This case study looks at Cinémathèque from PowerSource Software Pty Ltd. It is a digital interactive entertainment system that embeds Jetty as the backend server for the set top box browser.

PowerSource Software is a boutique software developer based in
Sydney, Australia. The company has particular expertise in several
interesting real-time areas: conventional wagering and gaming systems
(totalisator systems for on and off-track betting, lotteries and
wide-area keno systems), community gaming systems (trade promotions,
competitions and opinion polls via mobile devices using SMS), and IPTV
and video on demand (VOD).

PowerSource became active in IPTV and VOD because the company was
looking for new ways to capitalise on its core expertise – high speed
transaction processing. As luck would have it, the majority of the
company’s betting systems ran on real-time platforms supplied by
Concurrent Computer Corporation, and Concurrent had started to utilise
their hardware and real-time operating systems in the development of
their MediaHawk video servers. At roughly the same time, the first
deployable IP-based set top boxes also appeared. However,
commercialisation of these IPTV-related technologies was being stymied
by the absence of an affordable way of gluing these sophisticated
components together into a customer-based money making enterprise. So
PowerSource developed Cinémathèque.

Cinémathèque is a comprehensive solution for service providers offering
interactive digital entertainment including IPTV and VOD, for wide area
residential, residential multi-dwelling, and hospitality environments.
It provides a tightly integrated suite of monitoring, control and
support facilities that maximise the features and facilities available
to subscribers while minimising the operational burden of the service

In an IPTV-VOD system, a high speed two-way network connects the video
servers and management system at the head-end to set top boxes in
subscribers’ premises. Perhaps the biggest difference between IPTV
systems and traditional hybrid-fibre-coax (HFC) pay TV deployments is
the speed of the network, and especially the speed of the back channel.

When a viewer selects an on-demand program the set top box sends in a
play-out request which needs to be authorised before the video server
will start streaming the content. At any time the viewer can stop,
pause, rewind or fast-forward the video. It is important to note that
the content is streamed across the network and played out in real-time.
It is not stored or buffered in the set top box for later play-out –
there are no disks in IP set top boxes. All subscriber interactions
with the set top box – including play-out control – are transmitted
across the network in real-time to the servers at the head-end.

Of course, people will only pay to watch if there is something
worthwhile to watch and it’s available to them at a convenient time. In
this regard, digital video on demand differentiates itself from older
hotel movie systems which provide a very narrow range of content, and
from traditional subscription TV which offers only “near” video on
demand services in which programs start at pre-designated times. The
versatility of a digital video on demand system allows a hotel, or a
residential IPTV service provider, to offer not only the latest
Hollywood movies, but also classics, cult films, documentaries and the
crème de la crème of TV. In other words, subscribers can watch what
they want, when they want.

It happens that content owners, and the Hollywood studios in particular,
go to great lengths to ensure that their valuable property is presented
in an appropriate manner. For this reason, most content is delivered to
the set top box as a 4 Mbit per second MPEG2 Transport Stream. This
bit-rate provides the viewer with a near-DVD quality viewing experience
on a standard television. While this generally guarantees that a movie
will be seen in the best light, it also makes simultaneously delivering
a large number of streams quite challenging. Clearly, there is a big
difference between streaming numerous film clips at 64 or 128 Kbps over
the net compared to pumping hundreds, if not thousands, of 4 Mbps
streams simultaneously. This is especially true considering how easily
human eyes and ears can detect jitter in the video and audio resulting
from lost frames or uneven play-out. This is the realm of “big-iron” video servers like Concurrent’s MediaHawks.

An IP set top box has three principal software components: an operating
system, a highly customised web browser and a media player. Many of the
better IP set top boxes run Linux – which is either booted out of
non-volatile memory or over the network – together with a small
footprint version of the Mozilla browser. The browser is heavily
customised to cater for the aspect ratio, resolution and colour palette
of a standard television. It is also adapted to make it easy to use in
the “lean back” environment in which people watch television.

Experience shows that in the lean back environment of the TV room, less
hand-eye coordination is required to successfully operate the remote
control if “compass” keys are used for navigation instead of a
track-ball or other mouse-like device that uses a floating cursor. The
compass keys on the remote control let the subscriber navigate and
select a hyperlink; the set top box then sends an HTTP request to
Cinémathèque which returns the appropriate page in response.

