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Comcast Has OpenStack’s Back

The buzz around OpenStack, an open-source cloud infrastructure targeted at large-scale deployments, has rarely reached the world of cable set-top boxes. Comcast’s involvement has changed that.

It turns out that Comcast is a big backer of OpenStack, a technology developed by Rackspace and NASA. OpenStack doesn’t give Comcast’s engineers a degree in rocket science, but it does give them the tools to solve a historic problem: how to break free of the old, closed set-top ecosystem and instead shift toward a more agile, open one enabling the MSO to ratchet up how quickly it can develop and spool up video applications.

To help it break through, Comcast has built X1, the operator’s new, Internet protocol-capable video platform, on OpenStack. Video streams are still shipped over QAM, but X1’s cloud-based guide and apps are all delivered over IP via Comcast’s private cloud in Centennial, Colo.

Torward that end, senior vice president of product engineering in technology Mark Muehl explained how and why the MSO is using OpenStack in tandem with Cisco Systems during his keynote at the recent OpenStack Summit in Portland, Ore.

Comcast started to investigate OpenStack about a year ago, he said, as the MSO sought out a faster and more open, agile platform. Under the old approach, Comcast would typically buy the set-top, some inter-media communication infrastructure and servers from the same company, Muehl explained. The brains of the service resided largely inside the set-top.

“We have very little visibility into how that system works,” he said. “It takes us a long time to make changes on that platform.”

By plugging X1 into a system of open-source servers, software and standard IP technology, the smarts are now centralized in Comcast’s OpenStack production cloud, giving the MSO an opportunity “to change the paradigm,” Muehl said.

That shift is not just speeding up app development, but is also giving Comcast a chance to offer apps that simply can’t be supported on the legacy platform. As an example, Muehl noted that Comcast integrated the Rotten Tomatoes movie database with X1 in just three weeks — that would have been impossible to accomplish with the old model, he explained, in part because set-tops don’t have enough memory to support all of that data.

X1, which features a cloud-based user interface, is now in rapid expansion mode. Comcast announced last week that it has launched X1 in 10 markets. Since the initial launch in Boston in mid-2012, X1 has also been offered in Independence, Mo., Washington, D.C.; Atlanta and Augusta, Ga.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Philadelphia; New Jersey; Colorado; and several California communities, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton and Santa Barbara.

Comcast expects to light up X1 in half its service footprint by the end of June, and in all markets by the end of 2013. At this stage, Comcast is pitching X1 primarily to new triple-play customers.

Comcast is expected to demo a new, more personalized version of the X1 UI, internally called “X2,” at next month’s Cable Show in Washington, D.C.

TAKEAWAY

Comcast is using OpenStack to speed deployment of new video apps to its X1 programming guide.