High-Volume Platform Combines Multiscreen, Catchup TV & nPVR

Asanga Gunatillaka, chief product officer, Com Hem

Asanga Gunatillaka, chief product officer, Com Hem

MVPDs Anchor Expansion Strategies in Tightly Orchestrated Arrays of Edgeware Servers

By Fred Dawson

March 31, 2014 – Pay TV service innovations by European MVPDs on several fronts highlight the ways in which a rapidly evolving technology platform could have important implications for North American operators in their efforts to maximize efficiency and performance in the multiscreen and network PVR arenas.

As evidenced by recent initiatives launched by Belgium carrier Belgacom, Dutch cable operator Ziggo, Swedish operator Com Hem and several as-yet-unnamed providers, the combination of software and hardware solutions supplied by Edgeware is serving as a linchpin to a wide variety of new strategies aimed at retaining and building audiences. Adding to the multiscreen, catchup TV and cloud PVR options, new developments currently in the testing phase bring into play multicasting support for adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR) and other capabilities tied to growing use of ABR streaming.

Com Hem, which has drawn a lot of attention to its multi-source aggregation and TiVo-based recording strategy, is the first announced customer for the fully integrated cable solution using Edgeware’s D-VDN (Distributed-Video Delivery Network) technology to support delivery of services at pay TV quality levels to all types of devices, including TiVo recorders, as well as to support cloud-based catchup TV. An integration with SeaChange International’s Adrenalin multiscreen TV platform has enabled multiple features, such as recording and delivery of TiVo Play channels in the network and TiVoToGo streaming and download from the recorders to iOS and Android devices outside the home, says Com Hem CTO Henri Caddeo. “The combination of TiVo, Edgeware and SeaChange products has provided us with a platform to deliver much smarter and more personal TV experiences,” Caddeo says.

Com Hem’s move to TiVo’s technology comes with a decision to aggregate OTT content for access on the operator’s new navigation system, which is also provided by TiVo along with client-side software that supports a unified experience on all devices. After struggling to gain subscriber acceptance of traditional set-top DVR capabilities, Com Hem is finding this new, more holistic approach to supporting home recording across multiple sources with access from multiple devices is resonating with consumers, says Asanga Gunatillaka, chief product officer at Com Hem.

“Com Hem nor our competitors until recently have come up with solutions which are attractive or relevant enough to customers,” Gunatillaka says in an interview posted by Informa in conjunction with the recent TV Connect show in London. “The TV customer of today has strong demands around flexibility and mobility; they want to watch whatever they want, whenever they want and on any device. Now things have changed with our latest advanced TV offering.”

The what-they-want-to-watch part of the demand profile is especially difficult for MVPDs to accommodate, but Gunatillaka makes clear this has to be part of the service equation. “What we noticed in research and customer focus groups prior to launching TiVo is that many consumers feel confused and overwhelmed by all the choices out there,” he says. “There is a lot to keep track of – what program is on which service, and what is my user login for that specific service?

“Com Hem is already an aggregator,” he continues. “But the time for being an aggregator of just linear channels has well passed. Today there is so much more content other than channels – OTT-services, play-channels, movie rentals. Our goal with TiVo is really to be a super aggregator – to take all that content and make it available and searchable, to the customer all in one place, but through many different devices.”

Belgacom, which first deployed the D-VDN architecture to support on-demand service distribution and network PVR on its legacy IPTV service, last summer expanded the D-VDN capabilities to support a new multiscreen service giving subscribers access to 55 channels at home or on the go across a wide range of devices. The new service also brings the nPVR service into the connected-device domain, where customers can schedule recordings on the full Belgacom TV lineup through its EPG.

“Scalability was the key reason we selected Edgeware’s multiscreen solution,” says a source at Belgacom, speaking on background. “Edgeware allowed us to rapidly scale, adding streaming licenses and successfully delivering live events with an uptake of five to six times the normal peak.”

The Com Hem, Belgacom and previously reported Ziggo initiatives come in tandem with Edgeware’s commercial release of the latest version of its Convoy Management Software, which together with its Orbit 3080 server and new Unified Server Software, consolidates the D-VDN solution into a single, unified delivery and recording network. With this architecture operators can dynamically orchestrate a single set of servers to cache and deliver content both to legacy set-tops over QAM and IPTV networks and to all types of IP-connected devices via ABR streams while using the same resources to support catchup TV service, says Jon Haley, vice president of marketing and business development at Edgeware.

“There’s a big shift in multiscreen services from good enough to something that represents true pay TV,” Haley says. “Our new unified solution means service providers can consolidate their infrastructures and dynamically provision them with deterministic performance across all devices.”

To make all this possible Edgeware has chosen to design its own servers running proprietary code on FPGA (field programmable gate array) processors to achieve superior performance levels. “One of our Orbit 3080 appliances is capable of recording at over four gigabits per second of aggregate data, which is around 2,000 SD channels,” Haley says. “It can deliver output at 80 gbps or 120,000 concurrent sessions.”

