Make way for another potentially major player in cable's still emerging, and yet increasingly congested, Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) space.
In a bold, unexpected move at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT) unveiled CableOS, a virtualized, software-based version of the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP). Harmonic then followed up this move with another surprising revelation the next day, announcing that it had inked a warrant agreement with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) that will allow the giant US MSO to buy up to a 10% stake in the vendor if it achieves certain product milestones and sales targets. (See Harmonic Unveils Software-Based CCAP Solution, CableOS and Harmonic's New Comcast Deal Oozes Subtext.)
With the twin moves, Harmonic thus joins such incumbents as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Casa Systems Inc. , which are also developing virtualized CCAP (vCCAP) products, in the burgeoning CCAP market. It also joins such other major telecom equipment suppliers as Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which are seeking to crack the increasingly crowded market as well with their own vCCAP and/or Distributed Access Architecture (DAA) solutions as cable operators fervently pursue more efficient and scalable next-gen access architectures. (See Nokia Debuts Virtualized Cable Access Platform Casa Joins Virtual CCAP Parade and Why Cable Is Upgrading Networks Now.)
Despite all these strong existing and potential rivals, Harmonic executives believe they can disrupt the CCAP market and become a top-tier player by leapfrogging the technological assets of the competitive offerings. "It's not a me-too solution," insists Gil Katz, VP of Sales for Harmonic. "We had a chance to sit down, start with a clean slate and use all of the latest and greatest technologies in the telecom space."
Specifically, Harmonic's CableOS product offers a full-spectrum DOCSIS 3.1 Remote PHY platform that works with a software-based cable modem termination system (CMTS) core server to virtualize data processing in the headend and manage the network nodes and edge devices. The new software runs on commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) servers from Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) that cable operators deploy in their headends, hubs or data centers. The system enables operators to add more servers as needed for greater capacity. Plans call for Harmonic to sell modules that can fit into existing network nodes from rival vendors, as well as market its own nodes.
In addition to the Remote PHY approach, Harmonic is also offering a more centralized CCAP solution for cable operators not ready to go the DAA route. In such centralized CCAP deployments, the vendor is leveraging its NSG Pro edgeQAM product to act as the video core/PHY shelf in the cable headend.
Playing up the unique software-based nature of their new product, Harmonic officials claim that CableOS can enable cable operators to cut their space and power needs by up to 75% in centralized CCAP deployments and more than 90% in Remote PHY rollouts. They envision operators starting out by deploying the product in systems where their headends are running out of space and power for their centralized CCAPs and could use a boost for more capacity.
"So the first step is to, say, put a server on top of the PHY shelf and get rid of a lot of the combining and splitting device," said Asaf Matatyaou, vice president of solutions and product management for Harmonic's cable edge business. "Then the next step is really pushing things out. You can do Remote PHY and can spread things apart, move things from the headend to the hub and eventually to a data center."
While the jury is still out on Harmonic's claims of technological superiority, CableOS does appear to be off to a good start. At the SCTE show, Harmonic officials said CableOS is now in trials with multiple Tier 1 MSOs in both North America and Europe, presumably including Comcast. They expect the first commercial deployments to start later this fall.
Plus, on the same morning that Harmonic announced the warrant deal with Comcast at the show, we spotted Tony Werner, president of technology and product at Comcast Cable, stopping by the vendor's booth for a personal inspection of CableOS' virtues. After he left, several other top MSO technologists trooped over to the booth as well.
"We will be very busy with trials," Katz said. "We'll definitely be busier than we can handle." Based on such interest, he predicts that Harmonic will become "one of the big two" players in the vCCAP space.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading