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The Cloud Vs. On-Prem Encoding Dilemma

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In terms of dividing work between cloud and on-prem, content that will be syndicated to other cable channels and web distribution partners is uploaded to and encoded in the cloud. Before uploading, the Vantage system concatenates the discrete segments and applies logos and other branding following precise timing specifications. According to Zebroski, the files are “stitched, branded, and bugged” by Vantage as it has a feature set which best meets the company’s exacting standards.

Vantage is also better at inverse telecine and other pre-processing functions, which dictates that some encoding for certain partners is performed on-prem. This is in addition to nuts and bolts encodes for tasks like captioning, and for international distribution, internal production, and marketing that are more efficiently encoded on-prem.

Interestingly, Zebroski says that Scripps can upload a 45-minute mezzanine file to cloud storage “in seconds,” so upload time isn’t a significant barrier to using a cloud encoder. After encoding, those files are transferred to either partners or their own CDN. Since the mezzanine file is much smaller than the combined size of all discrete deliverables, it’s actually more efficient to upload the mezzanine file to the cloud and encode there than to encode on-prem and upload all the deliverables to their respective destinations.

Looking forward, Zebroski sees continued demand for both on-prem and cloud encoding. “Every time we think demand for on-prem encoding has stabilized,” he says, “something changes. For example, in the past, most of our encoding involved short form 3- to 5-minute segments, now full episodes are the rage, and our distribution partners are looking for more file iterations and higher-quality output. All this stresses and strains on our on-prem encoding; over the last 5–7 years, our hardware purchases haven’t ever plateaued, we’ve had to keep buying.”

T3 Media Meets Elastic Demand in the Cloud

The other company in this category, T3Media, provides content management, delivery and monetization solutions via its T3 Library Manager Platform-as-a-Service. Between its own library of stock footage, and content managed for clients, T3 encodes tens of thousands of files a day. According to CTO Mark Lemmons, the company started encoding with a variety of on-prem encoders from companies like Harmonic, Telestream, and Digital Rapids, as well as encoders built around FFMPEG.

T3 looked to the cloud to address a backlog of 600,000 “housekeeping” encodes that weren’t billable to clients. Though essential, the jobs kept getting delayed in favor of paying jobs. Ultimately, T3 pushed these jobs to Zencoder, which processed them in about six weeks, and was surprisingly affordable.

Initially, source files longer than 3 minutes were encoded on-prem, while shorter files were encoded in the cloud. According to Lemmons, the company is expanding their infrastructure so that both tools can encode “any job in the plant.” That said, certain jobs -- and certain clients -- will get pushed to the cloud, particularly when demand is elastic.

For example, one T3 client processes high volumes of UGC uploads for broadcast and YouTube distribution. Some days, the show gets 2,000 videos uploaded, some days 20,000. According to Lemmons, “Without the ability to offload encoding to the cloud, we’d have to buy on prem encoders that would only get used during high-demand periods. The cloud allows us to meet this scalable demand without the CAPEX and only pay for what we absolutely need.”

Before choosing Zencoder, Lemmons scanned its API, which proved “well documented and accessible, and mapped well to our internal systems.” Lemmons also compared Zencoder’s encoding quality with his internal systems, and found parity. Interestingly, Lemmons also liked Zencoder’s per-second pricing, which he found easier for planning and budgeting than per GB pricing.

Going Exclusively Cloud

Our third category includes two companies that have gone exclusively to the cloud, or as exclusively as you can given the need for some on-prem functions necessary for day-to-day operation. Part of this relates to the ability to perform tasks that can’t be efficiently performed on-prem; part the desire to move to the cloud as an affordable way to address the inherent unpredictability of encoding demands.

Hearst TV Adds Live Ad Insertion and Remote Production

Hearst TV, which owns 29 television and two radio stations in geographically diverse U.S. markets, is a good example of the first reason. Specifically, according to Mike Rosellini, VP of Digital Operations, Hearst went to the cloud because it enabled two functions that couldn’t easily be performed on-prem. The first related to advertising insertion into their live HLS streams. Before implementing the Anvato cloud solution, all live streams distributed by Hearst stations displayed blacked out graphics during the commercial breaks, which was not only a bad experience for viewers, but left advertising money on the table.

Now, each station has an Anvato box on-prem to create the HLS streams which are pushed to Hearst’s CDNs. Working in the cloud, Anvato integrates with Hearst’s advertising service, Doubleclick for Publishers, to push ads to the CDN, which are spliced seamlessly into the stream. As a result, Hearst gets monetize the videos and viewers have something to watch during the breaks.

Hearst also used Anvato to bring on-demand clip production to the cloud. In the past, all on-demand clips were created using nonlinear editors in each station, which required producers to be on site. If news was breaking at one station, editors from other facilities couldn’t remotely chip in to help handle the load. Rosellini installed another Anvato box at each station, which creates a low-resolution proxy clip for web editing, and a mezzanine file for rendering and production, resulting in a clip pushed to OVP Kaltura for distribution and monetization.

Using the Anvato system, local producer can edit from home or on location, and editors from other stations can chip in in a pinch. As a result, Rosellini reports that Hearst has more than doubled the number of on-demand clips posted each day, producing “more clips to monetize, and more advertising impressions.”

Univision Goes to the Cloud

Anvato also provided an irresistible value proposition to Univision, the Spanish language broadcast network, which replaced their on-prem encoding gear for an Anvato system. I spoke with Mai-Wah Cheung, Univision’s senior vice president, digital operations & services.

According to Cheung, the company started looking at the cloud in 2009, primarily seeking scalability to meet their unpredictable encoding demands. Cheung first considered traditional OVPs, but found their workflows too restrictive, and their Spanish support primitive. The company contacted Anvato, who provided a fully functional Spanish player “over a weekend,” proving their responsiveness and technical capabilities.

Today, Univision deploys Anvato capture appliances at their video routers to grab programming for on-demand distribution. A high-resolution copy is stored on site, while a 15Mbps 1080p stream is uploaded to Univision’s S3 account. From there, it’s transcoded to about 20 different profiles for multiple screen deployment.

In a separate workflow, videos provided in Avid DNxHD or ProRes format by Univision’s production partners are also converted to a 15Mbps mezzanine file, and uploaded to S3 for similar processing. The Anvato on-prem system can also create 50Mbps MPEG-2 files for third party cable distribution.

According to Cheung, Anvato performs critical encoding, content preparation and packaging functions within the Univision video workflow. As compared to their former on-prem systems, “Anvato’s hybrid model can extend to encode the unexpected.” Univision has moved to the cloud, and isn’t looking back.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Streaming Media as "The Cloud Vs. On-Prem Encoding Dilemma"

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