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Buyers' Guide to Encoding Appliances 2019

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We’ll talk more about that hybrid approach later in this buyers’ guide, but for now I’ll point out that the KB Max seems to offer a multistream hardware appliance in a half-rack form factor (1.75" x 8.5") that’s more akin to thin mini-ITX hobbyist boards than to UHD 4K encoders. At 10.5" deep, it will fit in a standard AV travel flypack, allowing for easier portability.

One of a Kind

Sometimes a single encode at a particular bitrate, quality, and resolution will prove sufficient. In such cases, there’s no real benefit to having a software-based encoding solution, since the primary benefit of software-based encoding is the flexibility of setting formats and data rates.

Even beyond the one-of-a-kind encoding scenario, though, consider what else might be happening on a software-based encoding device. Most field production typically takes place on a laptop, so content creators need to consider the myriad concurrent tasks a laptop may be performing during production: graphics, event management, monitoring of the live stream, etc. Each of these production tasks eats up compute/ processing cycles, which may inadvertently disrupt a live stream being sent to a content delivery network (CDN).

One alternative is to use a second laptop dedicated to encoding the live stream. But this is both a costly and bulky approach. While it sounds costly to have a dedicated hardware encoder on location, it’s likely this device either won’t cost nearly as much as a second powerful laptop, or it won’t be nearly as cumbersome to juggle in the field.

Security or Simplicity?

Some of these hardware encoders are smaller than a pack of playing cards, and they can be easily be attached to a tripod or other piece of production gear with Velcro. Don’t try this with your laptop!

Beyond the simplicity of a hardware-based encoder, though, there’s a convenient security aspect that the team at BoxCast points out in an article discussing the top six reasons to use hardware encoders. “There are no URLs that you need to copy and paste when you use hardware to stream,” the company writes on the BoxCast blog. “You just plug our hardware encoder ... into your production setup (TriCaster, mixer, camera, etc.,) and start the stream.”

That process can also be automated, as some hardware encoders can be set to begin streaming the moment they sense an input signal. This approach is convenient and secure, eliminating the need to give an operator the login information for your remote streaming server. But it’s also worth noting that everyone involved in the stream should be made aware of this automated process, especially if there’s a likelihood that setup by talent and production crew could be live-streamed without their knowledge.

Integration Into a Cloud-Based Product

There’s also an emerging hybrid approach to encoding content, which leverages the best of hardware and cloud encoding. In this approach, a single stream at the highest possible quality—based on current network and connectivity health—is sent from the local hardware encoder to a cloud-based streaming and packaging server.

If the input format entering the hardware encoder is not a streaming format, such as MXF or IntraAVC, then the stream could be transcoded to a streaming format before being sent to the cloud. In addition, the original content could also be recorded to the local hardware encoder, for archival or later on-demand transcoding conversions.

Once the stream reaches the cloud-based server, it is repackaged into the appropriate delivery format (e.g., Apple HLS or MPEG-DASH) and then streamed to customers.

This use of a single stream from the encoder, followed by multiple renditions (data rates, resolutions) from the cloud server, eliminates the need to send multiple renditions from the local hardware to a streaming service provider.

Wrapping It All Up

Several companies have even bundled hardware- and cloud-based encoding together, offering their potential customers this hybrid approach in a very streamlined package.

That’s a key thought we want to leave you with at the end of this buyers’ guide: It’s possible to do it all yourself, culling through cut sheets and product reviews to build your own hybrid cloud-and-hardware encoding solution. But quite a bit of the heavy lifting has already been done, and you can learn from similar frustrations and production headaches that your fellow streamers have faced and documented in the past.

You’ll pay a bit more for the convenience, but a mature hybrid approach allows the content creator to focus more on content and less on becoming a streaming media delivery expert. It will be money well spent.

[This article appears in the March 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Encoding Appliances."]

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