2nd Life for Legacy Set-Tops Looms As New Force in Migration to Cloud

Brian Roberts, chairman & CEO, Comcast

Brian Roberts, chairman & CEO, Comcast

By Fred Dawson

July 1, 2013 – The cloud-based case for cutting spending on set-top boxes has reached a tipping point, promising not only to reduce the need for expensive gateways and DVRs but to increase the lifespan of legacy set-tops as well.

Comcast and many vendors focused attention on one key aspect of this trend line at the recent Cable Show in Washington, D.C., namely, the attraction of cloud DVR. Less publicized but equally potent in its implications for use of the cloud are vendors’ plans to introduce software innovations that purport to bring next-generation navigation and other features to older set-tops.

After several years of debate over how to evolve the headend and CPE to accommodate whole-home DVR, multiscreen delivery, advanced navigation and other components of next-gen video service, video service providers (VSPs) now have a bottom-line incentive to shift quickly to a software-dominated cloud mode of operations in the legacy service domain. This, in turn, adds to the momentum already driving use of advanced software modules running on general-purpose servers in support of IP-based multiscreen services.

With the unveiling of Comcast’s X2 entertainment operating system for its Xfinity service at the Cable Show, chairman and CEO Brian Roberts made clear the MSO’s evolving service strategy is all about leveraging the cloud. Cloud DVR, voice-activated remote control, integration of experiences and uniformity of interfaces across all IP-connected devices, new levels of personalization and socialization and much else were part of the enhancements introduced by Roberts. The X2 OS is due to roll out in the fall in some markets as the MSO continues expanding availability of X1-based service with plans to be in all its markets by year’s end.

“The cloud is the game changer,” Roberts said in a presentation at the Cable Show. With X2 he said the mandate was to make the Xfinity experience faster, smarter, easier and more personalized. Cloud DVR, which will adhere to federal rules allowing such capabilities only if each person has their own storage space, will be available on the X1 gateway set-tops and the new Xi3 set-top Roberts introduced at the show, which unlike the other boxes does not have a hard drive.

“This box is four times faster; yet it is three times smaller with half the power consumption of the traditional cable box,” Roberts said.  Overall, he said, with the capabilities announced for X2, “I think we’re just scratching the surface.”

Now the question is whether Comcast will stick to making Xfinity available only to new gateway set-tops or at some future date will announce it is leveraging the cloud to make at least some of these capabilities available to legacy set-tops as well. What Comcast and other MSOs pursuing cloud agendas are discovering is the deeper they go in this direction, the more options they have to improve service and drive costs down.

It all adds up to the emergence of a software-defined distributed network architecture that could foster a cap-and-grow approach to minimizing the use of old-line gear and maximizing the use of more data center-like facilities for everything, including communications as well as video services. The impact on virtually every aspect of how services are provided from the headend to the end user and all points between could be profound.

First, though, operators must determine whether these new solutions really accomplish what their proponents claim. On the cloud DVR side, it’s a question of scalability and the ability to sell to consumers the idea they can rely on remote storage to supplement or replace home storage.

Where legacy set-tops are concerned, there’s a steeper climb to wide-scale operator acceptance of the concept given that many solutions are only in the initial test phases. But results so far are sufficiently strong to have persuaded vendors, including Rovi, Cisco Systems, Alticast, Zodiac Interactive and others, to plan for big announcements in the months ahead.

All of this activity serves to endorse the long-standing strategy of utilizing IP functionalities rendered in the cloud to serve legacy set-tops espoused by ActiveVideo. With the head start the firm has achieved through years of evangelizing the concept, it has seen a rapid uptake of its latest platform iterations utilizing HTML5 technology from VSPs worldwide over the past year, including most recently the addition of Charter Communications to the roster of MSO customers in North America.

“As Charter is transitioning to a cloud-based infrastructure, ActiveVideo’s CloudTV technology helps enable our move of the UI into the cloud and is intended to help accelerate service innovation to our customers across a range of devices,” said Jim Blackley, executive vice president of engineering and IT, Charter Communications. “This technology enhances platform and network scalability, while delivering a balanced architecture on which cloud and client interactions can be optimized.  Early tests have shown favorable results and the next step is an in-market trial.”

At the Cable Show ActiveVideo announced advances in its CloudTV H5 platform designed to accelerate rollout of TV services embedded with UIs that support guide, navigation and rich media applications across a range of device and network paradigms. In other words, providing on a more-or-less turnkey basis the kind of thing Comcast has built in-house, or at least portions thereof.

Notably, the company says it is enabling complex UIs and animation to be rendered more smoothly while reducing bandwidth required to do so by up to 50 percent. The new enhancements also increase the number of CloudTV sessions delivered across an existing cable QAM network, resulting in 25 percent throughput improvement, the company says.

Cloud, of course, is a broad term which in the case of vendor solutions for enhancing experience on legacy set-tops encompasses many different approaches. What really matters now is that enough entities are jumping into the solution pool to ensure there’s a broad base of approaches competing for operators’ business.

Zodiac Interactive, for example, reports significant progress in tests of its strategy with various cable operators, leading to the likelihood that it will soon announce a branded solution for the legacy set-top space. “We can show a legacy box running next to an OCAP (Open Cable Access Platform) box with the legacy outperforming the OCAP,” said David Housman, vice president of customer relations at Zodiac. “People smile and say, ‘You really did it.’”

