Sun: 160,000 channels, should be somethin' on

Sun enters entertainment arena with Sun Streaming

Sun Microsystems is introducing a new platform for streaming on-demand video over IP networks, to put movies into the hands of customers more efficiently than cable, DVDs-by-mail or the corner video store.

"We do believe the most natural way for people to enjoy video is to download it from a server," said Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun and designer of the Sun Streaming System.

The Sun Streaming system uses four Sun Fire x4100 servers, one x4500 storage/server and a new product, the Sun Fire x4950 streaming server, all based on server technology developed by Kealia, which Sun acquired in 2004. Bechtolsheim also founded Kealia after leaving Sun. The acquisition brought him back to the company.

Sun Streaming, with a suite of Sun software to manage the system, delivers 160,000 video streams, or 40,000 high-definition TV streams, simultaneously at 2M bps (bits per second), said Bechtolsheim.

Fifteen of these systems, at about 5,000 titles per system, theoretically could stream the entire library, all at once, of 75,000 DVD titles from Netflix, which distributes DVD rentals by mail.

The Sun Streaming System, unveiled Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, addresses the consumer lament as sung by Bruce Springsteen in his hit, "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)."

"There's really no reason that middle class Americans when they watch three or four hours of TV a day shouldn't be able to watch whatever they want when they want to watch it," said Sandeep Agrawal, group marketing manager for the Sun Systems Group.

The Sun system delivers second generation video on demand at a capital cost of US$50 per stream, about half the cost of first generation video servers, said Eve Griliches, telecom program manager at the research firm IDC.

First generation video servers are offered by companies such as SeaChange International, C-COR, Kasenna and Arroyo Video Solutions, which was acquired by Cisco Systems Inc. in 2006. But they are proprietary systems whose vendor lock-in makes it difficult for network operators to upgrade with other equipment, Griliches said. Sun's second generation system uses open standards.

IDC forecasts the video server market to grow to US$2 billion by 2011, from just US$350 million in 2006, she said.

Initially, Sun will sell its system to networking companies that will be able to serve telephone companies offering IPTV service to their customers. Sun announced partnerships with Nortel Networks and Electronic Data Systems to use the Sun platform.

Sun will initially target phone companies because there is still an ample supply of network capacity built up from the dot-com era. Cable networks, by contrast, are not as equipped to deliver this much content, said Bechtolsheim.

"Quite frankly, they don't have enough bandwidth," he said. The aggregate bandwidth on a cable is limited to the capacity of coaxial cable and a lot of the channels on a cable system are designated for broadcast channels.

"It would require an order of magnitude upgrade to cable networks to provide the same on-demand capacity as this system offers," Bechtolsheim said.

But IPTV also has limitations, said IDC's Griliches; routers that are not easily scalable, as well as Ethernet switches and other network servers, could slow traffic between the Sun platform and the TV set.

Those technology problems will eventually be addressed, however, and Griliches sees video on-demand competition from cable companies, Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., as well as TV networks that are expected to allow more of their programming to be streamed from their Web sites.

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