Comcast's 'Project Infinity' Takes Flight
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s next-gen video-on-demand (VoD) platform is starting to hit the deployment stage, and the company is already talking about a future that will allow it to offer more than 100,000 on-demand choices.
That day is dawning roughly a year-and-a-half after Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts unveiled the MSO's "Project Infinity" initiative at the Consumer Electronics Show, targeting about 1,000 hi-def, on-demand choices and more than 6,000 movies by the end of 2008.
At the time, Roberts promised, as the project name suggests, that there would be much, much more in store. Not much was said then about how Comcast would take on-demand to infinity and beyond from a technical standpoint, but we now know that its next-gen plans involve the MSO's national fiber backbone and a new content distribution network (CDN) that will ride upon it. The first part, the fiber IP backbone, has been in place for some time. The second piece, the CDN, is only now starting to take shape in some of Comcast's systems in the Eastern US.
The Comcast Content Distribution Network (CCDN) is operating at scale with a "significant number of customers" in the MSO's "Freedom Region" (which includes Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J.), with plans underway to extend it to Comcast's Washington, D.C., system, says John Schanz, executive VP of national engineering and technical operations at Comcast.
"It's working as anticipated. It's up and it has been for months and we're working at scale," he says of the architecture, which is being designed to feed, not just more HD programming, but 3D VoD fare as well. The initial deployment of the CCDN is capable of offering up to 17,000 choices over the course of a month, "but we're geared up to get to 25,000 pretty quick," Schanz says.
Comcast isn't revealing how rapidly it will branch the CCDN to other systems, but "we have aggressive plans to deploy beyond Philadelphia across the country," Schanz says, noting that Comcast expects to play up the capabilities of the CCDN as a feature of its new "Xfinity" branding. Initially, Comcast is using the brand to help introduce upgrades such as broader HDTV lineups and 100-Mbit/s speeds enabled by Docsis 3.0.
Tackling a trend
Among cable operators, Comcast is leading a new trend toward hierarchical, video-optimized CDN architectures that can boost the number of available on-demand titles available by tying massive centralized storage libraries to regional and local cache servers that contain the most popular content. (See Cable Thinking Big With Video-Focused CDNs .)
"With the Comcast CDN, it's really the next-generation of on-demand. It's built on this rich and scaled IP core infrastructure," Schanz says. "We have spent a year and a half investing in this technology and perfecting it."
As designed, this new breed of video-optimized CDN aims to support an infinite amount of content, but there are already indications that some operators are shooting for CDNs to support 100,000, 300,000, or as many as a million titles. [Ed. note: No word yet on how soon these architectures will support Carl Sagan-esque levels.]
Comcast hasn't identified what on-demand choices milestone will come after 25,000, but "we're kind of thinking beyond 100,000," Schanz says. "It's a matter of adding storage in the library servers, which, with today's technology, is not terribly expensive and it's not terribly difficult to do. We're really trying to remove what would be considered the technological bottlenecks in doing anything that we want to do with time-shifted video."
As the primary, persistent storage libraries go, Comcast is starting off with two -- one in the east and one further west -- to ensure fault tolerance, service availability, and disaster recovery.
The MSO isn't disclosing those physical locations, but it's believed that one is located in Westchester, Pa., with another based in the Atlanta area. Comcast is also believed to be mulling a strategy that would call for those libraries to be installed in each of the operator's four divisions, with Chicago and the Bay Area being discussed as potential candidates.
Comcast will use its IP backbone to link those libraries to regional and local cache servers at the MSO's 100-plus VoD "islands" across the US.
The majority of popular content will be pulled into those local streaming and storage caches using software that automates the process based on consumer requests and algorithms. Less popular long-tail content will be pulled directly from the central library via Comcast's core IP network. "That's a much smaller set of streams, but to that consumer, it's about choice."
Beyond the set-top?
Although the CCDN could help Comcast deliver video to PCs and mobile devices and help it execute on its TV Everywhere strategy, that's not the focus up front. Initially, the new architecture will be delivering content only to set-top boxes and serve as a replacement of the more localized, legacy VoD architecture.
The capabilities of the new system will have the technical ability to "perhaps stream [content] to other things than a set-top box, but that's not what we're doing today," Schanz says, noting that the CCDN will be future-proofed in ways that go beyond the set-top or involve other services that provide more video choice and control, including network-based DVR services.
But Comcast should be able to fulfill such visions with new software releases, rather than having to shift the underlying CCDN architecture.
In the meantime, Comcast is also working on new set-top software that will help consumers search for content as its VoD library expands and the CCDN reaches more markets. The MSO's newest native box guide will incorporate some of those features. "I'm not going to say it's Web-like, but it's a step or two towards Web-like," Schanz says. The operator's next-gen tru2way-based IPG is expected to bring even more Web-ish capabilities to the set-top environment.
Comcast has already shown interest in extending the navigation experience beyond the set-top, most recently with a public demo of its Xfinity Remote at The Cable Show in Los Angeles.
Comcast showed the browser-based prototype running on an Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad. The app is designed to help consumers discover content and remotely tune set-tops using Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), an interactive television platform that runs on all classes of digital cable boxes. (See To Xfinity... & Beyond!)
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable