Virgin Media: Building a state-of-the-art digital Media Delivery infrastructure

As the UK’s largest provider of cable television, telephone, broadband internet and mobile services, Virgin Media has moved rapidly to create an infrastructure capable of delivering market-leading services with the highest levels of customer satisfaction, while dramatically reducing maintenance costs and providing a flexible platform for new service launches.  

Moving beyond legacy to create an efficient platform for success
In 2006 Virgin Media began the planning and implementation of this entirely new infrastructure to replace the obsolescent legacy inherited from the amalgamation of the Cable & Wireless, Telewest and NTL systems. The new infrastructure, known as New Generation Portfolio (NGP) rationalised Virgin Media’s delivery chain, introducing IP technologies at all stages.

A crucial part of the plan was the deployment of a sophisticated system capable of delivering an end-to-end diagnostic and monitoring toolset to Virgin Media staff. The system would allow engineering and maintenance staff to access, view and interrogate any point in the delivery chain, from the control centre, or any remote web-enabled location, and would be a vital contributor to the strategy of providing the highest quality-of-service levels, combined with much lower maintenance overheads.

Virgin Media’s award-winning new infrastructure – which includes a comprehensive VideoBRIDGE system – is now recognised as one of the most advanced in the world.

Key components: integrating monitoring and management
An operation of the size and complexity of Virgin Media’s involves many different levels of management and monitoring activity, and in addition to the VideoBRIDGE system, Virgin’s digital media infrastructure also includes systems for management of the physical devices, and a management umbrella system common across all of Virgin Media’s activities. The VideoBRIDGE system feeds into this umbrella management system.

The infrastructure specification initially called for Bridge Technologies VB220 IP probes to be linked into the umbrella system, but as Virgin Media’s Broadcast Operations Manager Alistair Crook explains, the role of the VideoBRIDGE system within the operation has evolved as the infrastructure has been rolled out.

“At first, we installed the VideoBRIDGE probes and had them configured to feed data directly into the management system we’d specified. We then became aware of the Bridge Technologies VBC, which provides its own very advanced management and status display facility. This seemed like a good thing to have, in case of delays or problems with the other management systems. As it turned out, it was one of the best decisions we’ve made. Using the VBC has given us very good instant alarming and management capability.”

The new infrastructure: rationalised and resilient
To achieve the project aims, Virgin Media’s new architecture is based on a single central head end (CHE), a hot-synchronised disaster recovery head end, a core IP network, a unified conditional access environment, and a redundant network architecture that would allow the 54 regional head ends to continue service in the event of a failure.

The VideoBRIDGE system implemented by Virgin Media provides the critical requirement of 24/7 remote analysis of every point in the delivery chain, combining not only monitoring of equipment status, but also quality of service data. The system delivers detailed real-time monitoring using the ETSI ETR 290 parameters for measurement of DVB satellite, cable and terrestrial, and related digital television systems, and combines it with accurate real time data on key IP performance and integrity measures, to provide a unified monitoring and analysis tool.

The range of VideoBRIDGE probes deployed throughout Virgin Media’s infrastructure and networked to the VBC includes modules for monitoring all the key RF and IP service parameters.

At Virgin Media’s central head end eight VideoBRIDGE probes are configured with interfaces to monitor all IP traffic, together with COFDM signals as found in DVB-T networks, and QPSK signals found in DVB-S and DVB-S2 satellite transponders.

For the four core network locations, the IP traffic is gathered by VB220 IP probes, and at each of the 54 regional head ends one probe chassis is configured with three interfaces – two for IP, and one for QAM.

All probes are configured with thumbnail extractors to allow remote viewing of content integrity and quality at any point in the network.

Benefits: total system visibility from any location, and 99.98% service availability
The VideoBRIDGE system allows Virgin Media’s engineers and maintenance staff to monitor the entire infrastructure remotely and continuously from the main head end in Langley, saving the need to travel to various points in the core network, or to the regional head ends. Not only that, but the system allows authorised personnel to access the full real time data monitoring and analysis facilities from any location with a web connection: Virgin Media’s staff are therefore able to monitor and interrogate the system from home, or from anywhere in the field.

In the control room at the Central Head End, clear graphical displays from the VBC are displayed on the floor-to-ceiling screens that dominate the room.

Several rows of workstations accommodate the other management and control systems, with one workstation dedicated to the VideoBRIDGE display: engineers can dive deep into the data here without altering the overview display on the big screens.

“It’s a very compact and versatile system in operation, with a much smaller footprint than the previous generation of monitoring tools”, says Alistair Crook.

“But it’s also highly flexible: if need be, all the workstations in the control room can be switched over to provide multiple access to the VideoBRIDGE data and analysis displays.”

For Virgin Media’s project and operational teams, the system provides assurance that packet traffic is leaving the central head end with full integrity at IP level and MPEG level, and allows engineers to make instant comparison between any points in the network.

With continual IP analysis at the four core routers (Manchester, Leeds, Poplar, Aztec West), engineers can check services leaving the CHE, and at any point through IP network, at the core and at the regions.

When IP packets start to become corrupted the system generates alarms, to alert engineers before accumulated errors create service-affecting failure. The probes at the satellite acquisition stage monitor quality as it enters the network, and at regional head ends engineers can demodulate the QAM frequency and extract the content just before it reaches the customer. Virgin Media is thus continuously measuring and monitoring at both ends of the network, and all the way through it – a much greater level of monitoring than the company has ever done. Virgin Media’s team reports a range of very significant improvements in the operation overall. These include:

• reduced fault investigation times: engineers can pinpoint any fault on the network within minutes
• reduced callout costs
• delivery of raised QoS target (99.98%)
• new ability to use the system to test the efficiency of new infra- structure design as the NGP project continues toward completion
• new ability to identify deficiencies in content quality from suppliers and apply pressure for improvement
• new ability to deliver detailed and accurate data in support of SLA negotiations

As Alistair Crook says: “VideoBRIDGE is a really good, futuristic system – the only one of its kind, and it supplies a level of functionality our engineers have never had at their command before.”

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