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A Buyer’s Guide to Cloud Encoders

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There are many instances where cloud encoding is both efficient and cost-effective. For example, if you’re working with files already saved to the cloud -- perhaps for archival purposes, perhaps because you’re distributing content contributed by others -- you avoid the upload time that is the Achilles’ heel of video on demand (VOD) cloud encoding. In addition, if you experience a spike in encoding demand, say to re-encode a library of content for distribution to a new device, cloud encoding is also a great option.

At the other end of the spectrum, many smaller producers encode in the cloud to avoid having to buy, install, and maintain an on-premise VOD encoder. All potential cloud users face the same question: how to choose from the many potential service providers. As you’ve probably guessed from the title and engaging intro, that’s what I’ll cover in this article. Specifically, I’ll cover which questions you need to ask before choosing a cloud encoding server for your VOD encodes.

Does It Need to Interface With Your Existing Encoding Facilities (If Any)?

If you’re seeking cloud encoding to augment your on-premise encoding capabilities, you should choose a cloud provider that can control or integrate your on-premise and cloud system from a single interface. For example, you can control Elemental Cloud from the same interface as its hardware encoders, perhaps pushing files to the cloud when the queue time for your on-premise systems reaches a certain benchmark. Several other vendors, including Telestream and Sorenson Media, offer similar integration.

Working with the APIs provided by many cloud providers, you may be able to manually program some interaction between your cloud and on-premise encoders, even if the encoders are from different vendors. Either way, if you need the systems to work together, identify the level of integration that you need, and make sure your candidate cloud providers can deliver it early in the evaluation process.

Which Business Model Are You Seeking?

The next question is about the business model that you want to engage, which varies all over the map. For example, you can rent a CPU instance from Amazon and install your own encoding tool, which meets the technical definition of cloud encoding. This model has several advantages, including the fact that you have a dedicated resource for your encoding chores without buying additional hardware. On the other hand, as compared to other models, you have to buy, install, and support the software, so you still need the same level of technical expertise, and there’s no easy way to scale encoding capabilities.

Most cloud providers use the SaaS model. In this case, you upload your files to the service and they encode your files, with pricing based on factors such as gigabytes of input/output, minutes of encoding video, and monthly or annual commitment levels. The service provider acquires the CPU instances and develops and manages the encoding software, saving significant capital expenditure (CAPEX) and software and hardware maintenance. They also supply the necessary encoding expertise, so you don’t need your own in-house compression expert.

The primary disadvantage of the SaaS model is that you don’t have dedicated resources for your jobs, so you might have to wait a few minutes to start encoding. There’s also a potential security risk from this shared use. On the other hand, given the big-name clients that the larger cloud encoding facilities tout on their websites, it’s hard to imagine that either of these disadvantages are significant concerns for the vast majority of users.

Still, if you absolutely, positively need to start encoding the instant you upload the file, the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) approach used by Elemental might be worth considering. In this model, you reserve and pay for specific encoding instances, so when you upload the file, the resources are there, guaranteed. The disadvantage of this approach is cost, since you’ll have to pay to reserve these resources even if you don’t encode any files.

Once you choose the model, there are multiple housekeeping-type considerations. Let’s work through those.

Does the Cloud Facility Accept Your Inputs and Produce the Required Outputs?

Virtually all cloud services will accept plain-Jane MP4 input, but if you’ll be uploading ProRes or Avid DNxHD, better make sure that your candidate services support these. Ditto for native camera formats, old file formats such as VP6 and WMV, and any other out-of-the-ordinary formats.

On the output side, virtually all services output H.264 encoded files in the MP4 container format, and many support adaptive output in HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) and HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) formats. In contrast, support for Smooth Streaming, or extensive caption or digital rights management (DRM) technologies, are much less prevalent. Ditto for the extensive metadata support needed for syndication and distribution.

Similarly, make sure your candidate services can retrieve your files from where they are located -- whether on-premises, via FTP, or in the cloud -- and deliver them to where you want them to go. This not only includes delivery to your own storage facilities, on-premise or in the cloud, but also delivery to other services such as YouTube or online delivery platforms.

What Type of User Interface Do You Need?

Cloud customers run the gamut from casual, nontechnical users to three-letter networks with the programming resources to fully integrate the cloud encoding facility with their own digital asset management (DAM) and content management systems (CMSs). Make sure your candidate services support the interface that you require.

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