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Buyer’s Guide to On-Demand Encoders 2015

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Though you can’t share multiple Squeeze installations via clustering, as you can with Episode, you can send encoding jobs to Squeeze Server, Sorenson’s high-end, Windows Server-based encoder. Note that none of the desktop Squeeze versions include a command-line interface or other API, a negative for users who’d want to integrate these desktop products with other programs or functions. Squeeze Server does incorporate both an API and clustering capabilities, pushing it into the class of enterprise encoders, along with Episode Engine.

Enterprise Encoders

Enterprise encoders are necessary for truly high-end performance and high-end features, including full adaptive packaging, complete DRM and caption support, and broadcast-centric features like CALM processing. There are many more products in this class and many more buying criteria to consider.

Let me start with the observation that if you were basing market share on the total number of files encoded, the enterprise encoding market leader by far would be FFMPEG, which is reportedly used by YouTube and other high-volume sites as the basis of their custom encoding facilities. This makes lots of sense, because FFMPEG supports dozens (if not hundreds) of formats, a host of scaling, deinterlacing, and other workflow functions. It also uses the x264 codec, which is widely considered the best H.264 codec available, and the x265 HEVC codec. Unless you’re in the media business and have a large development staff, I don’t recommend building your own FFMPEG-based encoder; you’re almost certainly better off buying a polished, commercial product. Still, for completeness, FFMPEG needs to be mentioned in any high-end encoder discussion.

Workflow or Standalone Encoder

Once you’ve decided to buy, rather than build, your enterprise encoding system, your first consideration is whether you’re buying stand-alone encoding functionality or a workflow system, such as Digital Rapids Kayak, Harmonic WFS, or Telestream Vantage. At a high level, workflow systems are encoding systems with logic, and the ability to integrate other operations, most notably quality control, into various steps of the encoding process.

For example, a workflow system can analyze an incoming file to determine if it’s HD or SD (or PAL or NTSC, or interlaced or progressive), then route it to a specific bucket for further processing. It could also analyze the file to determine if it meets certain specified requirements, or to detect the absence of sound, letterboxing, or other file errors. This is particularly useful when encoding video from a range of disparate sources. Workflow systems can analyze files after encoding to ensure they meet specified quality levels, and even re-encode the file using a higher data rate preset if it doesn’t.

Most workflow systems allow you to plug in different encoding engines into the system, both hardware and software. For example, with the Telestream Vantage Workflow system, you can encode with the software-based Vantage Transcode or the hardware-based Lightspeed Server. With Harmonic WFS, you can plug in the software-based ProMedia Carbon encoder or the hardware-based ProMedia Xpress. This flexibility allows you to purchase the precise level of encoding power you need. Of course, all this functionality comes at a price; the workflow software itself and its modules are extras that can cost thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars.

Hardware or Software?

As you just learned, many encoding vendors offer both software and hardware encoders, with the latter offering much greater performance. Even when buying a hardware system, however, you should ascertain whether you’re buying hardware or software. That is, are you buying compression-specific encoding chips or software running on industry standard GPUs and CPUs?

We’re at an interesting point at which compression-specific encoding chips in enterprise encoders make less and less sense. Rather, software algorithms running on industry-standard CPUs or GPUs are becoming the norm. Not only does this extend the life of encoding hardware, it also makes it easier for the encoding vendor to extend these functions to the cloud.

Even if you’re not encoding HEVC now, it will become important for many streaming producers in the next 12–24 months, and Google’s VP9 may become very important for streaming to desktops. Unless you’re locked into H.264 for the long-term, it makes less and less sense to buy a hardware encoder powered by H.264-specific encoding chips.

What’s the Cloud Story?

Over the next 5 to 10 years, more and more VOD encoding will migrate to the cloud, so understanding how the company plans to migrate their encoding business to the cloud is critical. In the short term, you want to know how easy it will be to encode spikes in demand in the cloud, preferably working from a common control interface and using the same presets. As discussed in the cloud encoding buyer’s guide, there are multiple business models, including Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and others. Make sure your encoding vendor adopted a model that aligns with your long-term needs—it’s certainly relevant to your purchase decision.

How Many Do You Need?

By now, you should have narrowed the candidates down to a short list. At this point, it’s a question of density—or how many units you need in order to encode the required files in the required time—and the associated pricing. If you’re comparing hardware and software encoders, remember to include the cost of the associated computers when pricing the latter. If your encoding operations are mission critical, you should price in the additional hardware or software you need for true redundancy.

If the cost is substantial, you should consider encoding in the cloud. Perhaps it’s not a great option for you, but you should at least understand the CAPEX, OPEX, and workflow implications of cloud vs. on-premise encoding before you make a major decision.

This article appears in the 2015 Streaming Media Sourcebook as "Buyer’s Guide to On-Demand Encoders."

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