The RDK's Evolution Continues

RDK Update A traditional strength of the cable industry is defining standards and specifications around new technologies in such a way that MSOs can move ahead efficiently - and more or less unison. In other words, the industry decides where it wants to go and, with a minimum of drama, figures out the best way to get there.

The most recent example of this controlled evolution is the Reference Design Kit (RDK), the framework aimed at providing cable operators a standard cross-platform means of creating applications and services. It was pioneered and has been rolled out out by Comcast in its X1 platform. An important byproduct of making the technology portable across MSO lines is the speed to market it offers.

It may be said that there are eras in the development of ambitious industry-wide approaches: One may be the birth and development of a concept, another may be the first lab and tightly controlled field trials, a third may be use by a single or small group of MSOs and, finally, the last stage could be mass commercialization.

If those progressive stages - or ones close to it - are accurate, the RDK effort today is in the middle stages. Deployments have been made by Comcast and and internationally by Liberty Global. Time Warner Cable, the other main driver of the concept, in April announced developement with Humax of an IP STB using the RDK. Access by the rest of the industry has been made easier by the transfer of ownership of the RDK from Comcast to RDK Management LLC. Membership in that organization consistently is growing, while vendor interest is being shown by regular incremental announcements. “The RDK is gaining tremendous momentum,” said Jim Elayan, the vice president of marketing for itaas, which was acquired by Cognizant in April.

The concept behind the RDK is to provide an “abstraction layer” between the between vendors’ set-top boxes and the various systems run by a particular MSO, such as the billing and provisioning systems and the user interface. This abstraction layer enables the services and applications - and all the ancillary things necessary to make them work in the real world - to be created with a standard set of tools. This obviously is a big change from STB-specific approaches.

Alticast CTO John Carlucci said the biggest challenges are working through the changes in the relationships between various stakeholders. In the pre-RDK world, for instance, the intricacies of a system integrator’s utilization of a particular system on a chip (SoC) were worked out between them. In the future, the interfaces will need to fall within the RDK framework and therefore be consistent with similar relationships between other SoC vendors and system integrators.

The bottom line is that the focus changes. “Operators have a lot more control of the software platform,” said Jason Briggs, RDK Management’s Senior Director, Licensing & Strategic Development. “It affords them the control – if they want it.”

That’s a big deal in both the narrow sense of introducing a third party to the relationship and in the wider sense of moving to a broad consensus on how things are done. This is not unlike the DOCSIS program and, more recently, CCAP. Indeed, the effort is moving beyond the cable industry, said Kirk Edwardson, the head of marketing for Espial. “A lot of these initiatives stay [narrowly] focused. This is beyond that. We’ve seen early interest from the telco side, which usually is competitive.”

To date, the RDK has focused on the video side of things. The next step, according to Carlucci, is to integrate it into the headed and headless gateway sector. In essence, the video elements already fairly far along in development will be merged with DOCSIS. “Now we are seeing the leaders in the RDK sector start to apply the same principles to the video gateway,” he said.

In general, the current stage of the RDK is from a Comcast/Time Warner Cable/LGI project to one the entire industry is using. Thus, the focus is shifting from conceptual design and technical development to performing the marketplace and operational tasks necessary to make the approach work across company lines.

Though it is less dramatic, making something work in real world environments is as difficult. It also is necessary for success. “How do you make it repeatable?” asked Rob Folk, ARRIS’ vice president of product management for CPE. “As you bring in different silicon vendors, different development environments and different device profiles, you want to ensure the RDK continues to be developed and scaled across these different dimensions in a repeatable manner without breaking what you already have working.”

The RDK sector seems to be active. If not all the announcements are big news, the success is that companies are moving forward - or want to be seen as doing so. For instance, on June 3, Espial and Samsung Electronics introduced a home entertainment platform featuring HTML5. It is usable on both STBs and home gateways.

A week later, RDK Management LLC announced that the RDK has been broadened to include the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standard common in Europe. “There is a lot of the activity in Europe,” Briggs said. “It took us by surprise in terms of the number of operators interested in looking at it.” 

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