Cisco, Anticipating Video Tsunami, Builds up Network Smarts

Saying video will soon dominate all types of data networks, Cisco Systems on Monday launched a multipronged effort to make it better-suited for handling that traffic.

As is typical for Cisco, the strategy includes bringing functions into network infrastructure that have been carried out by applications. But this initiative aims to address the key thing Cisco has said is now driving demand for its products.

"Video is becoming the dominant traffic on networks at a very rapid rate," said David Hsieh, vice president of marketing for Cisco's Emerging Technologies group, which oversees new areas of innovation in the company. The video strategy announced Monday is among Cisco's stable of emerging technologies, which it looks to as possible big businesses of the future. The announcement came as the company geared up for its C-Scape industry analyst conference, taking place Tuesday and Wednesday in San Jose, California.

The "Medianet" technologies to be rolled out under the strategy announced Monday will span service provider, enterprise and home networks, according to Cisco. It kicked off the effort with a hardware and software platform for adapting video and other media to many different devices in an enterprise, as well as capabilities built into the recently announced ASR9000 edge router to improve home video coming over carrier networks.

Traditional IP (Internet Protocol) networks are designed to transport packets and do a good job of delivering a Web-surfing experience, said Suraj Shetty, vice president of worldwide service provider marketing. But for video, streams are more important than individual packets and users' expectations are different, so networks need to be changed to deliver a good experience, he said. Earlier performance-enhancing technologies, such as MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching), helped deal with video as one of many applications, Shetty said. Now it's time to address it as the main application, he said.

Cisco is the only company that has the broad capabilities to bring about that change, said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. Such a major undertaking will bring the company into areas where standards don't exist or have to be adapted, but Cisco has proved adept at leading new specifications, he said. (Indeed, the company has been accused more than once of forcing its own technologies into industry standards.)

The company's biggest obstacle is likely to be the weak economy, which could make service providers and enterprises skittish about making the large capital investments needed to ready networks for high-quality video, Kerravala said.

The most significant product announced Monday under the Medianet strategy is the Cisco Media Experience Engine 3000, the first of a set of offerings that will comprise the Cisco Media Processing platform for enterprises. The Media Experience Engine can take video content created for one platform and convert it for viewing on others, according to Cisco's Hsieh. For example, a meeting held over Cisco's Telepresence Meeting system, in high-definition video on large plasma screens, could be recorded and adapted automatically for playback on an employee's PC.

This type of conversion previously required banks of servers and video engineers, according to Hsieh. Now it can happen in real time, allowing for live and on-demand video sharing. And in addition to these conversions, the appliance can perform some post-production tasks, such as color correction or adding digital watermarks, he said.

Cisco is also tackling video quality for consumers of IPTV and other home video from service providers, Shetty said. The company's set-top boxes, which come out of its 2005 acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta, can now detect video problems such as dropped frames and alert a Cisco 7600 or ASR9000 router at the edge of the carrier's network. The router can then resend what was missed, with the whole event taking place in less than 300 milliseconds so it goes unnoticed by the viewer, Shetty said. For networks without those Cisco components, an appliance can do the same thing, he said.

With Cisco's introduction of the ASR9000, the edge router is starting to play a key role in video quality with a module that can cache terabytes of video near to the customer. Content that sits at the edge doesn't have to traverse the rest of the network, reducing competition for long-haul bandwidth, Shetty said.

But the overall strategy is broader than just delivering video to consumers and employees. Cisco aims to make networks aware of what kind of traffic is flowing over them and how it has to be treated, as well as what kinds of devices are connected and what quality they need, and what is the highest-performance path instead of just the shortest, Hsieh said. Together, these advances could serve any type of latency-sensitive application, including gaming and stock trading, he said.

"Over time, this will touch every component of every kind of network," Hsieh said.

Also on Monday, Cisco introduced Cisco Telepresence over Satellite, which takes the high-quality conferencing system out to places without wired infrastructure, and has a capacity for multipoint Telepresence meetings reaching outside a company's boundaries. AT&T is offering the multipoint, intercompany connectivity over its network, available immediately.

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