Sun, SGI Step Up Server Efforts

Two big players — Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc. — used the National Association of Broadcasters convention last week to tout server strategies that target cable operators' video-on-demand deployments.

Sun plans to partner with Sony Corp.'s Systems Solutions Division to offer VOD and streaming solutions for cable companies, telcos and broadcasters, the company said at the NAB's annual gathering here.

And SGI — which was involved in Time Warner Cable's first VOD deployment in Orlando, Fla., eight years ago — said it's going after nCUBE Corp. and SeaChange International Inc. with its SGI Origin 300 server and Total Performance TP 900 storage platform. The products can deliver up to 600 video streams for $255 per stream.

The two vendors have decided to jump in now because they see some demand to bring entertainment media-management systems more in line with traditional server storage systems. That push comes from the high cost of one-off equipment designed to handle just one application.

"The fundamental thing that has changed was in the past, people believed you needed special-purpose hardware," said Sun broadband and digital-media division market-development manager Rob Glidden. "That's a dramatic change, and it's changed simply because of the evolution of computer capabilities."


The volume of the VOD market may never come close to that of Sun's server and data-storage businesses. Nonetheless, "we consider this to be a very large market opportunity for Sun," said media and entertainment division global manager Bruce Lyon.

For cable operators that already have invested in VOD storage systems, the Sony/Sun partnership hopes to create products that can dovetail with existing systems.

That may involve some bridging interface protocols to make the different servers work together, but Glidden said VOD servers and storage devices generally follow established standards, which makes much of that work easy.

"You just amortize the equipment you have and you put in new ones, serving content off storage," Glidden said.

Other potential headaches include integrating with existing billing systems, and content compatibility issues with respect to other servers that operators have already deployed. Sun has invested in Kasenna Inc., whose software is used by SGI for video-streaming pumps on its servers.

Sun and Sony plan to demonstrate the first fruit of their partnership at next month's National Show in New Orleans.

Sun is one candidate with the wherewithal to build a network digital video recorder (DVR) server — a scheme that AOL Time Warner Inc. backs.

"It is partially there," Lyon said. "The issue at the end of the day is, how much is it going to cost? At least the way we are approaching the market is they are not going to be locked into one vendor."


It's a good sign when big names enter the VOD market, said AOL Time Warner Personal Interactive Video Group president Jim Chiddix.

"It sounds, on the face of it, like a good thing," Chiddix said. "The industry has seen some good vendors that are delivering good VOD products, but I think that having some bigger players come in is healthy.

"It adds to the competitive mix, and I would hope it would drive innovation up and cost down."

But the ability to integrate with equipment that's already been deployed is crucial, Chiddix said.

"It's very important and absolutely critical," he said. "We've never had the intention to live in a world where once we award a vendor contract in a given city, that we are stuck with that vendor for all time."

All of AOL Time Warner's server vendors have been working toward interoperability using the Interactive Services Architecture interface.

"That was something that we originally began to do some work on, but it's not ours; it is not anything proprietary," Chiddix said. "It's just a way for the server side of different applications to communicate, whether that is billing systems, VOD applications, control systems for digital boxes or whatever. And it is through that kind of common interface that multiple servers could coexist in the headend."

ISA is not being formally developed by any technical standards body, but "there has been some talk about it," Chiddix noted. "If the industry decides that it has a common need, it certainly is an approach — a non-proprietary approach — that could be embraced by the industry. But I think it is too early to say.

"We — because we were into video-on-demand pretty early in the game — I think we ran into the need a little earlier than others," he added.

It is also too early to know if the larger traditional server and storage players, such as Sun, can bring anything new to the table.

"That is the interesting question," Chiddix said. "The relatively small companies that have totally focused on this market — SeaChange, Concurrent [Computer Corp.], nCUBE and Diva [Systems Inc.] — they have lived and breathed this for the last few years and they hope to build a big business out of this, obviously.

"The big players bring whatever they bring —they bring a wealth of experience, they bring lots of people resources, lots of financial strength, and it will be interesting to see how all of that plays out. However it plays out, I think it is good for the industry."