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NAB 2018: NGcodec Talks FPGA-Accelerated Encoding
NGcodec CEO Oliver Gunasekara talks about how his company uses field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) available on standard cloud computers to accelerate high-quality encoding of HEVC and VP9 video, and what this might mean for AV1.

At NAB, Jan Ozer met with about a dozen companies with stakes in HEVC and/or AV1. This is another in a series of video interviews he conducted with them.

Jan Ozer: I'm on the show floor at NAB with Oliver Gunasekarafrom NGCodec. We're here to talk about his company's real-time processing of HEVC, VP9, and soon AV1. Hey, Oliver. Tell me what you're showing here.

Oliver Gunasekara: We do video encoding, next-generation video compression, and what we're showing here is the world's highest-performing HEVC and VP9 live video encoders.

Jan Ozer: When you say "highest-performing," I've heard that about twelve times today. How do you prove that claim?

Oliver Gunasekara: We have a secret advantage: unlike everybody else, we don't use software. We do the encoding and programmable hardware in the cloud, otherwise known as field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), so it's a hardware design. By using a hardware design, we have sort of an unfair advantage. That's why we can achieve the highest encoders.

Jan Ozer: When you say "in the cloud," what does that mean?

Oliver Gunasekara: We are live today in AWS F1. The F1 is an instance type that has an FPGA in it, and we have our HEVC encoder live up there so you can use it.

Jan Ozer: What's the cost of that on a per-hour basis as compared to other machines. 

Oliver Gunasekara: I believe the F1 instance is $1.65 an hour. That includes an FPGA card and 1/8 of an Intel E5. That's about the same as a C4. I think might be about $1.50. It's almost the same price, but our encoder here, if you were to compare us against x265 for this quality, you'd need 20 C4 instances. You would be spending over $32 an hour versus $3, and in that $3, I'm getting $1.25.

Jan Ozer: Who's using HEVC at this point?

Oliver Gunasekara: Very few, unfortunately, and that's part of the problem. It’s also part of the reason why we decided to do VP9 as well. In our view, the market is kind of splitting. The high end of the market is going HEVC. Apple has support, as we all know. iPhones are very popular, but the mass market is going VP9 and has gone VP9 because of Android and because of Chrome, and the reality is that nearly all the chipsets out there support both. The OEMs will enable only VP9 because of the royalty issues. You find that only the very high percentage of the Android market enables HEVC, but all of the Android market enables VP9 and all of the iOS market, most recent devices for the last few years enable HEVC. 

Jan Ozer: Why is HEVC so long on the uptake? What's your guess on that?

Oliver Gunasekara: It's the royalty framework, fundamentally, and the ROI. When you use software encoding, the complexity of HEVC is drastically higher than AVC and because of that, it costs a lot more to encode. Especially when you do live, you're constrained by how much compute you can make available. So, you end up having bitrates that aren't much better than H.264. Your costs have gone up drastically, but your bandwidth gain is very, very small. Then you have the royalties on top. We think that by moving to FPGA, we drastically lower the encoding cost, we improve the quality, we change the equation and so, we hope we can accelerate the adoption of HEVC and VP9.

Jan Ozer: What are you hearing about AV1?

Oliver Gunasekara: We've been a member of the Alliance for Open Media for almost a year now. We're excited. Like all technologies, it will take some time. In our view, until we have a meaningful mass of hardware decoders, it doesn't really make sense to deploy. You'll have decoder support by the end of the year in most major browsers, but until you start to get hardware support in mobile devices, the power consumption just won't make it compelling. We think it's 2020 by the time you get the hardware decoders into the hands of consumers.

Jan Ozer: Given that AV1 is coming in very slow to encode, your value proposition on the hardware encoding side should be pretty stout, is that correct?

Oliver Gunasekara: We intend to deliver a live AV1 encoder and we also intend to deliver meaningful improvement over our VP9 and HEVC. We think that if we only have 5-10% improvement, it's not compelling enough for people to deploy. We will shoot for 25% over our VP9, and our VP9 matches our HEVC, which we believe is state of the art, but we won't rush to deliver that. That will take some time. It's likely by the time we deploy, we'll have a solution next year, deployment in 2020 that will be a next generation of Xilinx FPGAs.

Jan Ozer: What's your business model? How do you make money?

Oliver Gunasekara: It's a SaaS model. Today, you can go to AWS marketplace and get a seven-day free trial. You pay us nothing. After seven days, you pay us $1.25 an hour to use our encoders. Obviously, that's really for evaluation. The really big guys--and that's where most of our focus is--will pay on a quarterly basis. They'll tell us how much capacity. They'll maybe send us a report on a quarterly basis—"we've used this much"--and then, they'll write us a check.

Jan Ozer: That's on top of machine time?

Oliver Gunasekara: Absolutely. We're not responsible for hardware. The customer buys their hardware from whoever and then, they pay to use our software that runs on top of their hardware.

 

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