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Elemental Pushes Concept of Software-Defined Video
Elemental co-founder Sam Blackman talks networking and video workflows using off-the-shelf hardware rather than specialized processors
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Elemental Technologies, known for higher-end encoding and transcoding appliances that rely heavily on the parallel-processing capabilities of a graphics pocessing unit (GPU), is on a mission: Use software to define overall video workflows, from acquisition through delivery.

Sam Blackman, co-founder of Elemental, recently spoke with StreamingMedia.com about the ideas around the intersection of networking and video. Blackman has has been pushing the concept of software-defined video (SDV), which sounds similar to—but is quite different from—the more popular software-defined networking (SDN) term.

In the SDN world, there’s a commonality—or six of them if you adhere to the Open Networking Users Group (ONUG) model that we will cover in the January 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine, as part of an article on next-generation enterprise video platforms—and ONUG’s "Six Steps to a Common Networking Ecosystem" outline what product manufacturers need to provide in order to fit into the larger SDN ecosystem.

In the world of streaming media, the software-defined video (SDV) term is a bit less defined.

I asked Blackman what commonalities, from Elemental’s standpoint, a vendor would need to provide to fit into an SDV ecosystem.

Blackman started out with a definition of SDV. “Software-defined video is software code running on off-the-shelf hardware (CPU or GPU) that performs a video function that previously required specialized hardware (ASIC, FPGA, or DSP),” he says.

The distinction of using general-purpose computing (GPP) components such as the CPU or GPU, rather than the use of more specialized digital signal processors (DSPs) or other purpose-built chipsets is not unique to streaming media. But the approach Elemental espouses is somewhat unorthodox.

“In our case, we are performing compression, packaging and delivery purely in software,” Blackman says. “An analog in the SDN space would be Arista Networks, which has built a Linux-based stack on top of off-the-shelf hardware to provide an extremely high-performance, flexible software-based networking switch.”

Blackman notes that SDN is several years ahead of SDV. “We see some of the larger video infrastructure vendors starting to build interfaces that allow them to natively integrate SDV products into their broader portfolio,” he says.

He then listed two example architectures, the Ericsson's EVE (Ericsson Virtualized Encoding) and Cisco's V2P (Videoscape Virtualized Video Processing) architectures.

“My guess is that as the ecosystem matures,” says Blackman, “rather than specific vendors creating proprietary interfaces for SDV compatibility there will be mutually-agreed upon open standards that insure interoperability.”

This agreed-upon set of open standards has not, as Blackman mentions, been agreed upon as it has in the networking world, where "big iron" companies like Cisco and Juniper both have their own definitions of how to interoperate, but which are also held to a standard baseline of interoperability if they choose to make their products ONUG compliant.

An example of how far we still need to go to get to an SDV world, though, comes from one of those big iron companies: Juniper, whose Junos product won a Streaming Media Reader’s Choice Award, has created one standard for transparent caching, while several other competing companies in that space have provided their own proprietary transparent caching technologies.

In terms of how SDV and SDN fit together, Blackman says that’s a fairly straightforward scenario.

“SDDCs will entirely consist of virtualized infrastructure,” says Blackman, referring to virtual machine solutions in the emerging software-defined data centers field, “including compute, storage, and networking.”

“SDV applications will ride seamlessly on top of these VM resources,” said Blackman. “Media companies managing these SDDCs will be able to spin up and down SDV resources (VOD transcoding, linear or live encoding/transcoding, packaging, and content origination) as business needs dictate.”

In the end, the intent is straightforward: enable more flexible, scalable, and economically optimal workflow models than we’ve had to date. Blackman says that is better for any media customer.

“It will enable our customers to be much more nimble in a time of unprecedented change,” he says.

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