Zodiac has been working with MSOs for many years to develop interactive apps capable of running in the legacy environment, most recently in conjunction with using HTML5 in cloud-hosted scenarios. The company’s PowerUp HTML5 solution has been developed as a service-based, layered architecture, providing either a thin or full client front-end supported by a robust service layer that separates the presentation layer from the underlying business logic.

The separation of data and control planes in conjunction with a thin client on a legacy set-top allows the set-top to render an advanced user interface with feature options like recommendations, search and requests for more information. These options are activated on a remote-control-generated call from the set-top into the cloud through the VOD system. Responses are delivered over a QAM channel back to the set-top for display on the TV.

“Zodiac does this differently from others who are working with this concept,” Housman said. “Everything doesn’t have to be our technology. In many cases we’re told to team up with other vendors. One case might involve support for a cloud-based TV service. Another case might bring in the navigation app.”

Alticast is another software systems vendor which has made great strides working with MSOs to foster cloud-based service enhancements. “We’re doing very well in North America, working with a lot of partners, including major manufacturers,” said Mike Malcy, senior vice president of business development for Alticast. Noting a lot of the company’s work comes in the vein of helping operators formulate their software strategies, Malcy added, “We’re working with major operators as experts who are not pushing anything in the way of specific products in order to help them with their decision-making processes.”

Or course, apart from the consulting practice, the company is offering many specific solutions tied to its software stacks, including OCAP stacks now running on over 30 million set-tops, including terminals on Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Bright House Networks and Videotron. While OCAP-enabled boxes have been a major driver to its business, now the emphasis is on leveraging IP applications through use of its HTML5 browser running with middleware hosted on set-tops or in the cloud.

There’s strong industry support for this approach over the old OCAP strategy, Malcy noted. Not only does it play with the need to get navigation and middleware-driven features into multiscreen service streams to connected devices; it lightens the load on processing at the set-top. “Everybody wants to go with lighter boxes,” he said. “And with OCAP, there aren’t that many developers out there. HTML5 is ubiquitous.”

At one level the strategy is facilitating efficiencies with new set-tops like those designed to run on chips complying with specifications of the Comcast Reference Design Kit. At the Cable Show Alticast became the first software vendor to demonstrate a software stack with HTML5 browser running on RDK chips from all three of the major set-top chip suppliers, including Broadcom, STMicroelectronics and Entropic. The demos showed both the Comcast Xfinity and the Cox Trio guides operating on RDK set-tops and a variety of IP devices.

Alticast is also working on bringing these cloud-based capabilities to legacy set-tops. “We want to put new software in legacy set-tops to take advantage of the cloud,” Malcy said. “We’re in the midst of introducing that capability to very low-end boxes to make it possible for them to become display devices for the new service paradigm.”

While such set-tops have far less processing power than newer boxes, much more can be drawn out of the old terminals than many people realize. It’s all about writing very tight software code, Malcy said, meaning code that consistently takes the most efficient processing route to getting the job done. “We’ve been doing that a long time,” he noted.

Rovi, which has been fairly vocal about its efforts to bring its next-generation TotalGuide experience to users connected to legacy set-top boxes, is taking a very different approach, using cloud-hosted software to interconnect the digital TV set with the QAM tuning, conditional access and recording capabilities of the set-top but using the CE device itself to host and render the next-generation user interface. The new initiative, known as Rovi Gateway Services, has yet to be commercialized, largely because of ongoing development of a cloud-based version of the TotalGuide, which originally was introduced as a software stack designed to be integrated into the chips used in smart TVs.

“The solution is one that allows service providers to migrate from the legacy guide experience into a brand new guide experience based on CE devices,” said Ben Tan, a product manager for Rovi. In a demo of Rovi Gateway Services he showed how someone using the remote control that comes with the DTV can initially link the TV to the set-top through the cloud in a simple sign-up process and then navigate on the TotalGuide user interface to trigger channel changes, schedule recordings on the set-top DVR and order content from the operator’s VOD platform.

The new TV, as a connected device, generates the user’s commands on the remote to the cloud over the broadband connection, completely liberating not only the navigation but all other next-gen TV enhancements from reliance on the processing power of the legacy set-top. In this scenario, the operator is assured that whatever IP-based features are introduced in the multiscreen domain are captured on the TV as well, Tan noted.

“The advantage of this [DTV] being a native IP device is that the MSO is now able to extend the service life of its STB investment by keeping QAM-based services on the STB but overlaying this with IP-based services,” he said. “For example, as they add new [types of content and VOD titles] to IP as they have with content available on iPads and PCs, then they would append this QAM-based list with IP-based OTT services.”

Exactly what Cisco has up its sleeve in terms of cloud-based solutions to the legacy set-top dilemma remains to be seen. As previously reported, Cisco, through enhancements to its Videoscape platform, took a stab at providing such solutions last year with its Voyager Vantage and Virtual platforms but has stepped back to reconfigure the solution in ways that take advantage of the capabilities inherited through its recent acquisition of NDS.

Vantage and Virtual, designed for two age groupings of older set-tops, leveraged the ActiveVideo solution. Now, said George Tupy, a marketing manager at Cisco, the company is taking a new approach to decoupling the data from the control path “with an overlay of cool stuff.” “We will have solutions with older set-tops and overlay the EPG on top to bring all those old set-tops out there into the 21st Century,” he said. “It’s very cool technology that we’ll tell you about later.”