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Cloud Encoding: One Name, but Many Variables to Consider

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I've just started a series of cloud encoding reviews. The first review is of Encoding.com. Of course, you can’t review one cloud encoder without looking at others, so I also tested Elemental Cloud and Amazon Elastic Transcoder (since Zencoder doesn’t offer a user interface and can only be accessed via an API, I wasn’t able to test it). I learned that while cloud encoding has a homogenous sound and feel, the actual details are anything but uniform.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. At its most basic level, the concept of cloud encoding starts with someone renting an instance of a physical computer located at a data center somewhere. If you dig into Amazon’s cloud encoding offering, you’ll see that you can choose the size, power, memory, storage, operating system, and other characteristics of the computer that you rent, along with whether you access the GPUs and CPUs.

At one level, if you rent a cloud computer instance and install Sorenson Media’s Squeeze Server (as an example), you’ve got a cloud encoder. In fact, this is the extent of the Sorenson Cloud offering -- you buy the software, then you install it on an instance that you directly lease. This reduces your capital expenditure and computer support costs, but it doesn’t enable transparent scalability. That is, to scale to more encoding instances, you’d need to buy more copies of Squeeze Server and lease more instances. Still, just by installing encoding software in a cloud facility, you’re encoding in the cloud.

At the other end of the spectrum are total software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers such as Encoding.com and Amazon Elastic Transcoder. You point the service at the files to encode, choose the presets, and press the magic Go button. Instances, schmistances; you don’t care. The service is in charge of spinning up the necessary computers to get the job done.

Telestream’s Vantage Cloud is similar, except that even though you’re using the Telestream product, you license the whole enchilada: encoding software and cloud instances from Amazon, which is in charge of corralling the resources to get the encoding done. ElementalTechnologies.com is kind of in the middle; you choose the maximum number of instances, and how many you want always running, plus other variables such as how many jobs you want in the queue before you spin up additional nodes. One benefit of the approach taken by Telestream, Elemental, and Sorenson is that you can control both cloud-based and server-based products from one control panel.

How does pricing vary? It’s also all over the map. With Squeeze (or any other program that you buy and install in the cloud), it’s the software plus computing cost. With Encoding.com, you pay based on the GB of throughput, with prices and queue times varying with monthly commitments, and the ability to choose two levels of accelerated encoding (at a premium) for rush jobs. With Amazon, you pay by the minute for all encoded files, with one price for SD and the other for HD. With Elemental, you pay based upon the minutes used, with discounts for higher monthly commitments.

And then there’s performance, which is also incredibly hard to comparatively assess. For example, as mentioned, with Encoding.com, you have to factor in the selected encoding mode (regular, turbo, or twin turbo), plus the maximum duration of queue time for the level of service that you buy into. With Elemental, you have to consider whether the instances are running when you start the job or are lying idle. Since instances take about 5 minutes to spin up, this decision will have a major impact on comparative encoding times for shorter tests.

The bottom line? Cloud encoders come in all shapes and sizes. In order to compare basics, such as price and performance, you need to have a very fixed idea about the number of files that you need to encode, the input and output bandwidths, and the urgency of their encoding. You also need to understand the intricacies of the pricing patterns of the candidate systems. From what I’ve seen from my initial glances, all I can say is good luck with that.

This article appears in the August/September 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Many Faces of Cloud Encoding."

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