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A Buyer’s Guide to Cloud Encoders

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For example, Zencoder only works via its API, making it a poor candidate for a low-volume, nontechnical user. At the other end of the spectrum, Elemental’s cloud offering uses the same browser-based interface as its on-premise products, which is highly usable and robust. Most other cloud services are somewhere in between. If you’re looking for ease of use, run some test encodes to make sure you find the controls usable and comprehensive and to ensure that critical capabilities, such as preset management, are handled effectively.

If you’re a high-volume operation that will work primarily via the service’s API, have your technical personnel review the API to determine its robustness. In particular, if you need linkage to a particular DAM or CMS, check for plug-ins, SDKs, or other evidence that you candidate cloud service supports the level of integration that you require.

What’s the Pricing Schema?

Then, of course, there’s pricing, which also runs the gamut. For example, Encoding.com and HeyWatch charge by gigabyte of throughput, in and out, with Encoding.com offering premium pricing for faster encoding speeds. Zencoder and Amazon prices are based on minutes of encoded video, with Amazon also differentiating based on whether your source is SD or HD. Elemental’s pricing is based on CPU and GPU usage and uptime, which is closer to the traditional cloud model. All vendors offer price breaks based on volume and commitment level.

Obviously, these variances complicate pricing comparisons. Minute-based and volume-based pricing are the easiest to estimate. Most vendors list their pricing online; simply estimate your volume in gigabytes or minutes, choose a commitment level, and compute your estimated cost. If you’re considering a PaaS vendor such as Elemental, estimating pricing from afar is less possible; you’ll likely have to share your unique requirements with the vendor and gain estimated pricing directly from them.

What About Performance?

In reviewing cloud vendors such as Encoding.com and Elemental, I ran multiple comparison tests with these two vendors, plus Zencoder and Amazon. As you can see in Table 1, these tests involved three test cases: the first a 52-minute 1080p file to 11 presets, the second a 210-minute SD file to a single preset, and the third, six 848x480 files with a duration around 45 minutes to 11 presets. Note that the Amazon results for the first test were so poor that I didn’t attempt the third test. As with all things cloud related, substantial explanation is necessary to bring perspective to these comparisons.

First, I ran each test between five and six times, at various times and days of the week, and averaged the last three encoding times for the table. With Encoding. com, I ran all tests using the twin turbo mode, which ensures the fastest possible encoding but adds $2 per gigabyte to the pricing. With Elemental, I ran the tests with all CPU instances up and running, which would be very expensive for companies that don’t encode files 24/7. It takes about 5 minutes to start a CPU instance, so you would have to add this to each Elemental result if you were running the system in the most cost-effective manner and only starting CPU instances when necessary for specific encoding tasks.

Speaking of 5-minute waits, Encoding.com was the only SaaS system where I experienced a queue time, particularly on several Sunday night encodes when (I’m guessing) overall demand was light and very few CPU instances were up and running. However, since these weren’t in the last three encoding runs for Encoding.com, these wait times were not reflected in Encoding.com’s results. All that being said, while faster is always better, the performance by all services other than Amazon would certainly be sufficient for all but the largest and most time-sensitive producers.

Of course, encoding time is only one aspect of overall encoding. If you’re uploading large files to the facility, upload time can take much longer than the actual encoding. In this regard, most services offer one or more upload acceleration techniques, typically via technology such as that from Aspera. Since my test files were all located in the cloud, this capability was not reflected in the results shown in Table 1.

Along a similar vein, some cloud encoding services, including Zencoder, can start encoding while the file is being uploaded, so the encoding can be completed soon after the upload is finished. Again, since my source files were in the cloud, Zencoder’s results don’t reflect this capability.

Overall, most cloud services allow you to run free trials. If performance is an important consideration for you, run your own performance comparisons using the test cases most relevant to your use.

What About Quality?

All cloud providers will naturally tout their services as producing the absolute best possible video quality. I’ve run extensive tests using three different test scenarios and saw very little difference between the contenders. That’s largely because most cloud vendors use the x264 codec, so you would expect very similar results from these services. The main exception is Elemental, which uses its own H.264 codec, but it’s been competing against x264 with its on-premise systems for so long that the quality is nearly identical.

The bottom line is that I wouldn’t see quality as a major differentiating factor between the major candidates.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook.

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