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Buyers' Guide to Cloud VOD Encoding

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Several services, including Elemental and Encoding. com, offer PaaS pricing, in which you buy encoding capacity and can push as much processing through the system as possible within a specified period. For example, with Encoding.com’s reserved cloud pricing, you rent one or more cloud instances for a month for a flat fee. Here, your costs are entirely dependent upon how efficiently you feed the system and what types of jobs you are running. Run it 24/7 and your cost per GB should be fairly low. Let the system lie idle for long periods during the month and you could be better off with per-GB pricing.

In yet a third model, Hybrik runs on the Amazon cloud, and you allocate machines using your own Amazon account. Hybrik charges a flat fee that depends on how many machines you can simultaneously assign to the system; 10 machines is $1,000/month, 100 machines is $5,000/month, and so on. Again, your cost per minute or per GB will vary based on throughput and job parameters, with configuration options like x.264 preset (ultrafast vs. placebo) or single- vs. two-pass encoding, which can dramatically impact encoding time per file, having a significant impact on throughput and therefore pricing.

Comparison pricing isn’t impossible, but it won’t be easy, so perform this step last, after you’ve eliminated as many vendors as possible for other reasons.

While on the topic of pricing, with all vendors it’s worth exploring how the service anticipates helping you transition your library to CMAF over the next 12 to 18 months. Many producers currently encode their mezzanine files into multiple MP4 files and dynamically package to HLS or DASH at the edge, which requires streaming software and a full-time cloud server to run the streaming software.

In contrast, files in CMAF can play in either DASH or HLS players natively from a plain-Jane HTTP server, eliminating the need for the streaming server and the associated hardware. CMAF is definitely the cheaper option, and should be considered by all streaming producers once the population of CMAF-compatible players reaches critical mass.

Of course, you’ll need to convert your libraries to CMAF to take advantage of this saving. As with transmuxing for DASH or HLS, this conversion is a lightweight operation that should cost less than encoding from scratch. With PaaS pricing, this shouldn’t be a concern, since you pay based on the processing that you use. If you’re choosing a service that offers per-minute or per-GB pricing, and will have a large library to convert from MP4 to CMAF, ask how the service will charge for this conversion.

Per-Title Encoding

Per-title encoding customizes the encoding ladder produced for each video based on its encoding complexity and other factors. Per-title technologies encode simple clips at low bitrates, saving bandwidth costs or allowing you to push higher-resolution streams to viewers. These technologies also boost the data rate for harder-to-encode clips, ensuring top quality. Several cloud vendors, including Azure, Bitmovin, and Brightcove, already offer some variation of per-title encoding, and it should be considered a must-have feature by those choosing a cloud encoding provider.

Not all per-title technologies are alike. For example, while all can adjust the data rate to match encoding complexity, some use a fixed ladder with the same number of rungs and resolutions irrespective of content. More advanced technologies can adjust both the number of rungs and their resolutions to provide the optimum blend of quality and encoding efficiency.

So don’t just consider this a checklist feature; ask about how the technology works and learn how it compares to features offered by other cloud services. For some background on per-title, check out “One Title at a Time: Comparing Per-Title Video Encoding Options.”

DRM

Protecting content distributed via HTML5 requires multiple flavors of DRM for the disparate platforms you’ll distribute to, which means deployment technologies, like PlayReady, Widevine, FairPlay, and others. This in turn spawned the rise of multiple DRM providers like BuyDRM, ExpressPlay, EZDRM, Irdeto, and Vualto. If you already have a DRM provider, check whether the encoding service has a fully tested implementation with that provider. If you don’t have a DRM provider, check which DRM providers your candidate cloud services support to make sure you have viable options.

Integration

The vast majority of high-volume customers interface with their cloud facility via an application programming interface (API), but that doesn’t undercut the utility of a well-designed user interface. Even advanced users may prefer to encode with the UI during comparative testing, or to help create or test encoding presets. If you don’t plan to use the API, be sure to test the UI while comparison shopping, and look for features like watch folders that provide integration without programming.

Forward Thinking

Even if you’re just seeking a simple encoding platform today, it makes sense to understand where the cloud vendor plans to advance the platform. For example, per-title encoding may someday give way to encoding via artificial intelligence. As more video libraries are stored in the cloud, you’ll likely want to do more with that video, including functions like automatic metadata extraction, object detection, OCR, speech-to-text, and enhanced search capabilities.

Overall, the ability for cloud encoding and processing to bring nearly unlimited computing power to bear creates the potential for features and services beyond what’s imaginable today. For many customers, simply choosing the lowest cost provider may be a mistake; rather, choose one with a service vision that matches your vision for the utility of your videos.

[This article appears in the 2018Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook as "Buyers' Guide to Cloud VOD Encoding."]

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