By Fred Dawson
April 23, 2013 – In another development marking the emergence of a network edge-based foundation for broadband TV, Envivio has added personalization capabilities to its video stream processing software in response to growing demand for new approaches to advertising, time-shifting and other functionalities from service providers.
The move underscores the expanding role of private CDNs (content delivery networks) where leveraging the processing power of edge-based servers to perform multiple functions beyond traditional caching is seen as a way to lower the workloads on headends and to improve the overall performance of broadband-delivered video. This extends to features such as personalized navigation, time shifting and, most important, monetization, where new on-the-fly ad insertion and user identification capabilities facilitate per-session ad placements suited to each user’s personal and device profiles.
“We’re seeing tremendous interest among major MSOs to move in this direction,” says Julien Signès, president and CEO of Envivio. “The personalized advertising and time-shifting capabilities of our new Halo Experience Server are of great interest to MSOs in the U.S. You should see some interesting projects underway before long.”
A turn toward adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR) and the new edge-based processing architecture for delivering premium content represents a radical departure for MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) who are accustomed to utilizing the tie-ins between headends and set-tops to accommodate advanced TV applications. But, notwithstanding great concerns over the reliability of IP streaming as a capable supplement to or even replacement of traditional distribution modes, the combination of the multiscreen service imperative and robustness of new edge-based solutions is starting to move the market, especially with the revenue potential born of personalized advertising.
A case in point is Verizon, which, with its launch of FiOS Mobile, currently an in-home extension of live programming to tablets, smartphones and other connected devices, has structured its CDN to support targeted advertising in anticipation that the licensing restrictions on outside-the-home distribution of live premium content will eventually be lifted as programmers seek to capitalize on the new revenue potential. “This has really caused a lot of interesting discussions among content providers, operators and content creators,” says Maitreyi Krishnaswamy, director of consumer video services at Verizon.
“The technology today from a FiOS perspective is already there,” Krishnaswamy says. “We have a cloud delivery infrastructure. Everything can be delivered over IP. But really the conversation now is with the big 40 networks. How do we get the rights? How do we measure for usage outside the home? And how do we make sure there’s a good monetization and advertising model around it?”
The fact that serious discussions along these lines are underway across the MVPD-programmer divide suggests fears of relying on the new IP streaming infrastructure enabled by the likes of Envivio, Akamai, SeaWell Networks and others are rapidly dissipating. But there’s still a long way to go on the business side, Signès acknowledges. “There’s still the challenge of getting the end-to-end ecosystem sorted out, the deal making between the operators, advertisers and programmers,” he says.
Envivio has been adding components to the end-to-end infrastructure for a while now. It went beyond the multiscreen transcoding capabilities of the Muse system and its hardware implementation on the Envivio 4Caster G4 Intel-based appliance to develop the Halo network media processor to support live packaging of content at the edge. Now the company has added the Halo Experience Server, a multiscreen application server that facilitates time-shifted TV and network DVR, targeted advertisement insertion and social and personalized TV.
Operators deploying Halo Experience will be able to add rich new functionalities, including enabling viewers to pause and rewind live streams, record programs and watch them on any other device or receive personalized ads based on their profile, says Arnaud Perrier, vice president of solutions at Envivio. “The Halo network media processor is a headend- or network-facing device that scales with the number of streams and doesn’t care about how many users are involved,” Perrier explains. “The Halo Experience Server is very different. It’s a client-facing device that scales with the number of users with ability to react to requests from two million or even five million users at the same time.”
The media processor performs the packaging, encryption and delivery of the ABR “chunks” or fragments in accord with the ABR formatting requirements and also handles the archiving of live content tied to time-shifting applications. The Halo Experience Server leverages these capabilities by ensuring that various functionalities tied to each user’s session and personal profile are included in the ABR manifests that are transmitted with each stream fragment.
Implementation is simple and cost-effective, Perrier says. No multi-platform or specific client development is required; no change is needed in the CDN, and content switching using Halo Experience is seamless. By leveraging the native caching capabilities of the CDN to create new services, the software is compatible with both on-net and off-net services.
In supporting advanced advertising, the Halo Experience Service delivers the playlist with the ad content to be included in each fragment while the Halo media processor performs the in-band insertion of the SCTE 35 advertising triggers in band with each of the streaming formats, Perrier explains. “This allows you to place ads on a per-session basis based on the personal profile of each user,” he says.
The server will support the full range of streaming formats, including Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) and MPEG-DASH, he adds. Envivio will offer APIs for integration with third-party application servers and ad decision systems as well as interfaces for selected middleware.
“The industry is now able to use the new CableLabs ESAM (Event Signaling and Messaging) standard that defines how these SCTE 35 triggers and blackouts are used in the multiscreen environment and what the interactions are between the packagers and coders,” Perrier notes. “All of this is working very well.”
A critical component to the process, of course, is the ability to capture advertising performance metrics. Halo Experience will offer audience measurement capabilities to better track connected user viewing patterns, Perrier says.
Another major feature brought into play with the Halo portfolio is time shifting on live programming, even to the point of creating an infrastructure that is capable of supporting a full network PVR strategy. “Time shifting live TV in the multi-device environment is really quite complicated,” Signès says. “You have to deal with all the different formats for signaling and retrieving the right chunks. We take care of all the mechanics for sending the right chunks to storage and to set the content in the formats it needs to be in. We plan to play a big role in time-shift management for multiscreen services.”
Initial applications will center on time-shifting as part of the live viewing experience, Perrier notes. “For time shifting where you go back 30 seconds, a few minutes or a few hours, we can enable that very easily on Halo,” he says. “In fact, we have an MSO implementing this capability right now.”
nPVR is a different matter, he adds. “Here it’s more of an on-demand workflow,” he says. “Very few companies have dealt with the complexity of nPVR.”
One company, he notes – namely, Cablevision, though he doesn’t name the MSO – is building nPVR around storage optimized for usage with set-top boxes. “We’re taking a much different approach where we’re optimizing nPVR in software for access on any screen,” he says.
“We look at nPVR as another way of serving personalized playlists to end users, as we do with targeted advertising,” he adds. “You don’t need a whole separate operation to support nPVR. You just need a scheduling function on the user interface or EPG and an interface to NAS (network attached storage).”
Ultimately, as things shift to all-IP this becomes a way to migrate out of the traditional VOD infrastructure. “Right now we’re running on separate tracks from VOD,” Signès says. “But there will be convergence over time.”