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AV1 Hardware Solutions at IBC

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While we’ve covered quite a bit about hardware-assisted encoding—including the recent Streaming Media magazine article detailing the balance of ASICs and FPGAs against good-old-fashioned CPUs and GPUs—almost all that effort has been focused on H.264 (AVC) or H.265 (HEVC).

Part of this focus was based on the maturity of the H.264 market, which has a long history in streaming and an even longer history in videoconferencing. As the article pointed out, with my career path morphing from sub-200 millisecond live videoconferencing delivery to multi-second streaming delivery, H.264 has seen several cycles of hardware to increase scalability and quality over a 25-year period.

On the other hand, the Alliance for Open Media’s AV1 codec—touted as a royalty-free H.264 alternative and backed by the likes of Apple, Cisco, Google, and others—hasn’t received much hardware attention, at least not in the encoding side of the acquisition and delivery equation and definitely not at content delivery network (CDN) scale.

News coming out of the IBC 2022 tradeshow in Amsterdam this week may change that.

While we’ve seen several attempts at the real-time AV1 hardware encoding side over the three years—Socionext with its claims of cloud-based AV1 real-time encoding in 2019, as well as Intel’s dual-pronged approach—the new crop of hardware-enabled AV1 solutions include FPGAs and ASICs.

First up is NETINT, whose ASICs have been optimized for video delivery at performance-to-power-consumption ratios more akin to telco-level MPEG-2 hardware encoders from decades past or modern versions of the TI DaVinci DSP bundling or the Philips Tri-Media ASIC approaches.

“Live streaming video platforms are demanding more efficient and cost effective video encoding solutions,” says NETINT COO Alex Liu, noting that this is, in part, due to the emergence of new interactive video applications. “[These applications] can only be met with ASIC hardware encoding.”

One company using the NETINT approach, and specifically its Quadra T2 low-latency 4K AV1 encoder to scale out delivery is Swedish-based RealSprint. The company’s CDN service, Vindral, is intended to scale AV1 at sub-second latencies similar to the way that H.264/SIP ultra-low-latency or WebRTC solutions from other CDNs perform.

“Our 4K AV1 demo at sub-second glass-to-glass latency demonstrates that the viewing experience of live streaming is moving towards an exciting future,” says RealSprint CEO Daniel Alinder, noting that part of the company’s goal is “to disrupt, spur innovation, and ensure high-end streaming experiences.”

“We are thrilled to do so in the company of NETINT Technologies, Oracle, and the Chrome team.” says Alinder, who added that all three parties have been responsive in terms of working together.

NETINT’s Liu agrees. “Vindral, the industry’s first 4K AV1 streaming platform… is a game changer,” says Liu. “We are really excited about the amazing video experiences that Vindral users will bring to their customers as a result of this breakthrough in latency and quality.”

Alinder notes that RealSprint’s position is that “NETINT ASICs can encode more concurrent streams than we’ve seen with the competitors” and that, once RealSprint was comfortable with the ASIC performance-power balance, they then “brought the Google Chrome team into the project, to help with final tweaks and making sure that everything works as intended.”

To be fair, given the differences between ASICs and FPGAs and GPUs, we’ll point out that Intel’s Arc Alchemist GPUs have been AV1 hardware-enabled since February 2022 (see the Arc A380) and the reviews that have come in are impressive when compared to some of the more famous discrete GPUs marketed by AMD and NVIDIA.

In addition, the work that Intel and Netflix did together to optimize a subset of AV1 (known as SVT-AV1) harks back to a similar DASH-AVC/264 paring down of the DASH HTTP approach a decade ago.

And finally, we’ve heard rumblings that there will be a few announcements of shipping FPGA-based AV1 encoding products at IBC, which started today and is underway until next Monday.

Still, what RealSprint is claiming to do is impressive. We’ll attempt to get a demo of this sub-second AV1 at scale solution before IBC ends and report back to StreamingMedia.com’s readers.

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