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Harmonic signals shift to software-based world with VOS announcement

Harmonic has signalled a shift in long-term strategy towards software-based compression and workflow at the NAB Show by unveiling VOS, which it says is designed to enable virtualised video processing from a single software platform, encompassing functions that have hitherto been managed discretely such as ingest, playout, graphics, branding, compression, packaging and delivery.

At the centre of VOS is Harmonic’s PURE compression engine, which can output MPEG-2, MPEG-4/AVC and HEVC over constant and variable bitrate and adaptive bit-rate streams.

The first product based on VOS is the Electra XVM, which Harmonic describes as an integrated package combining PURE compression, playout, graphics, packaging and delivery, operable in data centres on OpenStack or VMware VSphere.

At a press event in Las Vegas on Saturday, Harmonic chief marketing officer Peter Alexander described VOS as “a brand for our media processing platform and architecture”.

At the same event, Krish Padmanabhan, SVP of product management at Harmonic, said that service providers want a common software platform that can be deployed simply, enabling them to deliver content to multiple devices without massive complexity and enabling them to unlock the revenue potential of long-tail content across multiple screens. “Right now you can’t monetise most content,” he said.

Padmanabhan said that virtualisation and the move to IT-centric operations is something that customers are increasingly asking for. Moving into an IT environment enables operators to do live encoding during the day time and file transcoding at night, for example, thus maximising resources.

“When you’re not tied to hardware these things become possible,” he said.

Padmanabhan said that VOS is designed to harness Harmonic intellectual property into a common software platform designed to run on standard hardware servers.

At the press event, the company demonstrated live ultra-HD encoding on VOS with localised advertising insertion as one potential application of the technology.

Harmonic demosntrated PURE running MPEG-2 at 9Mbps, and HEVC at 2.5Mbps, comparing favourably with its existing hardware-based Electra encoder’s performance.

Using software-based processing gives service provders and broadcasters the ability to scale resources to meet peak demand without expensive upfront investment, according to Harmonic.

“The ability to spool capacity up and down running on standard infrastructure is increasingly important,” said Padmanabhan.

Additionally, he said, the use of an IT-centric architecture enabled operators to eliminate costs.

“Boxes mean complexity, but with VOS there is no specific hardware,” said Padmanabhan.

The first VOS product, Electra XVM, focuses on playout, graphics and branding and compression. “This functionality collapses playout, graphics and branding and compression in a single software platform,” said Padmanabhan. “Unlike boxes, which require a lot of money, this gives us far more flexible pricing models for customers.”

He said that by moving to a virtualised infrastructure, to give one example, 16 1RU Electra 9000 encoders could be replaced by 10RU of Electra XVM virtual blades. This could deliver enormous savings for customers, he said, citing the example of a US$1 million (€729,000) saving over five years on an US$8 million investment, with the additional benefit that the customer could hire staff with generic IT skills rather than dedicated hardware engineers.

CEO Patrick Harshman said that Harmonic’s announcement signalled it was “turning an important page as a company”. He said “the potential is tremendous” and represents “chapter two of our life as a company”.

Harshman told DTVE that the shift “does not mean we are abandoning hardware”, in part because many customers still prefer traditional hardware-based systems.

He said that while Harmonic had been skeptical about the capabilities of software-based compression in the past, the technological advances of the last few years had changed perceptions.

“What we see is capabilities that did not use to exist,” he said, citing the example of video-specific capabilities that Intel has developed over the past few years.

Harshman said that the move to software-based systems would inevitably involve changes in the pricing strategy of technology suppliers like Harmonic. He said the company is considering a range of options including perpetual use licences. “We don’t know what the right answer is but we are working with large customers to figure out the best model,” he said. “We don’t expect our business to flip [to software] overnight. There will be an adoption curve that should give us time to find the right business model.”

He said that the integration of multiple functions in a single software-based platform would, in addition to providing cost savings, enable broadcasters to experiment, for example by developing new ways to wrap advertising around content and introduce social media features to more content.

Harmonic also used NAB to demonstrate HEVC-based Ultra HD, including what it described as the world’s first end-to-end HEVC solution for delivering live 2160p60 10-bit Ultra HD content. Other announcements at the show included transcoding and delivery support for workflows compatible with Adobe Primetime’s ad insertion capabilities.