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The Cloud Vs. On-Prem Encoding Dilemma

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If you have adult or even teenaged children, you’ve looked at your kids, thought back to when they were infants, and wondered when they turned into grown-ups. I have that feeling about on-demand cloud encoding. Cloud encoding entered this world awkward and ungainly, an unlikely solution in search of a problem it could actually solve better than on-prem encoding. Today, particularly for companies encoding large files for cloud or third-party distribution, cloud encoding has blossomed into a mature, comprehensive solution that many companies are using to supplement, or even supplant, their on-prem systems.

In this article, I’ll describe three types of companies: those that started with (or should have started with) the cloud and never used on-prem; companies that use the cloud to supplement their on-prem encoding; and companies who have abandoned their on-prem encoding capabilities and moved exclusively to the cloud. In each section, I’ll explore the applications, the reasons why cloud encoding was attractive, and some of the considerations used to choose their respective vendors.

Let me apologize in advance for the concentration of cloud vendors mentioned in this article. Only three -- Anvato, Heywatch, and Zencoder -- are mentioned. I reached out to several other vendors, but getting clients to talk on the record is often challenging. In this respect, I’d like to thank all the people who shared their stories and insights, which are obviously the value in this article. For other cloud vendors who didn’t get mentioned, in the interest of fairness and full disclosure this article has been on the editorial calendar and in the works for months; sorry I didn’t reach out, but it’s a two-way street.

As a final housekeeping item, this article focused on on-demand, not live, applications. The live picture is at least as vibrant, but I couldn’t tell both in a single story.

Let’s start with applications that should come with tattoos proclaiming, “Born for the Cloud.”

Obvious Cloud Applications

After talking to representatives from just one or two companies in this category, it became obvious that some applications were simply born for the cloud. That is, if 1) the bulk of the videos that you’re processing are uploaded to you from outside sources, as opposed to created by you, 2) you’re deploying your videos from the cloud, and 3) video processing is not your company’s core function, you should encode in the cloud, not on-prem.

The first criterion, videos uploaded from outside sources, is key because it eliminates the upload lag associated with on-demand encoding. If third parties are uploading videos to you, they can just as easily upload them to the cloud. If you’re deploying your videos from the cloud, the video is going to live there anyway, why bring it on-prem in the first place?

The third criterion, video processing is not your core function, is what I heard most loudly from several companies. For example, FieldLens is a collaboration and workflow tool for the construction industry, where, as part of the system, users can upload videos to document issues or construction status. According to CTO David Small, FieldLens didn’t consider on-prem encoding because it would have required “a certain of level of expertise that they didn’t need or want to have in-house. Offloading transcoding is cheap and saves us a bunch of headaches.”

FieldLens never even considered on-prem encoding because the company, which provides a workflow and collaboration tool for the construction industry, didn’t have the necessary expertise.

Similarly, Unruly Media is a marketing technology company that works with top brands and their agencies to promote their videos over the Internet. According to CTO and founder Matthew Cooke, when the business first started, Unruly encoded on-prem using FFMPEG and some commercially available encoding programs. As volume grew, the company pondered whether to build or buy their own encoding platform, or move their encoding to the cloud.

“We looked at the work involved with doing it ourselves,” Cooke says, “and decided to focus our investment and development efforts on our core business, which is distributing large quantities of videos to audiences who are likely to watch, share and promote the videos.”

Cooke says most of Unruly’s operating infrastructure was in the cloud: “We’re generally favorable towards pay-as-you-go pricing with easy signup and no commitment. You just put in your credit card and start using, and if it works, you keep using it.”

Unruly Media chose the cloud to allow it to focus on developing its core business.

Choosing a Cloud Vendor

All the companies in this category use Heywatch, though they all got there in different ways and for different reasons. For example, Dotsub.com provides captioning and translation services. The company’s clients upload videos to Dotsub, which uses Heywatch for all associated encodings. According to Brooks Lyrette, the company’s director of technology, Dotsub started in parallel with two cloud vendors back in 2008 for redundancy, and later went solo with Heywatch for several reasons.

First, Heywatch did a better job with some of the varied camera formats uploaded by their clients, maintaining the synchronization necessary for accurate captioning and translation. Second, Heywatch also made it easier to interface with Dotsub’s CDN for deploying the encoded files. Third, Heywatch’s API has been extremely stable, and the core integration performed in 2008 is still in service. “Basically,” Lyrette says, “we were so happy with Heywatch that we just dropped the other service.”

Spanish photo and video journalism site Neupic had its own unique selection criteria. In short, neupic accepts videos from reporters on scene in locations like Syria and Egypt and markets them to news agencies and conglomerates in Spain, including Agencia EFE, Atresmedia and Unidad Editorial. The company originally used a different cloud vendor, but switched to Heywatch because the previous vendor didn’t offer watermarking, and was more focused on serving video rather than encoding.

Before the switch, neupic engineer Abel Muino Vizcaino compared online reviews of various cloud vendors, and scanned their APIs. Vizcaino found nothing but good reviews for Heywatch, and judged Heywatch’s API as very development friendly, which proved true as the company integrated Heywatch into their existing system in about a day. In use, Heywatch is encoding about 500 videos a month for neupic, and Vizcaino is pleased with quality and turnaround time, the latter obviously critical for breaking news stories.

Hybrid Encoding

If you encode lots of media for your own, or third-party distribution, and your business is growing, sooner or later your on-prem encoders will run into capacity issues. The two companies in this category, Scripps Network Interactive and T3 Media, initially looked to the cloud as a relief valve for work they couldn’t efficiently process internally. The experience was so positive, however, that both upgraded their infrastructures to achieve (or soon achieve) total parity between cloud and on-prem encoding. Both companies continue to invest in on-prem encoding, finding that both on-prem and cloud encoding have distinct tactical advantages for some types of encodes.

Briefly, Scripps Network Interactive is a leading developer of high-profile, lifestyle-oriented content distributed over television, the web and traditional publishing, with a media portfolio that includes HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel and Great American Country. For Scripps, the tipping point came when David Zebroski, VP of Digital Video Operations, noticed in 2011 or so that there were high levels of iOS traffic on their sites. Since Scripps only offered Flash at the time, these Apple devices were “blind to their content.”

Scripps looked to Zencoder to transcode 50,000 files to HTTP Live Streaming format (HLS), which proved very efficient. “We originally thought the cloud would be a one-off operation, but it worked so well that we continued to use it for other burst operations and for certain normal production encodes,” Zebroski says.

Explaining the burst operations component, Scott Cruze, Scripps manager of nonlinear content distribution (essentially the content not distributed over cable) says, “When we onboard new distribution partners, we typically provide them a launch load of content, like 1,000 hours or so, which has to be encoded ASAP. Since the source is all in the cloud, we can easily push it over to Zencoder without disrupting ongoing on-prem encodes.”

The Scripps production system can push encoding to the cloud or on-prem.

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