Buyer's Guide to Cloud-Based Video Encoding and Transcoding 2015
Encoding for VOD is very different from live transcoding. Here's what you need to know to find a service that serves your needs.
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There are two distinct markets for cloud encoding: video on demand (VOD) and live. I’ll address them individually in that order.
Cloud Encoding for VOD
Let’s start with a brief look at the organizations that should consider VOD cloud encoding. For many organizations, the biggest previous objection to cloud encoding—upload time—might no longer be an issue. Specifically, if you’re producing multiple adaptive packages to deliver from the cloud, it’s probably more efficient to upload a single file and create the packages in the cloud, as opposed to encoding locally and uploading the resulting streams.
Beyond this dynamic, if you’re encoding third-party files uploaded to you, as in a user-generated content scenario, cloud encoding is a natural. Ditto if your encoding needs are low-volume and/or sporadic—why invest in encoding hardware, software, and expertise if it’s not important to your business? At the other end of the spectrum, if you have generally consistent encoding needs with only occasional spikes, you should consider the cloud for these overages.
All that said, no matter what business you’re in, the benefits of cloud encoding are so compelling, that the next time you face a major encoding purchase decision, you should strongly consider a cloud solution. Here are the key questions you should consider when choosing a provider.
START WITH A LIST
The first step in an efficient selection process is weeding out candidates who simply don’t meet your needs, so start with the hard questions. To accomplish this, create a list of all formats that you’ll upload and the input locations you’ll upload from. Then list all the output formats you’ll need, as well as the delivery locations and any related requirements. Pay particular attention to digital rights management (DRM) and captioning, which smaller or newer cloud vendors generally don’t support.
Be as specific as possible about the other items on the list. For example, make sure early on that your candidates support the formats you’ll be working with. If you prefer to upload from a watch folder or an S3 bucket, check that too. If you need delivery to a CDN or Amazon Web Services S3 bucket, check that as well. Many of the encoding services that are ancillary to a cloud platform, most notably Amazon’s Elastic Transcoder, have significant limitations in all these areas.
DOES IT INTEGRATE?
Once you’ve weeded out suppliers that can’t get the job done, it’s time to look at integration. Specifically, if cloud encoding will supplement existing on-prem encoding, startup and ongoing operations will be easiest if you have a single point of control and can use the same presets. Multiple vendors, including Elemental and Telestream, provide both of these features. In addition, Harmonic offers ProMedia Carbon as a software product, as a cloud-based service in the AWS Marketplace, and through Encoding.com with integrated control and shared presets. If you’re encoding locally now but are looking to the cloud, see if your on-prem provider has a cloud offering.
WHAT’S THE OPERATIONAL PARADIGM?
There are four primary cloud encoding models, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses:
- Software as a Service (SaaS): You upload your files into the cloud and pay based on usage. You have no CAPEX or internal OPEX and require minimal encoding expertise. The service is in charge of apportioning additional CPUs as required to provide adequate performance to all customers, but no customer has dedicated CPUs.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS): You lease a certain number of CPUs per month, all of which are dedicated solely to your operation. When you press the Go button, the files start to encode. Beyond the monthly fee, you pay for the CPU hours consumed each month.
- Private Cloud SaaS: You access the service like a cloud SaaS, but the operation runs on proprietary hardware. This can lead to outstanding performance, but could limit the company’s scalability.
- Roll your own: You lease the cloud hardware and install and manage the encoder in the cloud. You save CAPEX on the hardware, but have to buy, install, and maintain the software, and supply the encoding expertise. You get instant, dedicated access to the cloud when needed, but limited scalability since you’re in charge of provisioning additional cloud instances and software.
To be clear, in some instances, these definitions present distinctions without a difference, particularly between SaaS and PaaS. Some SaaS providers obviously deliver short queue times and competitive encoding times to customers that include MTV and Funny or Die. Where PaaS vendors contractually deliver instant access to encoding, the near-infinite scalability of the cloud ensures that SaaS vendors deliver practically the same access.
IS IT USABLE?
Make sure that the operating paradigm suits your expertise levels and desired modes of operation. Low-volume encoders might want to create presets in the cloud interface and upload files manually or via a watch folder—not all cloud vendors support this. At the other end of the spectrum, high-volume users need an API for automated operation and reporting. If you’re in this class, have your programmers look over the API documentation early to understand if it meets your needs and to provide an estimate of how easy the integration will be to implement and support.
HOW’S THE QUALITY?
All encoding vendors, cloud and otherwise, claim superior quality; perhaps it’s in their DNA, or maybe they just assume it’s expected. However, I’ve run multiple qualitative comparisons of cloud encoding vendors, and the differences have been minimal. Logically, this makes sense; many cloud vendors use the x264 codec, which is well-documented and mature, so the output quality should be similar among all implementations. Other vendors—such as Elemental, which has its own H.264 codec—have been competing with x264 and other H.264 codecs for years, and have achieved similar quality. So in general, unless your tests show otherwise, I would ignore all quality claims.
One recent claim that I haven’t yet tested is the QuickFire.TV’s claim of 30 percent better quality at the same file size. Obviously, higher quality is always better, but I would verify these claims before making a buying decision.
HOW’S THE PERFORMANCE?
I did find significant performance differences in the various trials that I’ve run, though to some degree, performance can relate to the operational paradigm of each service. That is, with PaaS you’ll get one set of results if you allocate a single CPU to the encoding task, but quite a different result if you allocate 10 CPUs and have them spinning and ready when you start the job. Again, QuickFire.TV owes its results to running on its own hardware in a private cloud.
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