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Buyers' Guide to On-Prem Encoding 2019

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We’ll return to pricing in a moment. Before that, there are a number of familiar questions to ask when choosing an encoder. Here they are in three categories starting with baseline requirements.

Baseline Requirements

Questions explored here determine whether the encoder can get the job done for you. Most of these are pretty obvious, so I’ll keep them short and sweet.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Does the software run on the hardware platform you want it to run on, both now and potentially in the future? If a virtualized environment is in your near-term future, you should license an encoder that can support this.

CODECS, FORMATS, CAPTIONS, DRM

Does the system support the codecs and packaging formats that you require with captions, DRM, and include support for other requirements like advertising insertion? Does the company have an integration with your current or planned DRM provider? Does the company plan support for codecs that may be in your near-term future, like HEVC, VP9, AV1, and VVC, and how robust is that support today? For example, does the encoder/packager support integrated HEVC/H.264 encoding ladders for HLS distribution or VP9/AV1 encoded for DASH?

OVERFLOW OPTIONS

Typically, you’ll want to buy encoders to meet your day-to-day needs, but what happens when these needs spike? Can you access temporary cloud-encoding capabilities using the same control interface, or will you have to buy another system? If cloud-encoding capabilities are available, will they use the same presets and packager, or will you have to perform independent QC to ensure seamless operation?

ENCODER OR WORKFLOW TOOL?

One of the first questions to ask is how and where the encoder will fit into your overall production pipeline. If the encoder is essentially a standalone, unintegrated tool, you care mostly about the mechanisms available to trigger encoding, like GUIs and/ or watch folders. If you need to integrate encoding into an existing workflow, you also care about the encoder’s application programming interface, or API.

If you’re looking for an encoder to create a production workflow for you, you need to define that workflow up front. Does it include pre-encode quality assurance to ensure that the mezzanine file meets specified standards, or post-encode QC to determine audio/video regulatory compliance or whether minimal video quality standards are achieved? Do you need the encoder to feed into a QoE system?

If you’re looking for an encoder to serve as the hub of your encoding and packaging workflow, consider products like Telestream Vantage, which has a workflow module, or Harmonic WFS. In all cases, if you’re concerned about pre- and post-encoding quality control, or similar operations, you should determine how your encoder can access to these functions via sister products from the same company or third-party products and services.

CONTROL OPTIONS

How do you configure and control the system, through a traditional standalone GUI available only on the host system or via a browser-based GUI that can be accessed from multiple locations? How comprehensive and accessible is the API?

Comparing Pricing

Pricing competitive systems will likely be the hardest part. Everything starts with a comprehensive estimate of your production requirements for at least the next 2 or 3 years. From there, you’ll need to consider the following issues:

  • What components will you have to acquire to get the job done, considering that some vendors sell standalone encoders that need packagers and some sell integrated encoder/packagers?
  • If buying a software-based system, what’s the cost of the required hardware?
  • How many systems will you need to buy to achieve the required throughput? Is hardware acceleration available as an alternative to simply buying more systems?
  • If you’re buying multiple systems, how does this work from a redundancy perspective? If the controller goes down, does the entire server farm crash, or is there redundancy here as well?
  • How much will technical support cost, particularly during installation and setup, but also thereafter for normal operating concerns?
  • Are there any setup or installation fees?
  • What’s the ongoing cost for software and any hardware updates?
  • If buying hardware, what is the cost and timing of acquiring hardware swaps for systems that fail while under warranty?

Once you know what you have to buy to achieve the required level of performance, redundancy, and support, you should be able to work through the pricing models offered by the different vendors.

Forward-Thinking Concerns

The encoding buzz phrase for 2018 was “per-title encoding,” or the ability to customize the encoding ladder for a particular video. Another Buyers’ Guide in this issue summarizes the functionality to look for there, and briefly discusses per-scene encoding, which is the logical successor to per-title. At this point, any system that you consider should offer a robust per-title encoding feature and have scene-based encoding on the drawing board.

The encoding buzz acronym for 2019 will likely be “CMAF,” which stands for Common Media Application Format. That’s a standard that should allow producers to encode, package, and distribute one set of encrypted files to both the HLS and DASH players. This will simplify encoding and potentially slash storage and/or other operational costs, like the cost of keeping a transmuxing or just-in-time packaging server operational 24/7. For this reason, any vendor you consider in 2019 should have the ability to produce a single set of CMAF-formatted content protected with FairPlay, PlayReady, and Widevine DRMs.

What About Quality?

Marketing professionals with encoding companies are hard-wired to proclaim that their solutions output the highest quality possible. Fact is, however, that most encoding companies are working with a common set of codecs implemented by competent encoding engineers and gauged by many buyers and potential buyers before you. This is a long way of saying that the output quality produced by any of the companies listed above will be very similar.

However, you will see significant differences in encoding throughput and per-title encoding performance. I would spend more time gauging these characteristics than trying to benchmark what likely will be irrelevant differences in encoding quality.

Summary

Choosing an encoder is a critical production-related decision that largely controls video quality and viewing compatibility, a very significant component of overall viewer quality of experience. Hopefully, the information contained herein will provide some valuable assistance with that decision.

As a final bit of advice, you should always talk with current customers to get a feel for how the initial setup went, how stable the program has been in operation, how prompt and useful support has been, and how responsive the company has been to development requests. Sure, the vendor will only feed you happy customers, but any info is better than nothing. Beyond talking to current users, there’s enough customer churn in the industry that you may also be able to talk to people who abandoned a platform you’re considering for another. So if you’re considering encoders A and B, ask your respective sales reps to put you in touch with companies who abandoned A for B, and vice versa.

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

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