software with the ARRIS Media Gateway and Media Players. The British firm’s MediaHighway middleware together with the NDS Snowflake user interface supports intuitive navigation across all content and services with DVR functionalities. Its VideoGuard Connect DRM system enables secure delivery of content to multiple devices inside and outside the home.

Looking ahead, NDS is planning solutions that would extend the role of its software capabilities into the broader arena of network management, where operators would be free to leverage various network components to maximum benefit without limitations imposed by divisions between IP- and QAM-based infrastructures. This is a long way from where things are today, even with the contemplated implementation of CCAP (Converged Cable Access Platform).

At ARRIS CCAP is in an advanced stage of development with trials of its yet-to-be-announced E6000 platform likely to begin by year’s end, says Todd Kessler, vice president of product line management at ARRIS. The E6000, an integrated version of CCAP, along with a distributed version which ARRIS is well positioned to deliver by virtue of the MSP (Media Services Platform) technology it inherited with the BigBand acquisition, will provide operators a flexible means of allocating bandwidth to DOCSIS and MPEG video channels through the same chipsets in accord with service group categories that are defined by types of service rather than geographical areas.

“MSP in many ways is a CCAP-ready platform, but there’s more to come on that side,” Kessler says. “And the E6000 leverages a lot of our C-4 CMTS capabilities with reuse of software and many features. Operators will be able to implement the E6000 as capacity needs expand without having to replace the C-4.”

Along with much greater flexibility in allocation of QAM channel resources CCAP leverages improving processing densities of the latest generations of chipsets. “We’re looking at one chip, not eight chips on a board with all the power, routing and PCV functions on that board,” Kessler says. “That translates to an 8-10x increase in the number of downstreams in one space with an increase in power consumption of just 50 percent compared to power consumed for that number of downstreams on current generation platforms.”

But for all the gains promised by CCAP, there’s another big step to be taken when it comes to maximizing efficiency across the legacy proprietary machinery that delivers today’s cable broadband and TV services and the commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) machinery which operators are angling to use as they shift to cloud-based operations and convergence of video onto the IP distribution network.

“COTS and CCAP are still two different worlds,” Kessler says. “One of the challenges the industry will face is when to change interfaces to manage equipment in both domains. CCAP uses some of same interfaces that are used with COTS, but over time there will be changes to where things move to a control plane that works across all components to deliver the scale efficiencies operators will require.”

ARRIS, with expertise in the myriad processing steps video requires, has designed its products to share processing across multiple chassis and so is well positioned for such future integration, he adds. “But it’s a question of scaling beyond what we do today that will have to be addressed as we move to a cloud-based architecture,” he says.

These are the issues Thexton has in mind when he talks about the roadmap taking shape at NDS. “As we look at where things stand today we recognize there’s a lot more work to be done to maximize efficiencies across headend and cloud-based technologies” he says.

“The cloud, as we discuss it today, isn’t fully understood,” he notes. “Abstraction is the idea of the cloud, and that abstraction isn’t tied to just one type of facility.”

In other words, the migration path may not turn out to lead to an all-IP cloud-based architecture but one that uses the abstraction concept to leverage COTS and headend resources like CCAP to maximum advantage at the control plane level. One example of why this approach is better than focusing strictly on getting to a pure COTS-based version of the cloud can be seen in the difficulties of trying to accommodate peak usage over an all-IP infrastructure.

“With the cloud concept you have a massively synchronous system where your allocation of bandwidth and other network resources is driven by peak volume requirements,” Thexton says. “Systems that work in the cloud today can’t be deployed to scale up and down and to generate new resources on the fly, so in a pure cloud architecture based on today’s capabilities designing for peak usage would be extortionately expensive.”

People talk about the efficiencies of virtualization, where service-related processes can be shifted from one server cluster to another based on where capacity is available, Thexton notes. “That’s a fair point, but virtualization doesn’t deal with the peak usage problem when everyone is switching channels at once during prime time.”

IP, for all the gains made in the technology ecosystem to accommodate video distribution, is still a best-effort technology where “crazy things can happen,” he notes. “Other protocols are needed to improve transfer robustness. “We have to take a broader review and recognize it’s not going to be all IP. We need to abstract the control plane and use all the available resources to maximize delivery efficiency and performance.

What Thexton has in mind is an operations plane that deals with bandwidth allocation and use of network resources, including components in the home on a session-by-session basis. “Broadcast over QAM delivers a lot of efficiency you can’t easily replicate in IP,” he notes. “We need to think about a really fantastic approach to using the combination of QAM and IP, which is something the marriage of NDS with Cisco will greatly facilitate.”

For example, files created on a byte-by-byte basis in the IP domain could be transferred in the broadcast QAM infrastructure and moved into edge devices in the network or the home for access via IP unicast. Devices, by virtue of increasing processing power, can now be factored into the overall operations architecture as network components, he adds.

“What’s a thin client?” he asks. “These days browsers can consume gigabytes of memory. The requirements for an HTML5 browser are colossal. Our middleware, which people think of as requiring a thick client, is a fraction of that size. If our client takes over 30 to 60 megabytes, that’s a lot to us.”

The upshot is that when people talk about a thin client, what they really mean is a connected client, he continues. “The key is not to have the functionalities hard coded,” he says. “There’s a lot of strength and opportunity to be had with a general purpose client built into connected devices.”

NDS has been exploring such possibilities at the microprocessor level working with the ARM (Advanced Reduced Instruction Set Computer Machine) architecture developed by ARM Holdings and now used in the vast majority of cell phones as well as other connected devices. Part of this work is focused on exploiting the ARM TrustZone technology, which provides the means for authenticating devices as protected environments for high-value content, and some of it has to do with enhancing graphics rendering support at the chip level.

“The Mali graphics (embedded graphics processing stack developed by ARM) and TrustZone initiatives are coming together nicely as a movement we’re keen to exploit,” Thexton says. General purpose clients capable of supporting these applications and service-specific functionalities represent “trends that add up to significant opportunities to add efficiencies to our service operations environment,” he notes.

“We’re testing these ideas with our customers,” he says. Nothing has yet been deployed into the working network infrastructure, “but we will in a few months’ time.”