As the volume and variety of content on cable operators' video-on-demand (VOD) platforms steadily increase, providers of VOD hardware and software are tweaking their offerings to keep pace.
The increase in free and high-definition on-demand fare is raising both storage and bandwidth requirements, as are new services like Time Warner Cable's Start Over that make reams of linear network content available for convenient on-demand viewing.
So VOD servers now provide a choice of storage technologies to accommodate different types of content, including hard disk, solid-state flash memory and dynamic random access memory (DRAM). And vendors have developed new software to best manage the content mix across these different media.
“There's a continued interest and shift from linear [programming] to on-demand solutions,” says Basil Badawiyeh, VP of product strategy for Arris' on-demand business. “Content is almost tripling. So a lot of customers are considering alternative architectures.”
The amount of content available on-demand makes it cost-prohibitive for companies to duplicate their library in every location, which was the original model for VOD. So large operators like Comcast are using the robust fiber backbones they created to link far-flung systems for consolidating their VOD assets into massive centralized or regionalized storage libraries, while leaving smaller caches of VOD content on servers in local headends or hubs.
“They've got to move the entire library to a centralized location, and leave a subset of the library at the streaming location,” says Jim Owens, Motorola's senior product marketing manager. “You can't replicate it cost-effectively.”
This approach also lets operators centralize content-ingest and preparation processes and employ hierarchical storage architectures. The latter involves placing niche content on cheaper hard disks in the centralized library while the most popular content, such as the latest hit movies, resides on more expensive flash memory storage that affords greater input/output capacity for high-volume streaming.
SeaChange's flash-memory-based VOD servers, based on 64 GB solid-state memory cards, are gaining traction with customers using them on the “edge” of their VOD architecture to store movies, which generate 80% of the VOD plays. They have largely been responsible for SeaChange's climb in hardware revenues.
“In terms of our hardware sales, flash servers have been one of the biggest drivers,” says SeaChange VP of Product Marketing Alan Hoff.
Concurrent is also seeing strong adoption of its flash-based products, which are currently used alongside legacy hard-disk servers in three of the largest VOD systems: Cox Communications' Arizona operation and Bright House Networks' Start Over installations in Tampa and Orlando.
“For Start Over, they're used to ingest real-time content,” says Jim Brickmeier, VP and GM of video solutions for Concurrent. “Start Over content is not maintained for longer than four hours, so you don't need a lot of depth of storage. But you do need high I/O capacity.”
Merging VOD with the Internet
Vendors are also exploring ways cable and telco customers can leverage their existing VOD investment to deliver content to new platforms, either through the Internet to PCs or through wireless networks to mobile devices. They are also looking to incorporate social-networking capability into VOD, such as allowing subscribers to recommend shows to each other or even upload user-generated content onto the VOD platform.
Concurrent demonstrated VOD content being streamed to PCs and smartphones in closed-door demos at NCTA in Washington, D.C., last month, and also showed how user-generated content—in this case, camcorder video—could be uploaded to a VOD server through the Internet.
SeaChange has developed a new VOD navigation tool, Affinity, that lets viewers set personalized preferences on a Web portal that are communicated to a database server at the operator's headend. The information is then transferred to SeaChange's Axiom back-office software, which inserts the changes into the guide the viewer sees when he or she turns on their TV set and uses the remote to watch VOD. This creates a personalized on-demand experience.
Affinity, which is being trialed both in the U.S. and Canada, has an embedded recommendation engine that automatically promotes programs according to customer preference. It also lets subscribers use the Web portal to write recommendations, rate content and share recommendations with friends and family.
Harmonic has taken its own stab at overhauling VOD navigation with Gator, a new interface that lets subscribers scroll through images instead of text, such as movie posters of VOD titles. By using the left or right arrow keys on a conventional remote, a user can select a new movie and instantaneously cue up the trailer for that movie.
Gator, which runs as an Enhanced TV application that can be supported by simple digital set-tops, is designed to provide the same ease of use as new Internet-based movie services from companies such as Netflix and Vudu, says David Price, Harmonic's VP of business development. As Price puts it: “A lot of operators have taken note of what we're doing [with Gator], as they look to increase buy rates.”