Cinémathèque plays a vital role in a digital entertainment service
network because it is responsible for handling all subscriber
interactions. Each time a subscriber follows a hyperlink, and each time
they request video play-out or select some other supplementary service,
Cinémathèque must accept and validate the request, secure a transaction
to disk, update the subscriber’s account and other persistent data
structures, and format and return a suitable response. This workload
represents a unique mix of web content requests and complex customer

Since Cinémathèque essentially provides the virtual shop window for the
digital entertainment service provider, it must respond quickly even
under considerable load, and even when the content is being generated
dynamically. The content itself also has to be thoughtfully designed to
facilitate effortless navigation to the items of most interest to a
subscriber. The experience has to be more like watching television than
surfing the web.

Although it is widely recognised that the architecture and performance
of the video servers is vital to satisfy service level expectations, the
performance characteristics of the management system – the so-called
middleware layer – are often overlooked. But all subscriber activity
starts out as an HTTP request to Cinémathèque – only when a response
from Cinémathèque includes authorisation to commence video play-out does
a set top box actually communicate with a media server. This is why
Cinémathèque’s heritage is so important: it relies heavily on
PowerSource’s experience building high performance transaction
processing systems.

Cinémathèque is comprised of three primary functional modules:

  • Jetty servlet engine
  • Javelin transaction processor
  • Cinémathèque application core

The Jetty servlet engine provides Cinémathèque with the flexibility of a
conventional web server but without the bloat, without the inevitable
performance problems, and without the implicit security worries. Jetty
is embedded within Cinémathèque and acts as a servlet container and
dispatcher. In this role Jetty is reliable, secure and fast. Jetty
invokes specialised Cinémathèque servlets in response to requests from
set top boxes; these servlets interact with the Cinémathèque application
core to provide the necessary services to subscribers.

Javelin is PowerSource’s secure, non-stop transaction processing engine
– it is written in Java and is the component on which all of
Cinémathèque’s other application features and facilities are based.
Javelin secures all transactions to duplicated disk files – it handles
all data mirroring itself rather than delegating this to the operating
system, and it provides Cinémathèque with a robust and persistent data
store. On a mid-range Linux server, Javelin is capable of recording in
excess of 500 transactions per second while maintaining an average
response time of less than 100 milliseconds. Javelin also performs an
automatic restart and recovery to ensure that no data is lost as a
consequence of a system outage.

The Cinémathèque application, too, is written entirely in Java to
maximise portability, reliability and flexibility. Cinémathèque
supports true video on demand, as well as near video on demand via its
multicast scheduler. Since every subscriber interaction is handled by
Cinémathèque the number of subscribers watching on-demand programs can
be monitored in real-time. Similarly, Cinémathèque also tracks, in
real-time, the number of subscribers tuned to each reticulated
free-to-air, pay, or multicast TV channel. This permits a service
provider to perform very accurate capacity planning as well as knowing
what content sells and what doesn’t.

Very little of the HTML content returned to the set top box by
Cinémathèque is static. Instead, Cinémathèque creates portions of many
pages dynamically according to the attributes of the viewer’s
subscription package, the titles and packages that they’ve previously
purchased, titles that are currently book-marked, and the rating level
of the content that the current user is permitted to see (to safeguard
children from accessing inappropriate content).

All transactions, including billing transactions, are processed by
Cinémathèque in real-time. Cinémathèque gathers operational,
statistical and performance data continuously, and records this to its
transaction files; this data is available for on-demand display on
system administration workstations.

Cinémathèque is set top box independent and supports any number of
different types of set top boxes simultaneously within a single
deployment. Similarly, it does not rely on any set top box specific
features and doesn’t require any specialised application software or
middleware to be present in the set top box. Adding support for other
set top boxes is straight forward and entails adapting several
JavaScript functions which are embedded in HTML pages returned to the
set top box; this JavaScript accommodates the inevitable differences
between the ways that set top box vendors invoke their media players.
These are important features in Cinémathèque because they help service
providers avoid set top box vendor lock-in.

