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VBrick charts course to the future

Last month at InfoComm 2008 in Las Vegas, VBrick Systems unveiled its new H.264-based technology and MicroTCA architecture for the next generation of its products.

The company, which has had success in the enterprise, military, government, broadcast and digital signage markets, is counting on the new architecture to help it continue the roll it’s been on in delivering easy-to-use, affordable encoders for IP network distribution of video and contribution of video from the field.

Initially, VBrick will offer SD and HD H.264-based versions of its portable VBrick, a dictionary-sized, standalone encoder designed to let users plug their cameras’ output in and begin streaming video. In the first quarter of next year, it will fully exploit the potential of MicroTCA architecture by offering SD and HD blades for a MicroTCA shelf solution.

IPTV Update spoke with Andy Howard, VBrick director of marketing and Bob Gifford, VP platform engineering, about the architecture and how it can be employed to meet the needs of IPTV operators and broadcasters.

IPTV Update: What is the thinking behind the new H.264 offering and MicroTCA support?

Andy Howard: The VBrick 6000 platform, which is currently our bread-and-butter platform, has been around for five or six years. It’s been a fantastic platform for us in terms of reliability and all of the things that make VBrick great. But we realized a couple of years ago that it wasn’t going to take us where we needed to go from the perspective of performance, particularly when you consider high definition, as well as flexibility.

So a couple of years ago, we started thinking about a new architecture — what we were going to do and how we were going to deliver it. That’s what we’ve come to at this point. We are announcing a new architecture that will be the foundation for all of our products going forward, and what we’ve done is deliver these blades based on the MicroTCA architecture so the same sort of blade can go into an appliance, which is the traditional VBrick appliance. Or, we can offer a rack-mounted solution with several encoders or decoders in one shelf. Those same blades can pop into these MicroTCA racks to deliver a higher-density solution for an application like a headend in a company’s data center.

The first products we are going to release on this new platform are our H.264 appliances, so we’ll have standard-definition appliances and high-definition appliances, and we’ll have SD and HD blades that can fit into these racks. When we started looking at this architecture, we kind of had the following goals in mind: We wanted it to be higher-performance, and to support high-definition and other processor intensive applications. For example, we wanted the ability to encrypt video content. Our current platform didn’t have the ability to do that. So, we will be able to do that down the road with this architecture. Additionally, it allows us to do a much more rapid development cycle.

We also wanted it to be more flexible. One of the things we learned from our current platform is that it would be great to separate the video processing piece from the input and output pieces. That way, as different inputs and outputs become popular, we would simply have to change the connectors and plug it into the video processor. So, in the broadcast market, they may have needs for more professional connectors, like XLR audio and HD-SDI, and we’ll be able to design that. In fact, based on feedback from the customers to whom we initially provided demos, HD-SDI was considered a “must have,” so we quickly added this to the specification, and that will now be available in the first release.

IPTV Update: You’ve identified digital signage, surveillance, military and broadcast markets for the HD version of the H.264 video appliance. Are there applications at telcos for IPTV distribution and CDNs for over-the-top streaming video applications?

Andy Howard: Traditionally, we haven’t heavily marketed to the broadcast market, but we have been successful in that market. The two main applications have been remote newsgathering and using the product to get video from point A to point B over an IP network rather than a more expensive method of distribution.

In terms of IPTV, we have had some success with the PEG channels. Cable companies and the telcos doing IPTV are required to distribute public access, education and government channels. A lot of those municipalities or local governments are using a VBrick to take the camera feed of town meeting, plug it into the VBrick and distribute it to the IPTV environment.

As far as going out over the public Internet and content distribution, with our VBick online streaming services (VBoss), we do have a partnership with Akami. If you are an organization, such as a college, that wants to be able to distribute non-revenue generating sports events over the Internet, you can use this service. We give them a VBrick and that VBrick will automatically point to the Akami network. We provide the Web infrastructure with different Web templates to choose from to design their Web page and different video players. We also offer monetization options, such as Pay per View or advertising.

