Cloud transcoding rages at NAB

It was clear well before now that cloud transcoding would be one of the big themes of NAB 2013, just as MPEG DASH streaming was a year ago.

It would be easy to come away from the show imagining that almost all transcoding will soon be taking place in the cloud because of its compelling economics, but that is not going to happen just yet. In many cases transcoding will continue to be an in-house operation because it is closely aligned with other processes hosted in the data centre such as digital asset management (DAM). By the same token, cloud based transcoding services that offer associated functions including DAM in integrated packages will have particular appeal to small operators or those starting from a clean slate for multi-screen deployments.

There is also the performance element in that state-of-the-art cloud transcoding platforms can be best for live streaming where latency must be kept to a minimum. Elemental Technologies, exhibiting at NAB, has scored heavily with leading broadcasters by touting high transcoding performance based on massively parallel processing within the cloud. By using clusters of off the shelf graphical processing units, Elemental keeps costs down while being able to boast that it can transcode both SD and HD content “faster than real time”, which is not quite as magic as it sounds. It merely means that transcoding is not on the critical time path and is executed more quickly than some of the other functions involved in end to end content delivery. Transcoding then does not add to the latency budget.

Elemental also teams up with partners to deliver other components of the TV ecosystem, for example with the Platform and iStream for DAM, and others for aspects of quality of service, content protection and revenue generation in a multiscreen ecosystem, including forensic watermarking, encryption, targeted ad insertion, advanced captioning and audio normalization.

One point that some of the vendors at NAB have taken account of in their transcoding platforms is that operators do not face a straight choice between cloud and in-house transcoding, with a hybrid approach combining both often being most efficient and cost effective. One reason for this is that transcoding volumes often vary markedly during each day, week and month. Broadcasters and service providers naturally tend to have sharp peaks for live transcoding during major events, while for VOD (Video On Demand) this can happen when a blockbuster becomes available at the start of the release window. There are also natural daily cycles with peaks often in early evening. It often makes sense to cover the periods of lower demand in-house but then resort to cloud transcoding for peaks, rather than having to provision for maximum loading with the result that capacity is often idle. It may also be that operators gradually migrate to the cloud simply by failing to expand or replace existing in-house capacity.

Brightcove is pitching its Zencoder Live Cloud Transcoding at this market for peak capacity after launching it in time for NAB, allowing content providers to scale and produce adaptive bitrate streams without significant on-premise hardware. Brightcove believes its service, offering transcoding from $10/hr, will come into its own particularly for live events by avoiding the need for content providers to acquire expensive hardware that stands idle most of the time.

Also on show at NAB is Haivision’s HyperStream Internet media services portfolio aiming to simplify and automate content distribution through cloud transcoding and CDN connectivity for OTT services with support for live HD delivery. Haivision is offering near real time scaling with the ability to recruit the transcoding service within minutes, although capacity then has to be booked by the hour. This is available either as a pay-per-use live cloud transcoding SaaS (Software as a Service) for delivery of adaptive video content to desktop and mobile devices over the Internet for such short term hire, or as a fully managed service. In the latter case CDN distribution, video player configuration, event set-up and management, and on-site support are available as part of the package as required. The flexible scaling is enabled through Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which is available in eight regions around the world, although it can also exploit Akamai’s HD Network.

Naturally, HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) featured in some of the cloud transcoding products, such as Media Excel’sHERO encoding and transcoding product line. This was initially confined to H.264/AVC encoding and decoding, but can now be upgraded to Intel-powered H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC).