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Buyers' Guide to Live Transcoding 2019

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If you produce live events, the optimal workflow is to encode one stream at your event location and transport that to the cloud where it can be transcoded into a full encoding ladder, packaged for your viewers on different platforms, and delivered to them. This Buyers’ Guide discusses the categories of vendors available to provide these services.

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I’ll start by discussing the basic list of features to consider, then I’ll identify the vendor categories, discuss their pros and cons, and go over the types of users that should choose each particular category.

Basic Features

The most basic feature relates to the type of event you’re producing. The vast majority of events are 1 to 2 hours or shorter and can be handled by any category of supplier. If you’re producing all-day events or 24/7 streaming, check for that functionality early in the selection process, because not all services support those types of events.

Beyond this, consider the following options.

TRANSCODING

Transcoding is where the incoming stream is encoded into an encoding ladder—a range of resolutions and data rates called to enable distribution to a broad variety of target platforms over a range of connections. Most services transcode into the H.264 format as a baseline, since H.264 plays everywhere and is relatively efficient to transcode.

Here’s a list of questions that may be important, depending on your size, target audience, and type of video that you distribute.

  • How much control do you have over the formulation of the encoding ladder, including the number of rungs and their configurations?
  • Are there any resolution limits for your subscription plan? While 720p should suffice for many bread-and-butter events (most Facebook Live events are 720p), 1080p or larger may be preferred for premium events.
  • Which codecs (if any) does the service offer beyond H.264? Codecs like VP9 and HEVC can cut bandwidth costs and increase viewers’ quality of experience (QoE) by allowing the service to deliver higher resolution streams at the same data rate as H.264. HEVC is also the codec of choice for most smart TVs.
  • Is there a per-title encoding capability that can customize transcoding configurations according to the content in the video file? This feature is common in VOD encoding shops, and live per-title encoding appeared on the market in late 2017.
  • Can the service encode 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) video?

PACKAGING

Packaging is the chunking and metadata creation necessary to support adaptive bitrate (ABR) formats like HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) and Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH). Questions here include the following:

  • Which formats other than HLS/DASH does the service support? If your viewers watch on gaming platforms like the Xbox, then Microsoft Smooth Streaming may be the only format that can reach these targets.
  • When will the service support the Common Media Application Format? CMAF will enable delivery to DASH and HLS players via a single set of packaged files, which should cut delivery and storage costs significantly. Some older platforms won’t support CMAF, but at some point in 2019 or 2020, some producers may consider these platforms irrelevant and may want to cut over to CMAF.

PLAYER

Many services supply an integrated player and/or integrate with third-party players. Questions here include the following:

  • What features are supported in the integrated player, and how simple are they to implement? Can you change the color and branding to match your website? Can you easily enable social media integration, embedding, or comments?
  • Does the player include the service’s branding, or is there a “white label” option with no branding?
  • Can you use an existing player that you’ve licensed or developed? Which third-party players have integrations with the system, or will you have to create your own?

CDN

Most services deliver via a content delivery network, or CDN, designed to efficiently deliver high-bandwidth video streams, which helps to ensure the viewers’ QoE. Questions here include the following:

  • Which CDN does the service use?
  • Does the service support a single CDN (no redundancy) or multiple CDNs?
  • If multiple CDNs, what’s the schema for switching over? Does the service switch when demand gets too great or when the original CDN fails, or does it monitor the quality of service (QoS) provided by each CDN in each region and use the CDN that delivers the best service within each region?

ANALYTICS

Analytics are playback statistics like the number of viewers and their average viewing duration. Other data points to look for include the following:

  • Does the service provide real-time access to encoding and delivery status to immediately identify problems so they can be resolved?
  • Does the service include integrations with QoE services so you can track performance indices like startup time, rebuffering ratio, average media bitrate, and video-start failure?
  • Can the service integrate live-streaming analytics with Google Analytics or similar packages?

PLAYER AND PLATFORM SUPPORT

Most services can package streams for viewing on computers and mobile devices, but additional platforms may mean more eyeballs. Questions to consider here include the following:

  • What other platforms does the service support? What are the associated fees?
  • Does the service provide SDKs to support mobile devices and other platforms?
  • Can the service syndicate the live feed to social media platforms like Facebook Live or YouTube?

TECHNICAL SUPPORT

Live events are the ultimate “must get it right the first time” situations. If you haven’t felt the panic of things going south while streaming a live event, you either haven’t produced many or you’ve been extremely lucky. Since many events are produced after hours, having support from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, probably won’t cut it. The bottom line is that for mission-critical events, you’ll need accessible telephone support during the event, so check the costs and availability.

For less-urgent issues, you’ll want a vibrant help desk with FAQs, a deep knowledge base, and an active community where you can get answers from peers as well as from the service provider. It’s always useful to check these resources to gauge how current and active they are.

This table compares the categories of companies that can provide live transcoding functionality.

Advanced Features

Beyond the basics discussed above, there are several more advanced features that many live-event producers should consider.

API

Application programming interfaces, or APIs, enable you to programmatically integrate your systems with those of the live-streaming service so you can automate some aspects of live event production or dump analytics from the service into your own systems. Ask these questions:

  • Does the service have an API?
  • Which features of the service does it incorporate: event setup, real-time or post-event analytics?

DRM AND OTHER SECURITY MEASURES

Digital rights management, or DRM, is essential for those publishing premium content, but may be desirable for others. You’ll want to know which DRMs the service supports and how it supports them. For example, some larger service providers may run their own DRM servers while others link to third-party services, providing more flexibility and potentially affordability. Other security options to check for include password protection, geo-restriction, and the ability to limit which sites (if any) can embed the live event stream.

CAPTIONS

Most live event productions don’t require caption support, but if yours do, be aware that many smaller service providers don’t support them.

ADVERTISING INSERTION/PAYWALL

Advertising insertion is one way to monetize your content, while subscription or pay-per-view via a paywall are two others. If you’re looking for monetization, forget social media delivery and check early on other categories because not all companies offer these options.

LOW LATENCY

In a live event setting, latency typically refers to “glass-to-glass” latency, or the delay between when the event is shot through a camera lens (the first glass) and then viewed on a computer, mobile device, or television (the second). Without special tuning, this latency can easily exceed 30 seconds or longer. For many private events, this latency is acceptable and comes with a significant benefit—that playback will be well-buffered and robust.

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