European Operator Leverages Cisco’s Videoscape-as-a-Service to Accelerate Launch
By Fred Dawson
February 21, 2014 – As the buzz around cloud-based virtualization of network services and functions intensifies, an as-yet-undisclosed commercial implementation of these concepts for a pay TV service crystalizes the potential of what’s in store in a way that’s not been part of the discussion.
As often happens in ground-breaking scenarios, the initiative on the part of an as-yet-unnamed Tier 1 European customer of Cisco Systems is as much a matter of serendipity and expedience as it is of brilliant foresight. But by marrying the benefits of IPv6 with cloud-based operations to bring new efficiencies to pay TV and other services, the European MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) may inadvertently be creating a roadmap for others to follow.
As related by Cisco officials, the MVPD came to Cisco last fall with what sounded like an impossible mandate: we want to launch an IPTV multiscreen service on a new IPv6 infrastructure with IPv6-capable set-tops within two months. In so doing the company would have bragging rights to being first in the world to deliver a pay TV service based entirely on the IPv6 addressing system, the successor to IPv4 which has yet to be activated all the way to the home in most networks here and abroad.
“They wanted us to provide the IPv6 infrastructure as well as the CPE,” says Nick Thexton, CTO and senior vice president for video at Cisco. “It took just 50 days from when the CTO of the company approached us to when they were able to deploy an end-to-end IPv6 IPTV system running on set-tops in the home with VOD and IP streams to connected devices.”
The primary motivation behind this agenda was the network efficiency and cost savings the MVPD had come to realize it would achieve by converting to IPv6, but it had a hard deadline to meet for getting the new IPTV service up and running. The key elements to the solution which Cisco told the company it would have to employ as the only way to meet that deadline, namely, the cloud-based version of Cisco’s Videoscape platform and set-tops based on the cable industry’s Reference Design Kit (RDK), were not on the company’s radar.
“We looked at the product portfolio we have,” says Ken Morse, CTO for connected devices at Cisco. “A lot of our products are already IPv6 capable. On the set-top side we were, like, okay, we need to get an HDML5 user experience. How do we get an IPv6-enabled set-top out there rapidly?”
Utilizing the HDML5 and other capabilities Cisco has facilitated on the RDK platform, which, as previously reported, allows use of open APIs and a common architecture to speed development, was the obvious choice, Morse adds. But there was one problem.
“RDK does not by default support IPv6 today,” he explains. “It’s one of the options that’s being looked at. So we actually integrated an IPv6 stack into it, got all of that up and running and integrated it with the rest of the [IPTV] system.”
Morse notes the project illustrates the versatility of RDK as a platform Cisco has been able to leverage for meeting customers’ demands much faster than in the past. RDK, he says, “is about addressing other markets, not just North America, other form factors and other devices as we move forward.”
More broadly, the project illustrates how perfectly aligned the use of IPv6 and cloud-based solutions like Videoscape in the emerging SDN (software-defined network) environment can be, to the point that the combined efficiencies could well accelerate adoption in both domains. Notably, the European MVPD’s move to IPv6 isn’t so much driven by a need to address IPv4 address exhaust as it is by recognition that the way IPv6 works allows for more efficient use of network resources, including resources positioned in the cloud.
“IPv6 generalizes the backbone infrastructure,” Thexton explains. “You don’t have to support the infrastructure with fixed WANs and MANs. Rather than using classical network topology now you can uniquely and dynamically segment the network based on flows over subnets using routers and bridges. It becomes a flat networking universe.”
In other words, the expansive header space of the IPv6 addressing system allows operators to associate specific routes to specific services, using only the portion of the network that’s required to transmit applications tied to those services rather than moving everything hierarchically across the MAN path to connections with the WAN and then back to the MAN for handoff to local access points. “For big carriers our ability to help them transition to IPv6 is really important,” Thexton says.
But to meet the MVPD’s deadline, Cisco made it clear the implementation of key functionalities for the IPTV service would have to be undertaken as a software-as-a-service implementation of Videoscape, which Cisco announced as part of its Videoscape Cloud initiative at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. “Cloud was not the principal purpose; it was an enabler,” Thexton says.
In fact, he adds, like many service provider executives, the MVPD CTO was wary of such an approach. “When we talked to them about this, he said, ‘I want the service to be implemented on equipment at our premises,’” Thexton relates. “We said we can do what you want in that timeframe on our infrastructure, and that’s the only way we’ll commit. Subsequently, if you want, you can bring it inside.”
The CTO grew comfortable with the idea, especially knowing that after the service was implemented and with more time to prepare internal infrastructure the company could move everything into its premises. “We’re not forcing people into any position,” Thexton says. “Once they see that there’s no risk implementing Videoscape-as-a-service they oscillate on how they want to set it up permanently. We think having it available as a service offers some great opportunities to innovate and add services quickly, as was the case in this instance.”
Decoupling Videoscape software from dedicated hardware to enable customers to run the multiple functions enabling next-generation video services in private and public cloud environments is part of a broader corporate virtualization strategy at Cisco. Videoscape, like other components of the strategy, leverages the architectural structure of cloud operations as defined in the OpenStack initiative led by founding members that include AT&T, IBM, HP, Rackspace, Redhat and others with participation of dozens of leading IT and equipment suppliers, including Cisco.
OpenStack, by providing a common framework for myriad iterations of cloud applications in and beyond the service provider domain, has been a key factor in propelling industrial evolution to the cloud, Thexton notes. “We’re a co-chair within the OpenStack Consortium,” he says. “We’re investing a lot of time and money in the spirit of the architecture and in the elements of the systems we offer in compliance with OpenStack.”
Videoscape Cloud Software encompasses all of the previously articulated platform functions, including everything from network transport to advanced user interfaces that go into enabling next-generation multiscreen TV services. But it also introduces some new elements built from scratch to exploit the benefits of cloud operations.
“User analytics is a good example of some of the new things we’ve added,” Thexton says. “The cloud implementation goes with the ability to process massive amounts of data.”
“There are many benefits tied to Videoscape Cloud Software,” he adds. “It gives you a scalable set of responses you can do in the software layer, like adding storage or supporting 4K video.” Applications like second-screen, cloud DVR and new modes of personalization can be quickly brought into the service mix, he adds.
But Thexton stops short of embracing all-commodity hardware all the time, as is commonly promoted in previously covered discussions about what is known as Network Function Virtualization. OpenStack is about software architecture regardless of whether it runs on commodity or proprietary hardware, he notes, adding “We’re taking a more nuanced position than you see in most discussions about NFV.
“The interest in the cloud is very much driven by the desire to take advantage of commodity hardware, and, yes, there are situations where that makes sense,” he continues. “But you need spokes into ASICs-based appliances for areas of specialization where commodity components can’t compete with the levels of speed and configuration you can get with dedicated hardware.”
In its latest iteration of cloud-based solutions for service providers, Cisco this month introduced what it calls the “Evolved Services Platform” (ESP), which leverages the Evolved Programmable Network components Cisco has designed to support virtualization of network processes. ESP is a service orchestration platform that operators can use to create, automate and provision services in real time across compute, storage and network functions. One of the first applications Cisco has prepared for ready implementation in the ESP/EPN virtualization environment is the Videoscape Cloud DVR solution.