VOD Vendors Fast-Forward Network DVR Plans

Companies that sell video-on-demand systems and software have cranked up efforts to deliver products for high-capacity "RS-DVR" services, after the Supreme Court this week declined to review a ruling that Cablevision Systems' network-based digital video recorder complies with copyright laws.

Most current VOD systems may not be suited to cost-effectively build a remote storage DVR service, as it has been deemed legal, according to industry executives. But vendors including SeaChange International, Cisco Systems, Arris and Concurrent are gearing up to deliver VOD systems with much higher ingest and storage capacity to meet those higher performance requirements.

Cablevision's RS-DVR is designed to provide subscribers with dedicated storage space in the headend. That architecture allowed the MSO to successfully argue that the service was no different than an in-home DVR.

But the RS-DVR presents serious technical challenges. For one thing, every time a subscriber presses "record," the system must separately ingest the video stream and write it to disk. By comparison, Time Warner Cable's Start Over, a time-shifted service offered in partnership with content owners, ingests linear programming once and serves the same copy to multiple customers.

"If you want to implement a remote storage DVR, it's not going to be a small-ticket item with today's technology," said Michael Adams, vice president of application software strategy for Tandberg Television.

SeaChange claims it's ready with a system that can handle an RS-DVR service. The company has developed a system, available now, that can ingest 4,000 standard-definition streams simultaneously and provides 100 Terabytes of storage in a 7-rack-unit server configuration, according to vice president of products Bang Chang. He added that by the beginning of 2010 the company expects to double that capacity to 8,000.

"That's the key, we believe, to make RS-DVR viable," he said.

Still, in a cable system with, say, 2 million subscribers that have access to an RS-DVR, if just 30% of customers were recording a program at any given time that would mean the system would have to be ingesting 600,000 streams at once -- well beyond the capacity of any existing VOD infrastructure, according to James Brickmeier, Concurrent's vice president and general manager of video solutions.

"Technically, we're capable of building these things," he said. "The questions come down to the financial aspects of building these systems." He said he expects to see VOD servers that are "financially viable" within 12 to 24 months.

Cisco, meanwhile, also is looking to turn up the volume. Currently, the vendor's Content Deliver Engine 420 server provides 1,000 channels of ingest and 24 Terabytes of storage in a 4RU system. "You'll see the economics become increasingly attractive to do time-shifted services," said John Wheeler, director of video product marketing and business development.

Cablevision's RS-DVR, as described in court documents, was developed in the testing phase with VOD servers from Arroyo Video Solutions, which Cisco acquired in 2006. Wheeler declined to comment on Cisco's current work with the MSO on the network DVR project.

Arris, for its part, is shooting to deliver a version of the ConvergeMedia XMS server that provides 2,500 playout streams and 2,500 hours of storage in a 2RU configuration by the end of the year, said Cliff Aaby, principal system architect for on-demand platforms. Overall, the XMS platform would be capable of providing up to 20,000 streams to serve RS-DVR-type applications.

Other aspects of a cable operator's infrastructure must also be modified to deliver an RS-DVR system, Aaby noted. The interactive program guide must be upgraded, and an MSO would certainly need to increase spectrum allocated to unicast services.

In areas Time Warner Cable has introduced Start Over, Concurrent's Brickmeier noted, VOD utilization rates have roughly doubled compared with traditional on-demand services, to more than 20%. With a network DVR service, the utilization rates would be even higher, in the 30% to 40% range, he said.

Brickmeier predicted a hybrid model for network DVR will emerge, in which the most popular content is licensed -- as in the Start Over model -- for optimal efficiency, while lower-demand programs are recorded by an RS-DVR system.

"On the back end, it's a way of balancing the cost of managing and deploying and RS-DVR solution by making sure you are not implementing a bunch of additional storage just for the highest-demand content," he said.