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Gearing Up To Meet Demand, On Demand

Comcast Corp. is embarking on a major effort to build its next-generation on-demand platform.

Dubbed NGOD, it will be capable of handling millions of viewer requests for tens of thousands of hours of content, according to executives at the nation’s largest MSO.

It’s a natural outgrowth for a business that just passed 1 billion streams viewed in 2005. But NGOD also will address the increasing complexities of the on-demand business: encoding and ingesting local content; advertising insertion; building open interfaces between hardware product; and scaling the current platform.

“This is a large Comcast undertaking,” said senior vice president of digital television Mark Hess, whose group’s responsibilities cover engineering, operations and even extend into programming.

“Two things are happening at once,” Hess said: “The success of the platform, with newer content and more content, and the need to refresh that content faster.”

For example, Comcast is in its second season of offering on-demand National Football League highlights and the first season of National Hockey League content, both requiring quick ingestion turnarounds and constant refreshment.

A second issue affecting VOD is Comcast’s push to drive its digital-cable penetration level from its current 42% to between 50% and 60%, Hess said. More digital subscribers will place additional demands on the platform.

A third element: Creating an architecture that allows for ad insertion into on-demand content, he said.

The real-time ingestion of content and its quick propagation to edge servers is a growing issue for cable systems, as local content and sports highlights are added to the VOD platform. NFL Network’s eight-minute highlight packages from each pro-football game are downloaded to Comcast systems once a week.

While that’s a relatively simple proposition, the NHL On Demand package requires ingesting highlights of anywhere from one to 12 contests each night.

“[VOD architecture] started with every month, where once a month we got some movies,” Hess said. “Then, once a week, we got some stuff from HBO.

“Now we’re getting once-a-month movies from a bunch of people,” he said, as well as weekly content from many basic programmers and daily content from the NHL.

There’s also a growing need for storage as Comcast signs new deals with content partners. And, as VOD matures, cable operators are increasingly separating streams from storage, placing greater demands on the on-demand architecture.

“In the past, we bought storage with streams,” Hess said. “Now, we might want to buy storage without streams. We have cache servers and specialized servers that can quickly get content stored and propagated,” he said.

As part of NGOD, Hess is hoping to create more open interfaces between streaming, storage, pumps, content propagation and reporting mechanisms. “You open up the interfaces so you can be flexible,” he explained.

A number of cable operators have started to deploy add-on servers from a second vendor in select markets.

In some cases there have been wholesale switchouts: Time Warner Cable in Austin, Texas, moved from SeaChange International Inc.’s platform to one from Broadbus Technologies Inc.

That hasn’t happened in a Comcast market yet, said Hess, but the MSO is talking with server vendors about what it needs for NGOD.

Comcast today stores about 3,600 hours of content, and that amount will double next year, Hess said. That’s an impetus to create and administer tiered storage needs.

High-use content may be deployed on one kind of storage technology, while low-use fare is stored elsewhere, he said.

Hess’s group works closely with Comcast vice president of on demand Page Thompsan to understand what content is coming its way.

“We talk to him about what content he thinks he wants and our group spends time driving relationships with the vendors,” he said. “It’s all one big group effort.”

Vendors are ready to respond.

“It will be a much more scalable and dynamic environment,” said Broadbus president Jeff Binder. “They won’t be resource-constrained.”