As service providers placed greater emphasis on content in 2016, IneoQuest saw business opportunities bloom -- a trend the developer of video analytics and service assurance solutions expects will only continue to surge in the New Year as operators, cable providers and enterprises increase their reliance on high-quality video. Cloud further empowers video adoption, eliminating many storage and sharing restrictions and virtualization provides organizations with the additional flexibility they need.
The New IP Agency's Alison Diana recently spoke with Stuart Newton, vice president of corporate strategy at IneoQuest Technologies Inc. , about topics such as the NIA member's expectations for 2017, video's impact on virtualized networks and service providers' pain points and opportunities. Read on for the email interview, edited for space reasons.
New IP Agency: How was 2016 for IneoQuest and what's ahead this year?
Stuart Newton: 2016 was a big year of change for the industry and IneoQuest, and a great year for innovation. Traditional linear TV businesses continue to add adaptive streaming deployments as viewer consumption shifts to mobile, while content producers and aggregators are offering services directly to viewers. In order to address the dynamic impact video delivery has on network infrastructure, the industry is starting to pilot virtualization and early NFV deployments for video delivery, to gain the flexibility they need. And as more companies are leveraging the cloud for video transcoding and packaging solutions, the merger and acquisition activity to couple content producers and providers with delivery operators is staggering. The good news is that IneoQuest saw these changes coming, planned accordingly, and is now extremely well positioned to support our customers and the industry as "television" evolves.
NIA: How is the digital transformation impacting IneoQuest?
Lack of Video Capacity Drives Virtualization Adoption
Lack of capacity is often at the root of video delivery problems, so the industry needs solutions that can rapidly and dynamically scale to demand. Virtual and cloud-based solutions hold this promise, so video is driving toward virtualization, says IneoQuest VP Stuart Newton.
SN: IneoQuest was founded to address the challenges of early digital video migration in the form of video-over-IP for cable and IPTV deployments. We have facilitated the migration to digital video delivery that has been happening for many years, and the major changes now are around the use of software-based monitoring and analytics solutions, coupled with the migration to adaptive streaming over content delivery networks (CDNs) through the use of adaptive protocols such as HLS or DASH. One big challenge ahead will be maintaining the quality of video delivery as we move to more impressive formats like UHD, while catering for the migration to wireless delivery of video in the access networks.
Another big challenge revolves around shifting business models. In the past, our solutions were appliance-based, and our customers were primarily network operators who applied capex to their video monitoring needs. Today, there is a new class of customers who offer video streaming services using the OTT model. Examples of this class include Netflix, DirecTV Now, Hulu and many others, with more continuing to enter the market. This provider class seeks to validate the performance of their infrastructure vendors -- CDNs, encoders, storage/origin servers, apps, etc. -- while also verifying that the video is reaching viewers with the intended quality. These OTT-based providers are looking for service-based solutions, often in the form of subscriptions which leverage their opex. This requires us to offer flexible business models.
NIA: With more service providers looking to acquire or partner with video and content creators, what new opportunities -- or challenges -- does that create for IneoQuest?
SN: CSPs are partnering with more content providers, and content providers are now looking to deliver direct to consumers, so it’s all adding more content providers and publishers to our client base. Service providers are also innovating quickly and looking to acquire more content of their own, as well as extending their reach by acquiring mobile operators or other wireless infrastructure providers. The good news is that we can scale our solution across all of these architectures to provide the best service assurance and analytics solutions for video delivery. And we are innovating around our business models, as mentioned above, to meet the evolving needs.
NIA: What effect has video had on service providers' adoption of virtualized networks?
SN: Because lack of sufficient capacity in a particular region is often at the root of video delivery problems, the industry needs solutions that can rapidly and dynamically scale to demand. Virtual and cloud-based solutions hold this promise. So video is indeed a driver toward virtualization. Of course, it brings with it new challenges.
Video is notoriously difficult to transport due to critical timing requirements for video delivery, particularly for live content such as sports, concerts or major new events. If you don't keep the receiving device’s buffer full -- with good quality video -- then you can expect churn. By moving to cloud or virtualized functions for delivery, it is critical to ensure that video is getting to where it is supposed to be, completely intact, within the timing envelope required. To do that, you need to make sure that good quality video is being delivered into the transport network, and that the transport network is doing a good job delivering the video to the end consumer. When service providers or content providers leverage the cloud or NFV architectures, they must retain control and be able to isolate exactly where something is going wrong, and that's a whole new ball game -- many of the transcoding, packaging and delivery services are no longer under their control, so being able to test the video either side of these functional black boxes is becoming more and more critical. Fortunately, we have been working on these challenges for over three years, so have a good pedigree in isolating end-to-end delivery issues.
NIA: How important are video analytics -- such as those provided through IneoQuest’s FoQus Platform Solutions -- and do these insights need to be integrated into other analytics (such as network performance, customer satisfaction) in order to provide CSPs with the most useful, far-reaching visibility into their entire infrastructure and impact on customer service?