IPTV Update: Could you explain how VBrick, or any other vendor for that matter, distinguishes its H.264 product offering from others, when everyone is working to the same standard?

Andy Howard: I think there are a lot of H.264 appliances that are targeted more towards the high-end broadcast market, but the price points are way up there. We have priced this much lower than what’s been available to this point on the market. This allows us to address other markets that couldn’t afford those other products. This certainly is one big differentiator.

Bob Gifford: Additionally, it’s a big systems solution. Ethernet TV, for example, allows you to do management of all these disparate video assets across your video network. It’s a very robust enterprise solution. It’s scalable. It allows you to record and monitor who watched what when and for how long so you can tie that through standards-based files to reporting or billing systems. Those are kind of big-picture roadmap perspectives.

IPTV Update: What sort of HD encoding latency can be expected when the product ships? Will that basically decrease by half every 18 months or so per dollar devoted to hardware? Are there also encoding efficiencies that can be realized on the software end of things?

Bob Gifford: We’re targeting 200ms or less. Since we’ve done the H.264 algorithm and have our own DSP-based source code for it, we have the ability to change things quite a bit. VBrick’s kind of known for being easy to use, but also our interfaces allow an advanced user or administrator to get in there and turn quite a few knobs to change a lot of characteristics about the incoming video or audio as well as all the different tools within the compression scheme itself.

So, we do have a lot of different flexibility that the others don’t have. A lot of customers have their own requests, and we are able to jump in there and provide nuances and add additional control. Along with our patent-pending motion-estimation algorithms, this allows for video quality to be adjusted for a given bit rate and given network characteristics and also try and meet those latency needs.

IPTV Update: Please discuss the MicroTCA high-density shelf.

Andy Howard: About the time we began to look at this new architecture, there was this MicroTCA standard, which was approved. It basically is a standard for these shelf products. It specifies how you build the blades to fit into these shelves. So, it’s kind of like a PCI card going into a computer, the same type of model where all of the specifications are there and you can create these blades and pop them into these industry standard racks. That’s great for us, because we can have that same blade for an appliance as well as a shelf, and we don’t have to design the shelf, which is a very capital-intensive proposition.

Bob Gifford: At the beginning of time, we considered VBrick to be a very standards-based company. All the protocols we used — MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and Windows Media — are all protocol-level standards. The adoption of MicroTCA, which is really an evolution from ATCA in the telco space, happened in 2006. That allowed us to provide a systems level standards-based product. So we are very entrenched in standards-based work. We could have done a high-density shelf a long time ago, but we would have left our customers stranded with a proprietary solution if we had done that. This is really an adoption of a systems-level standard (MicroTCA) for the enterprise space.

The core element in MicroTCA is the advanced mezzanine card (AMC). The form factor, card edge and messaging, to gain access to the backplane switch fabric, are all specified in the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) specification.

The first expression of this is H.264, which scales from 3G wireless mobile frame rates and resolutions, all the way up to HD in a single blade, so we have a very good high-density offering.

As far as the scalability is concerned, we are able to have a single-channel appliance-based offering all the way up to n channels in a shelf configuration. So, by being able to adopt MicroTCA as the essential systems-based architecture, we’re providing a scalable streaming architecture.

IPTV Update: Why is this important?

Andy Howard: One of the things that makes this important is that the new H.264 capability allows us to squeeze more capability into any given bandwidth capability. So, for example, this is important to news operations looking for efficient field contribution. We’ve worked with a couple of different organizations that are doing unique things. For instance, CBS out of New York when the Anna Nicole Smith fiasco was going on sent a reporter and camera person down to the Bahamas with a VBrick and portable BGAN satellite terminal. They took the video from their camera, streamed that live over the satellite network to their studio in New York, and the studio announcer was able to communicate with the reporter in the Bahamas. The video of this is available on our Web site at They were using about 200kb/s, and with the H.264 capability, it will look even better.

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