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Buyers' Guide to Cloud VOD Encoding
When moving to the cloud, don't let price be the only consideration. This guide explains the different categories for cloud VOD encoding and the features to look for in each.
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Encoding VOD clips in the cloud has transitioned from leading edge to mainstream. If you're considering a move to the cloud, or perhaps changing vendors, this buyers’ guide will help you identify the best category of service provider for you, and how to differentiate between services within that category.

In this guide, I’ll only discuss companies that offer their products as a Software as a Service (SaaS) or Platform as a Service (PaaS), as opposed to companies that license their software for installation in a public or private cloud, or for other internal computing infrastructure. Below, there’s a list of questions and features to help guide your analysis.

Who Are You and What Do You Want?

Several years ago, cloud encoding companies were relatively homogenous regarding their product offerings. Codecs and formats were limited, and bandwidth restrictions limited most high-volume usage to uploading a fairly compact mezzanine file for encoding to Flash and maybe HLS format. Over the past few years, things have changed, and now there are roughly four types of vendors offering cloud encoding, though things may get blurry around the edges. These are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. A rough taxonomy of cloud encoding vendors

Primarily encoding—Services like Amazon Elastic Transcoder, Coconut, and Qencode primarily encode mezzanine files uploaded to their platforms as efficiently as possible, and assume the computing requirements and expertise required to produce high-quality, compatible video files.

Workflows, packaging, QC, and more—Beyond simple encoding, companies in this class want to assume the workflow activities that typically precede mezzanine file creation. This can include dynamic assembly, broadcast and OTT packaging, closed-caption creation and deployment, quality control, playout format support, DAI and stream conditioning, DRM and manifest manipulation, and metadata transformation. Companies like, Hybrik, and Telestream fall into this category.

Encoding plus—These vendors offer encoding and also one or more major ancillary services. For example, Bitmovin offers encoding plus analytics and a player, while Brightcove offers encoding through its wholly owned subsidiary Zencoder, a player, and other elements of a video distribution workflow like server-side advertising insertion. Both companies also offer full-blown online video platforms if you want to go that route.

Encoding as a component of a streaming platform—Services in this class offer encoding as a component of an overall distribution platform, which can include storage, origin server provision, and content delivery. Microsoft Azure is the best example of a PaaS, while Elemental can supply many of these components via a product or a platform.

So the first question to ask when considering a cloud service is which portion of your encoding and distribution workflow and/or infrastructure you want to offload. Then make sure you choose a provider that can supply the necessary services or infrastructure components. As part of this analysis, be sure to consider whether you need live as well as VOD, since not all providers offer a live option.

The more functionality you push to the cloud, the more help you’ll likely need to get it up and running. So if you’re pushing workflows into the cloud, as compared to simple encoding, be sure to ask about the availability and cost of consulting services, both for start-up and ongoing changes.

Where Do You Want It?

The second question relates to how you want to deploy the system. Some services are strictly available as SaaS, which works for many organizations. However, if you’ve created your own private cloud or other internal computing capabilities, you may want a solution you can install internally.

As an example, you can deploy in a private cloud on a variety of virtualization platforms (OpenStack, VMware, Joyent), storage configurations (SMB, SWIFT, S3, NFS), and network configurations. In addition, Bitmovin provides a managed on-prem encoding service on Kubernetes and Docker that works for VOD and live and offers the same features as their cloud encoding. Bitmovin also runs on a wide variety of virtualization stacks such as OpenStack, VMware, Mesos, DC/OS, and CoreOS as well as bare metal.

Another valid question is which cloud platforms the service runs on. Most larger services operate on multiple cloud platforms to ensure short-term operational redundancy and to reduce their reliance on a single vendor. Most smaller customers likely wouldn’t care about these issues, but large customers may share these same concerns.

Input/Output Format Support

For several years, streaming formats have been relatively static; H.264 was the codec, and Flash, HLS, or Smooth Streaming were the primary distribution formats. Many companies are now considering HEVC and/or VP9, with AV1 on the short-term horizon. On the packaging front, the Common Media Application Format (CMAF) should become increasingly relevant in 2018 and beyond. Any vendor you’re considering in the next year or so should be very far along with its plans for supporting all of these technologies.

Pricing Model

Pricing is key when choosing a vendor, but price comparisons are not simple, primarily because there are multiple disparate pricing models. Most SaaS vendors offer either per-minute or per-GB pricing, which is simple to compute, but generally are the most expensive for high-volume customers. Also, those pricing schemes may (and should) change depending on where the software is running—if you’re running on the service’s cloud, it should be one charge; if running on your own private cloud, it should be cheaper.

When estimating pricing for services that charge by the GB or minute, be sure to consider how each service prices operations like transmuxing, which is very efficient from a CPU perspective and shouldn’t be priced the same as encoding. For example, Zencoder charges 75 percent less for transmuxing to HLS or DASH than it would to produce the output from scratch. Others charge full price for each output format, which obviously can have a huge impact on overall pricing.

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