The video rental business in the US is making shuffling its feet nervously following twin AT&T Co and IBM Corp announcements of developments to be shown this week (CI No 2,181). And so it should: both companies are promising technology, ready for next year, that not only gives cable subscribers the ability to play movies […]
The video rental business in the US is making shuffling its feet nervously following twin AT&T Co and IBM Corp announcements of developments to be shown this week (CI No 2,181). And so it should: both companies are promising technology, ready for next year, that not only gives cable subscribers the ability to play movies on demand, but also enables them to rewind, pause, fast forward, just as they would with the VCR in the corner of the room. Faced with these facilities, the question must be – why bother walking to the corner shop? Moreover there is the promise of extra interactive services that have oft been talked about but seldom implemented. Until now the cable companies’ ability to provide anything other than straight movie channels has been hampered by a variety of barriers, and in particular the lack of high speed video servers able to feed thousands of subscribers on demand.
No surprise then to find these at the heart of that both IBM’s and AT&T’s schemes. In fact AT&T’s announcement deals solely with a new ‘interactive video server’ which coupled with previously announced Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches and video compression technology represents the company’s pitch for the market. The machine has three components: first there is the mass storage end where the data is kept on a combination of optical and magnetic storage; second there is the ‘application processor,’ which is going to be based on some yet-to-be-decided NCR Unix box and will handle customer administration, billing and the like. Finally there is the clever part, a high capacity semiconductor-based storage device into which entire films can be poured. Based on proprietary research from Bell Labs the company says that this storage has a unique input-output architecture that allows any of the users access any part of the memory concurrently. Essentially each user get a personal that which ratchets along memory as the film is watched. Want to pause? – stop the pointer. Want to rewind? – decrement it. It is an elegant idea, but one that is still liable to run into a brick wall if all the users on a very large system decide that they want to watch a different film, and pause it in a different place. In practical terms then, the company says that cable operators will use a variety of techniques to maximise the system’s capacity. So when a new blockbuster movie is released with a potential audience of several thousand, it will still make more sense to play it at set times rather than giving each viewer full video on demand. On the other hand the new architecture should ensure that the film in question will be starting every 10 minutes or so, rather than every three hours. All these facilities should be available in the first release of the system due out in the middle of next year. The company says that as the video and multimedia market evolves, the machine’s capabilities will be extended to operate within networks that provide highly interactive services such as multimedia education and reference materials, video games, and advanced video telephony. Over at IBM, the chaps are celebrating the fact that they have found another niche for their mainframes. The company’s new ‘digital video jukebox’ is centred on an ES/9000 processor (which one depends on how many subscribers) that is dedicated to the task. In a client-server architecture fundamentally different from AT&T’s, the mainframe is attached, via an Escon channel to client Intel Corp RISC processors that monitor outgoing data streams and request data from the big box.
By Chris Rose
IBM and partners in the enterprise – New Century Communication Inc, which handles billing, and ICTV which has built the ‘video Centrex’ for linking the server to the subscriber – make great claims for the architecture. In particular ICTV executive vice-president David Serlin says that it provides the benefits of the AT&T server, but without the need for a specialised memory architecture. When the RISC clients request a piece of footage from the ES/9000, a chunk of the film, on either side of the curre
nt viewpoint is loaded into the mainframe’s main memory. This allows for the fast-forward and rewind capabilities. The part that impresses Serlin is that there never need be more than one copy of the film held in memory – the mainframe keeps track of where the various viewers are, and if they are watching the same bit, they are directed dynamically to the same memory buffer. The worst that happens is that all the viewers are watching different parts, in which case the whole film is resident in memory. As for scalability, both IBM and AT&T are claiming that you can make their systems as big or as little as required: once you get to 10,000 subscribers you may need to split systems to make administration easier, says AT&T. The IBM camp says that you can work up from a system that supports 50 streams (around 500 subscribers, assuming 10% utilisation) and work up from there: the claim is that the system supports a virtually unlimited number of disk farms. By teaming with the other two companies, IBM seems to be able to provide just as complete a system as the AT&T-NCR combo can promise. Pennsylvania-based New Century’s billing and customer administration system is a relatively new product and the company claims that its ability to work in real-time, rather than in batch makes it stand out from other offerings in the telecommunications industry. The practical upshot, it says, is that users will be able to pay for a movie on a pay-per-view basis and then immediately switch to the Billing Channel to see how much they have shelled out. New Century is also mulling the possibility of the Billing Channel becoming a generalised clearing house for other companies’ bills – so it may become possible to get your current telephone or electricity bill by staring at the set. It seems as if IBM has finally achieved its new dream of packaging the mainframe as a big, fast file server. Irony fans will note that all of New Centry’s billing software, so important to the enterprise, runs not on the mainframe but on RS/6000s. Meanwhile ICTV of Santa Clara, California has spent its time building the video hub, which links the server to the customer’s living room. It contains the compression technology and also the intelligence to interpret the subscriber’s commands. ICTV’s Serlin says that a lot of the company’s work has been involved in getting the user interface just right – the goal: to present relatively sophisticated services in such a way that they look like familar television channels.
As with AT&T, the IBM-ICTV-New Century system is designed to allow for more sophisticated interactive services as they become available. Serlin says that the bottleneck in the introduction of these services is not so much at the user end – there is plenty of latent demand, he suggests – but arises from a lack of services ready to exploit the technology. One area where AT&T is certainly ahead is in the field of customer trials: it is already running customer trials with US West Inc and has just signed up Viacom International Inc for an 18-month test marketing programme. This should be ready by the second quarter of next year and will involve at least 1,000, and perhaps 4,000 homes in the Castro Valley in California. The companies will be running the full gamut of movies, interactive services and games – to see exactly what consumers want and what they will pay for. Pity the poor technicians that have to run the trials though. While waiting for the technology to mature, both the existing US West and the new Viacom pilot trials will provide the services using conventional means, which involves, among other things, technicians dashing about popping tapes into video players as they are demanded by the customer. Still it could be worse, of course – they might have had to walk all the way to the corner store.