With the latest enhancements Edgeware has optimized the Convoy Management software to operate in a software defined network (SDN) environment, allowing operators to take an SDN approach to building their own CDNs and to dynamically provision capacity and adjust video session routing to maximize quality of experience as the service mix changes. “We’ve made sure Convoy fully complies with SDN architecture where all the control and intelligence is running in a fully shared virtualized datacenter and the underlying delivery platforms are just the data plane,” Haley says. “All the intelligent decisions are being done from the private cloud.”

Along with support for catchup TV program recording across the D-VDN server clusters Edgeware is enabling nPVR service by utilizing its Orbit servers at core or distributed headends in conjunction with its new Origin Accelerator Solution. This serves to accelerate the ingestion as well as the distribution processes beyond what can be accomplished using origin servers and commodity datacenter resources, Haley says.

“We now have a hardware-accelerated appliance at the core of our offering as well as the tightly integrated management software to enable these services,” he explains. “It’s quite easy to deliver a thousand streams, but when you go to millions and start recording at the same time, you have ingest and egress problems on your file system, on your TCP stack, etc. So you need to accelerate with hardware, which is what we do.”

The Origin Accelerator component of the operator’s nPVR service can be implemented at the headend whether the operator is using third-party CDNs or Orbit clusters in the D-VDN. But there’s a big hierarchical storage advantage that comes with unifying the distribution and recording operations on an all-Oribit D-VDN architecture, Haley notes. For example, the last 48 hours of content could be recorded in the distributed hubs, with the last seven days cached in the headends.

The Origin Accelerator application utilizes the Orbit’s flash memory capacity to support up to 32 terabytes of storage per server, which can play out directly to clients, third-party CDNs or D-VDN clusters. Importantly, it also supports automated offloading of older PVR recordings to network attached storage (NAS) archives in the headend datacenter. “We can keep the most popular requests in flash memory and after a set time, say seven days, write those individual program files from the flash circular buffer to the commodity storage,” Haley explains.

The combination of massive capacity and cloud-based orchestration of all the segments in the hierarchy of servers and storage elements creates an nPVR architecture that’s well suited to the needs of operators in the U.S., Haley notes. Unlike Europe, where a single stored file can be accessed by multiple users on an nPVR service, U.S. regulations as they now stand require that each customer of an nPVR service be allocated storage space for any videos they want recorded for their use. “By combining our virtualized software for control and for management of those recordings with the Orbit delivery plane and clustering those Orbits together to produce a very efficient recording and delivery output, we can fulfill those requirements,” Haley says.

Efficiencies built into the D-VDN system include load balancing of both the Orbit server clusters and the origin servers, Haley notes. Load balancing of origin servers from the D-VDN edge points ensures that, when content is available from multiple origins, it is pulled in a balanced fashion to avoid overloading any particular server. At the edge, load balancing is achieved through “content-aware clustering,” Haley says, which ensures that a client request for content is not missed by any server in the cluster, thereby minimizing cache misses and traffic load from origin servers.

Edgeware is exploring farther enhancements to the platform with an eye toward creating greater efficiencies in the processes that interface with the ABR side of the video divide. One point of engagement is with suppliers of just-in-time packagers, which could feed output of origin servers directly into the Origin Accelerator to speed output, Haley says. “If you put one of our caches in front of the packager and you cache, for example, the resulting HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) file, the next request that comes in for that particular bit rate for that particular file doesn’t need to go back to the packager. We can add a lot of value to a just-in-time packager by speeding it up.”

Another initiative involves working with suppliers of manifest manipulators. “With our Convoy management software managing sessions on our CDN and directing those sessions to the right server for delivery, we can integrate with a manifest manipulator so that when we receive that request, before simply sending back a server IP address, we actually send back a manipulated manifest file,” Haley explains. “That manifest file may be containing replacement advertisements, for example, for a client DVR service.”

A third intriguing possibility has to do with using multicast with ABR streaming, which today is a non-starter other than with proprietary version of IP multicast, owing to the complexities of setting up the processes for every type of ABR format at send and receive points, among other things. Edgeware is looking into the possibility of using its processors to pack fragments exiting the streamer in the different ABR formats from a given programming feed into a single UDP (User Datagram Protocol) multicast stream which would be unpacked at the edge and streamed out over the separate ABR formats in accord with the requirements of each requesting device. “If you’re pushing those three ABR formats over a multicast stream to 100 nodes, you have a huge savings in core bandwidth usage,” Haley says.

These various efforts are in the proof-of-concept stages with cooperating vendors. How fast the ideas become productized in the Edgeware suite is a matter of demand, Haley says.

Meanwhile, demand is strong for the current set of solutions with several announcements anticipated in the months ahead, he adds. Two potential customers are hybrid mobile/fixed-line operators who have recently acquired a number of fixed-line networks.

“They’re looking to rapidly bring to market a TV service on the fixed-line and mobile networks,” he says. “We’ll be making some interesting announcements there, because they’re choosing rather than to create their own TV service to basically resell an OTT service from somebody else.”

There’s also strong demand for the support the Origin Accelerator solution provides for launching an nPVR service, he adds. “DVB-T (European digital broadcasters) and satellite broadcasters want to add an online cloud DVR service to their linear offerings,” he says. “We’ll be deploying the Origin Accelerator in these situations for the cloud DVR recording and for delivery out to third-party CDNs. Toward the end of this year we should be coming out with some first deployments in that space.”