A virtue of IP-based set top boxes is their uniformity – almost without
exception they provide a consistent “application environment” by way of
of their standards compliant HTTP, HTML and JavaScript implementations.
Indeed, all set top box functions, including invoking, controlling and
monitoring the embedded media player are achieved with JavaScript.
Although they have the capability to run a Java Virtual Machine, most IP
boxes don’t for two reasons: firstly, it substantially increases the
memory footprint (something to be avoided in a cost sensitive consumer
device), and secondly, most boxes don’t have sufficient CPU resources to
spare (a box with a 400 MHz clock CPU is considered fast).

Cinémathèque returns JavaScript objects to the set top box’s browser in
response to each HTTP request; the data embedded in these objects is
then rendered using JavaScript. This mechanism allows the look-and-feel
designer to expose as little or as much of the service or
program-related “metadata” to subscribers as they like without the
requirement to change any server-side software.

For optimum performance, Cinémathèque comes bundled with a Concurrent
Computer Corporation iHawk application server. iHawks run Concurrent’s
RedHawk Linux operating system which is a POSIX-compliant, real-time
version of the open source Linux operating system. RedHawk is based on
a standard Red Hat distribution but substitutes the usual kernel with a
real-time enhanced one; it provides enhancements that maximise
Cinémathèque’s performance.

Cinémathèque uses Java’s extensive internationalisation support to make
locale and language customisation straightforward. Each word and phrase
that appears in the Cinémathèque administration client is maintained in
a resource bundle – adding support for a new language simply requires
adding the appropriate translations to the bundle. Cinémathèque
currently supports English, Japanese, Korean, Simplified Chinese and
Traditional Chinese and any combination of these languages can be used
simultaneously within a single system on both set top boxes and the
system’s administration workstations.

In residential mode, a subscriber can only access IPTV and other
chargeable services after first logging in with their unique client id
and password. Cinémathèque lets a subscriber assign a different
password to each content rating classification to prevent children from
accessing inappropriate material, thereby imposing parental control. In
hospitality mode, access to services is controlled by Cinémathèque which
receives guest check-in and check-out notifications from the hotel’s
property management system.

A subscriber can have an unlimited number of simultaneously active
rentals and can switch between active rentals and initiate additional
rentals at any time. Whenever video play-out is suspended, Cinémathèque
automatically sets a bookmark for that rental – the subscriber can
resume play-out either from the start of the program or from the
bookmark. The subscriber can view their active rental list and review
their complete rental history via their set top box at any time. The
active rentals and rental history displays are filtered according to the
rating level of the current login. Again, this prevents children from
seeing references to inappropriate content.

Cinémathèque also has an integral customer loyalty program that works in
conjunction with its customer profiling capabilities. The loyalty
program provides for standard and VIP customers and reward points can be
allocated based on spending behaviour. Accumulated reward points can be
redeemed for specially created package deals and service upgrades.

Jetty was selected after PowerSource’s engineers had evaluated several
servlet engines.

So why did PowerSource choose Jetty?

Firstly, Jetty offered superior performance. Secondly, it was easy to
embed within a larger application. In this regard, PowerSource was
looking for a servlet engine that didn’t “get in the way” of the rest of
the larger application. Thirdly, it was particularly important that the
servlet engine wasn’t a resource hog. And fourthly, Cinémathèque
systems are installed at customer sites and are expected to run
unattended in a lights out environment – PowerSource was looking for a
servlet engine that the engineers could “set and forget”.

Jetty’s reliability and performance counted highly in its favour because
Cinémathèque essentially controls the delivery of premium subscription
television services that customers are buying with their discretionary
expenditure. In this situation, paying customers don’t tolerate service
unavailability because they’ve become accustomed to TV not being
interrupted. If the responsiveness of the IPTV service is poor, or if
it is unreliable, then customers will buy their entertainment elsewhere.

Finally, as the company’s software engineers were making their minds up
about Jetty, it became obvious that there was another significant aspect
related to performance: namely the super-responsiveness of the team at
Mortbay and the enthusiasm of the Jetty users active on the mailing lists.

PowerSource have several new products under development; our positive
experience with Jetty, and our ability to rely on it, means that it will
remain one of the key components in PowerSource’s systems.

Screen shots and diagrams

Related links


RedHawk Linux:

MediaHawk video servers:

Kreatel set top boxes: