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The Greenest Codec: LCEVC

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One of the most fascinating recent threads on LinkedIn focuses on the need for video compression technology to "go green." It's a discussion that all of us in the streaming video space should be thinking about.

The thread was started by David Ronca, current director of video encoding at Meta and former director of encoding technologies at Netflix. On Dec. 8, he posted, "Based on current trends, global data centers will consume > 20% of global power in 2025 (from ~3% in 2020). The primary drivers of this growth are video processing and video understanding. ... We do not need new generations of encoders that increase global compute (and pollution) by an order of magnitude. We need codecs that solve the pollution problem."

The responses and suggested solutions to this issue were varied and complex. Fabio Sonnati, media architect and encoding and streaming specialist at NTT Data, advocated that we still need more advanced codecs, stating, "Long term I suppose yes, medium short not so sure. Apart from 8K, if AR/VR will take off, other data compression problems will substitute video and the sustainability challenge will remain." Ronca pushed back, stating that "pipes continue to widen by as much as 50% per year. If you have 100Mbps how valuable is reducing video bit­rate from 3.5Mbps to 2.7Mbps?"

Alex Liu, COO of NETINT Technologies, proposed that "one solution to this paradox is using domain-specific architecture ASIC to improve compute efficiency. Compared to software, ... the dedicated ASIC (VPU, or VCU), the efficiency can improve 10x–100x, depending on which codec they are using.” Ronca acknowledged that “ASICs can definitely bend the curve down," but pointed out that “ASIC deployment of new codecs will lag SW by several years."

Mark Donnigan, a marketing consultant and former Beamr VP of marketing, posited that content-adaptive encoding (CAE, or per-title encoding) techniques were a partial solution, pointing out that "there are some 'CAE' approaches that can reduce bitrate 30% on average, with only a 20% hit to compute, as opposed to a 1000% increase in the compute requirements when switching from a legacy standard to next-gen, VVC, or otherwise."

Other respondents wondered if the power savings from delivering lower-bitrate video off­set the additional encoding cost. Alberto De Luca, distribution engineer at Discovery, Inc., said, "[W]hen upgrading from H264 to H265, for the same video quality, we are reducing the bit­rate. So less data transmitted, hence less power consumption — on the overall, I’m led to think that one encoder using 10 Mbps in h265 is still 'greener' than the footprint of 25Mbps going across a WAN in H264."

As part of a long, complex reply, Ronca said, "Within 5-10 years, 1Gbps bandwidth will be the norm. At the theoretical transmission limit, it will take as much as 400M views of a video to justify the 100x compute going from x264 to vvenc." Resolving this particular issue goes far beyond my technical skills, but it’s an interesting argument. How many more cell towers or cable headends will we need to build (and power) if we
deliver 8K video at 200Mbps rather than 40Mbps?

Looking ahead, Jean-Baptiste Lorent, director of marketing and sales at IntoPIX, recommended, "[C]omplexity requirements (in hardware and software) should be part of the call for requirements and acceptance criteria when you create a new standard." True, of course, but wasn’t that the goal of the Low Complexity Enhancement Video Codec (LCEVC)? An approved standard for many months, LCEVC has clearly met its efficiency goals, but has seen limited uptake among companies like Facebook, where the power savings could really matter.

What does it mean for you? Like recycling bottles and newspapers, the issue raised by Ronca should be considered by all of us. Think green when planning your encoding strategy. Prioritize per-title over implementing a new codec. Consider ASIC-based hardware encoding over software encoding. And as an industry, let’s get a definitive answer as to the breakeven between power consumed by next-gen codecs and the power saved by lower-bandwidth delivery.

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