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Elemental Reveals Live Encoding Solution

As we head toward the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas, next week, companies are busy rolling out their product announcements.

One rumor that's been floating around for some time has been that Elemental Technologies, a company focused on massively parallel transcoding solutions using off-the-shelf graphics processor units (GPUs), was going to launch a live version of its GPU solution.

Elemental hinted at the idea of a live encoding solution using GPUs during last September's IBC show, when the company launched Elemental Server, its multi-format, multi-bitrate transcoding appliance.

Today, the company announced Elemental Live, a single 1U (1.75") encoding appliance that it claims will do the work of multiple boxes from competitors.

Part of the reason that Elemental is pushing GPU solutions is the sheer number of streaming cores available in a GPU. While Intel recently announced a 6-core Xeon processor, Nvidia announced a 480-core GPU based on its Fermi architecture. The ability to access that many cores, even if each one is less powerful than a CPU core, is key to the programming of a GPU into a massive parallel processing engine.

"Ideal for broadcasters, online video platforms and other new media providers," the company's press release claims, "Elemental Live delivers four times the performance of competitive CPU-only solutions at half the price."

Doing the Math
Whenever a company makes a claim like this—which is much more concrete than the generic "we are the market leading [insert noun]" claim—it's worth exploring.

Elemental made a similar claim for Elemental Server, which has been shipping for a few months and which my consulting firm will be benchmarking over the next two months as part of a shoot-out between relevant CPU, DSP, and GPU appliances.

"We welcome potential customers to examine our claim in depth," said Sam Blackman, Elemental's CEO and chairman, at the time Elemental Server was launched, and he repeated this comment during an Elemental Live pre-announcement briefing last Friday.

"For a single-stream solution, a CPU solution is hard to beat," says Blackman, "but for adaptive bitrate streaming, where every stream requires three or more streams encoded simultaneously, the GPU parallel processing really shines and does so in a single box."

The company breaks its claim down this way: Using suggested retail prices (MSRP) and a typical use case that output a variety of streams for adaptive bitrate streaming (nine streams with four archive files including editing), Elemental looked at the cost for non-redundant and redundant solutions.

"We figured a typical editing file for a 1080p source would require one 1080p archive, with the rest of the streams split between 720p HD, SD, and CIF (for mobile)," says Blackman. "So nine streams with four archive files including editing is 1x 1080p, 3x 720p, 6x SD, and 3x CIF."

The breakdown of equipment needed also included the need for SDI splitters, to split a single source out to multiple encoders—the company claims one competitor requires three boxes to do what Elemental does in a single box, while another competitor requires four boxes to match Elemental Live—so additional costs beyond the encoding boxes would be required.

"Our estimate was that SDI splitters are ~$250/output, so a 2-output version is $500, 3 is $750, and 4 is $1000," says Blackman. "In addition, to maintain timecode sync across all encoders, for frame-accurate keyframes required by some adaptive bitrate solutions, a box such as Miranda Little Red linear timecode boxes is priced at about $400."

"One competitor's solution requires three boxes," Blackman says, "which means three units at approximately $92,000 total, including support, plus $2000 for 3x SDI splitters and the timecode box. In the same way, another competitor's solution requires four boxes, at approximately $82,000 total MSRP and $3000 for 4x SDI splitters and the timecode box."

Elemental claims Elemental Live has an MSRP of $44,000, with no need for an SDI splitter or timecode box, since all synchronization is handled internal to the box across the four GPUs.

"These numbers double in the case of the fully redundant solution," says Blackman, adding "obviously these numbers are rough (and rounded) based on MSRPs but definitely right in the ballpark."

For a redundant solution, Elemental claims a cost of $89,000 for its own solution (with the need for a 2x SDI splitter and timecode box) versus a comparative price of $170,000-188,000 for that of its competitors.

What About Performance?
These amounts answer the "half the price" portion of the claim, but what about the "four times the performance" claim?

For that, Blackman points to the fact that a single four-GPU Elemental Live appliance is capable of encoding four 1080p, eight 720p, or 16 480p streams simultaneously, mixed and matched between HD and SD outputs.

"Based on the fact that we can do this many encodes on a single box," said Blackman, "we make the claim for four times the performance, especially when multiple Elemental Live appliances are used in a robust live encoding workflow."

I plan to examine the claim in more detail once the Elemental Live appliance is released.

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Thurs., Nov. 12, by Tim Siglin