SN: If you are looking to deliver any kind of video service that has revenue tied to it, then video analytics are essential, not optional. The analytics solutions we offer can help video providers to identify and address risk areas during pre-deployment phases and can deliver critical continuous monitoring once they go live. IneoQuest solutions can integrate in multiple dimensions with third-party OSS and BSS systems, as well as horizontally with client analytics systems.
We recently announced a collaboration with Conviva Inc. to begin tying together our operational video analytics with their client analytics, which will yield more powerful impact and root-cause analysis capabilities to video service providers. Rather than just knowing you have a headend, origin or regional delivery issue, wouldn't it be great if you knew exactly how many and who was affected by that issue and could proactively manage those customers based on their importance to the business? Or if you see a group of customers abandoning their viewing, being able to look upstream to see if there is a failure condition causing a bad experience? That's been an objective for customer experience management (CEM) for many years, and we are pushing it rapidly toward reality.
NIA: When you speak to prospective service provider customers, what are their biggest pain points, challenges and opportunities and how do you address them? In other words, what are they seeking from IneoQuest?
SN: It really depends what they control and how valuable their video content is. If it is a service provider that controls the entire end-to-end video delivery architecture, then we can enable correlated tracking of the video across the entire video delivery chain, especially with some of our new partnerships around client analytics. If, however, it is a content provider or publisher that is handing the video off for transcoding, packaging, CDN delivery and multiple access-network delivery to consumers, then we provide the ability to independently test that the video is getting to multiple places in the delivery chain intact and in a timely fashion. When something goes wrong without this capability, there is usually a horrendous amount of finger-pointing and blame that delays real problem resolution; we have had many calls asking for help after a major failure has occurred, rather than being brought in to test before and during a major event.
The good news is that the industry is now realizing that proactive monitoring is better than reactive. They are seeing the value in testing before their key events to make sure everything is working correctly in the end-to-end chain.
NIA: What is the state of interoperability and standards today?
In Pursuit of Interoperability
To promote interoperability, IneoQuest participates in third-party tests conducted for the New IP Agency by EANTC.
SN: Today, there are no well-defined standards for video streaming quality. We are mostly in the world of "I know it when I see it" -- good quality or bad. Everyone agrees that slow starts, pixelated video and mid-play buffering are bad, and can cause viewer abandonment. But in order to gain the necessary understanding to address these issues, industry participants need to come to some agreements on what statistics should be measured, and where and how to measure them. And we also need to then find the balance between cost and quality. How slow is too slow? How much pixelation or rebuffering is acceptable -- if any? Are mobile viewers more tolerant than home viewers? When is video quality sufficiently balanced with the associated revenue and expense? These are highly complex questions that require correlation between the operational metrics (bit rates, start times, latencies, rebuffer events) and viewer behavioral metrics (viewing time, buffering tolerance, content type...) to determine what makes people abandon and what makes them keep coming back. There is obviously a lot of work to be done here, and we are just at the beginning. But it is clear to us that having precise measurement capabilities is emerging as a critical competency for successful video providers.
Due to our belief in the importance of common measurement and interoperability, IneoQuest has always participated in video standards bodies and industry groups that develop recommended practices for video delivery, and we will continue to do so. We were the first video assurance and analytics company to participate in the NIA's NFV interoperability testing conducted by EANTC. We are also members of the Streaming Video Alliance (SVA), SCTE and DASH consortiums, and others involved in defining, developing and promoting best practices for video. And we have also looked for ways to make our products easier to integrate with accepted platforms, as demonstrated by our recent HPE Helion Ready certification. One of our biggest challenges is deciding what groups to take an active role in, as the number of video-related groups continues to grow -- especially when we count infrastructure related consortiums including the ETSI NFV and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) activities. We try to focus on the groups where we can have the most positive impact.
NIA: If you could do one thing -- wave a wand and magically resolve one issue to improve business conditions or technology -- what would that be?
SN: I’d like the video industry to gain a bit more stability. I think from a business perspective, there is a vast amount of change going on around mergers and acquisitions, adaptive streaming evolution, evolving CDN and cloud delivery, virtualization and NFV, mobile, standards and recommending bodies and business model changes to embrace service-based models rather than traditional capex-based models of the past. Everything about video and television is changing. Change is a good thing, and we are definitely keeping up and pioneering faster than ever before, but it would be nice to see some consolidation around at least some of these to allow the industry some breathing space and stabilization. This amount of change is unprecedented in the video industry, and the amount of knowledge and training needed to deal with all the above is a major undertaking for every company in this sector. It’s very exciting, but at the same time very challenging.
— Alison Diana, Editor, The New IP Agency. Follow her on Twitter @alisoncdiana or @The_New_IP.