EchoStar Preparing a Network DVR

EchoStar Logo EchoStar hasn’t been very successful in breaking into the US STB market. They, of course, continue to supply hardware to sister company Dish Network, but one of the objectives of splitting the companies apart was to allow EchoStar to provide hardware to other MVPDs. So far they’ve mostly come up empty, though they’re still pushing CableCARD SlingLoaded DVRs. But it looks like they’re trying a new angle – a network DVR (nDVR).. With a network DVR nothing is ‘recorded’ at the users home. There is no storage in the STB. Rather all of the storage lives at the head end and is streamed, generally via IPTV, to the STB ‘on demand’.

The user still has to request specific recordings, and a separate copy is kept for every user. If you and ten of your neighbors record the same program, eleven copies are kept on the head end. While this is inefficient and, frankly, stupid, from a technical standpoint, it is due to legal requirements. Cablevision is deploying nDVRs in some of their territories in NY and CT. They were sued by content providers over the nDVR – and won. But the ruling hinges on the fact that the nDVR works just like a ‘normal’ DVR with each user recording their own content. The functionality is the same, only the storage has moved from the customer’s home to the central office. Making one copy and providing access to multiple users would be redistribution, legally, and is a no-no. Hopefully someday the law will catch up to reality, but I’m not holding my breath.

There is one point in the Light Reading article reporting on this that I’m not sure I agree with:

That means EchoStar’s system will be built to store the individual programs a given customer sets to record, and won’t back up that data. So if a hard drive fails, all of the recorded content on that drive goes poof.

My understanding is that, while the ruling does require separate recordings for each user and would not allow backups, it doesn’t forbid using modern storage technology such as RAID. Indeed, there are some home DVRs that use RAID today. For the non-geeks, RAID is Redundant Array of Independent Drives. To over-simplify, picture to physical hard drives acting as one logical drive, with two copies of everything – one copy per drive. You only have the storage capacity of one drive, but you have redundancy – if one physical drive fails you don’t lose any data, it is safely on the other drive. And you can swap out the dead drive, copy everything over, and restore redundancy with nothing being lost. Since I’m sure EchoStar’s system will be using commercial grade storage arrays at the central office I’d be a bit surprised if they didn’t use some form of RAID or the equivalent.

Beyond the possibility of offering some form of redundancy, there are also economies of scale. Since a storage array will be shared across many users, even with redundant recordings the total raw storage space required to support a number of users, for the same number of recordings, is less than with individual drives in every home. It just works out to be a more efficient distribution with less wasted space. The environment in a data center is likely to be better for the drives than the average home too – clean, reliable power, good environmental controls, minimal vibration, etc. And since the recordings are already in the ‘cloud’, and EchoStar is of course the owner of placeshifting pioneer Sling Media, I would expect them to include the ability to stream your recordings to other devices. And that would be without requiring you to buy a Slingbox or use your broadband connection to send the data out of your home.

EchoStar says they’ll deliver the nDVR to their first customer by the end of 2012. While sister company Dish Network normally gets first dibs on new EchoStar products, I’m not sure that will be true this time. The problem with nDVRs is that they require sending different streams, possibly multiple streams, to every home. Imagine watching one show in the living room, while three other household members watch other recordings in other rooms. That’s four data streams into your home. Now all of your neighbors are doing the same. Satellite doesn’t do this well, it is best suited for sending the same content into multiple homes because of the fixed number of transponders. Even satellite data systems are more bandwidth limited than cable, fiber, or even DSL systems. They could have something tricky up their sleeves, like a wireless data play for delivery, but I think it is more likely that this will show up with a cable MSO. Very likely a second tier MSO looking for a technical edge, much as RCN & Suddenlink have turned to TiVo.

And speaking of TiVo, many view the nDVR as a threat to TiVo as their business has been built around placing ‘conventional’ DVRs into homes. But I disagree. TiVo’s main selling point is their UI, not the fact that the hard drive is in the STB. TiVo could just as easily split their product and create an nDVR. In fact, something like the TiVo Preview could easily be the STB client for an nDVR system. Right now it is designed to stream from a DVR in the home, but that data stream could just as easily be delivered into the home from remote storage. Exactly the same way OTT content is delivered to TiVo today. If demand for nDVRs takes off I’m sure we’ll see an nDVR from TiVo. The Virgin Media TiVo in the UK already has a DOCSIS modem and it looks like the upcoming 16.x software includes DOCSIS support, which could be hinting at future US products as well. And there is MoCA as well, which could communicate with an MSO gateway unit. Saying ‘data is data’ is a bit simplistic, but not too far off the mark.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if EchoStar gets more traction with their nDVR than they’ve achieved with their SlingLoaded cable products to date.

Via Light Reading.

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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  • Fanfoot


    Don’t be too sure about the RAID thing.  I know people who worked on the product and testified in the Cablevision case and certainly during the trial every single step in the process was examined in great detail, including even things like copies IN MEMORY.  And yes the original system built by Arroyo to Cablevision’s specifications was very carefully designed to be as close to a normal DVR as possible, just with a network between the hard drive and the STB in the home. 

    Certainly I doubt any of the follow-on products, or even Cablevision’s deployed nDVR product, will be designed with this level of care.  Certainly I would expect them to slowly but surely creep towards an efficient design where multiple user’s recordings could be shared.  Comcast for example is planning to support both shared and unshared recordings, the shared for networks they own or negotiate agreements with (hey, we’ll put newer ads on those DVRed shows, or suppress fast-forwarding over commercials someday, or something, but you have to let us share the recordings we’re going to make anyway…).

    Yes this works better for a cable MSO than satellite.  As you say you expect over time that DVR users tend to watch a lot of stuff from their recordings rather than live, and all of those recordings will be “VOD” like, in that they can’t be shared with anybody else.  Even if we both started playback at exactly the same second, as soon as I press pause when you don’t, we’re suddenly watching different streams. 

    And just one final comment on data-centers… as you know disk drives are tremendously susceptible to vibration and lots of the drives in a modern data center are packed very tightly together, which of course results in lots of vibration.  For example it used to take a 3RU rack mount chassis to handle 12 3.5 inch drives, but now that everybody is moving to vertical mounting they get even higher densities.  We’ve had drives fail in such systems at a much higher rate than you might expect, and little things like rubber grommets and such become critical.  So they MIGHT have more reliability than that drive would have in your house, but they might not.  Depends on a lot of factors.

    • MegaZone

      For RAID I’m thinking of things like Media Center, which happily runs on a RAIDed box. And WeaKnees sells a RAID storage array that works with some DirecTV DVRs. I believe Moxi would also support expansion via eSATA RAID arrays. And that’s all without any hacking.

      As for vibration, yeah, lots of factors. Obviously the better quality the storage array used generally the better the build quality – and the lower the vibration and other issues. Dirt cheap arrays just cram as many drives in as possible. Quality systems use isolation mounts, etc.

      But strange things happen. One network product I’ve worked on had an issue with a batch of hot swappable power supplies that had unusually high fan vibrations, and those vibrations were killing drives in the units. Replacing the problem batch resolved the issue. It just goes to show that complex systems have a lot of possible failure modes.