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Encoding in the Cloud

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Cloud encoding services port their encoding software and applications to work with Amazon EC2, Amazon S3, or both, and they rent the capacity to their customers on an as-needed basis. The only fly in the ointment is that you must upload your files to these services over the internet. Obviously, upload times have been dramatically reduced as connection bandwidths have increased and will only get shorter in the future. But to minimize current upload time, some services recommend encoding your source files into a mezzanine format, say 720p H.264 at 25Mbps, which is smaller than your source file but visually identical in terms of quality.

Who Needs Cloud Encoding?
There are several types of organizations that are ideal candidates for cloud encoding, particularly user-generated content (UGC) sites, where upload times are a given among the userbase. By using cloud encoding, you could create and market a UGC website and, with little additional capital expenditure, start encoding as you go. Perhaps down the road it may make more economic sense to build your own rendering farm, but from a capital-expenditure perspective, cloud encoding is certainly less risky.

High-volume broadcast and other similar producers with current encoding requirements and libraries of previously created content should also consider cloud encoding, if not for their ongoing requirements then for mass re-encodes that may be required to support new devices or distribution platforms. Ditto for organizations with significant libraries of archived content, such as movie studios.

For example, movie studios with significant libraries recently had to re-encode a certain percentage of their titles to make the jump to Blu-ray and may need to do so again to support the growing list of downloadable movie sites. They could also be forced to re-encode their titles again for the iPod and other mobile devices. These are periodic huge encoding jobs that are ideal for renting capacity rather than buying capacity.

In this regard, while at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference, several of us StreamingMedia.com types saw a demo in which HD Cloud rendered a previously uploaded 30-second file to about 30 different formats in just a few minutes. The presenters submitted the job from a MacBook Pro notebook and then showed the servers on the Amazon EC2 spinning up, rendering to the various presets, and then spinning down. The powerful demonstration (which I’m absolutely sure all other cloud encoding vendors could duplicate) highlighted that power is available when you need it, but you only pay for it when it is used.

Clearly, all large producers should have cloud encoding on their radar and should run rough ROI numbers before making additional investments in encoding infrastructure. In this regard, many of the cloud encoding companies have ROI calculations on their sites, and Encoding.com even has an online monthly fee calculator. But what about the economics for smaller organizations?

I think it’s easy to underestimate the cost of encoding your own files in terms of time, equipment, and particularly expertise. If you’re reasonably savvy with computers and streaming, a copy of Sorenson Squeeze or Telestream Episode Pro on your editing station can go a long way, and perhaps you can even get by with Apple Compressor or Adobe Media Encoder. But if you’re a streaming newbie, paying a service such as Hey!Watch a dime per encode has to seem like a pretty good deal. Note that the other services are likely in the same price range, but a dime per encode has a better ring to it than $2 per gigabyte or $0.00175 per megabyte in, $0.00225 per megabyte out.

That’s the pitch, anyway. Now let’s meet the players and discuss factors to consider when choosing a cloud encoding solution.

Who Are the Players?
Encoding.com is the current graybeard in the category. Less well-known is France’s Hey!Watch, which has been providing cloud encoding services since 2006 with its own bank of encoding servers. Newer entries include mPOINT, HD Cloud, and On2 Flix Cloud, all of which, like Encoding.com, use Amazon’s EC2 for encoding.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Encoding.com is the graybeard in the cloud transcoding category. Here’s a look at the services account usage tracker, which displays both bandwidth and storage used.

Figure 2
Figure 2. mPOINT’s reporting dashboard, which provides daily, monthly, quarterly, and annual statistics

Figure 3
Figure 3. HD Cloud’s "current jobs" reporting page, which lists each job individually and displays a pie chart indicating the status of the entire batch of jobs.

Figure 4
Figure 4. On2’s Flix Cloud’s reporting page adds average wait, processing, and total times to the usual statistics.

How do you choose between the contenders and those sure to follow? It’s a fast-moving market, and by the time you read this, existing vendors will have updated their feature sets and new companies will have entered the fray. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating the contenders.

(Note that in this overview article, I learned from conversations and meetings with most of the companies, as well as their marketing literature. I didn’t independently verify features or operations, though I did encode files with several services.)

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