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Review: Anystream Agility

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Summary: The term "industrial-strength" is probably overused, but it’s definitely appropriate when describing Anystream’s Agility Web encoder, an extremely robust system that delivers more than adequate video quality along with stellar stability and performance.
Price: $10,000 (base product)

Recently, I wrote a story about high-definition streaming for the 2008 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook (pp. 163–170), and people from two of the five companies that I interviewed described their Anystream systems with such reverence that I had to take a look.

Anystream’s products enable primarily large media clients to efficiently deploy and protect their video content over a range of output mediums and distribution platforms. The center of their range of services is the Agility system, which automatically acquires video from various supported sources; adds watermarks, subtitles, bumpers and trailers, and other graphics; and then transcodes the video into the necessary formats and delivers it to the selected distribution outlets. While Agility has modules for broadcast, video on demand, and live delivery (including scheduling and ad insertion modules), I wanted to look at Agility Web, the transcoding engine for web delivery of on-demand and basic live streaming. The basic product costs $10,000, with upgrades available for additional capabilities like tape-based capture and control.

Agility Web can work on a single computer or expand into a multicomputer rendering farm. For the record, Anystream sent a rackmounted 2.0 GHz Dual Processor, Quad-Core (E5335) with 2GB of memory, affectionately called Violet, for my testing. You can run a single node of Agility on Windows XP or Windows Server 2003, but if you want a multinode network, as I did, you need to run Windows Server 2003.

Agility can input files used by most common editors, including Avid, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Quantel, and formats common to broadcast servers such as SeaChange, Leitch, Omneon, GrassValley, Sony, and Quantel, including GXF, MPEG-2, eQ, sQ MXF, IMX, SAF, and VSR2000. Frankly, I don’t know what half of these formats are or do, so if you work with an exotic editing format, check Anystream’s website for compatibility.

I do know that the system works with most lower-end tape formats, including DV25, DV50, DVCPro 25, DVCPro 50, XDCAM, and HD XDCAM, and can input most common file formats, including MPEG-1, MPEG-4, QuickTime, AVI, and WMV. It can even grab video from a VOB file, the format used in DVD-Video. The system can also capture SDI, DV, component, S-Video, and composite video, as well as SDI Embedded, AES, and analog audio, including controlling most decks. Some of these features are included in the base price; some, like most tape-based capture functions, are extra, so be sure to identify your requirements and price your system accordingly.

As you would expect, output formats mimic input formats, with the addition of live webcasting for Real and Windows Media video, and on-demand production of Flash 7 and 8, H.264, Windows Media, and Real Video. I focused my codec-related testing on Flash 8, H.264, and Windows Media Video.

As with most high-end encoding systems, most users will work with Agility via watch folders. Specifically, you’ll drop files into a designated folder for processing defined by a compression or production type beforehand. You can also can interface with the system directly, as I’ll demonstrate now, or use APIs that I describe later.

As an overview, the building block of the Agility system is a Job, which has three components: preprocessing, encoding, and delivery functions. When working with the Agility user interface directly, you choose a source file or files, enter preprocessing, encoding, and delivery parameters, save the Job, and then submit it to the encoding engine. When using watch folders, you create and save the Job in the Agility user interface, then link each watch folder to a single or multiple Jobs.

The Agility user interface has three components: the Main window, where you build the Jobs; the Job Log window, which keeps a running log of the Jobs queued and submitted for encoding; and the Job Status window, which reports on the status of all Jobs submitted to the encoding engine. There’s also a web interface that you can use to submit Jobs and monitor your encoding farm.

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