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Elemental Technologies accelerates any-screen TV with NVIDIA GPU-based transcoding appliance

Elemental Technologies CEO and founder Sam Blackman isn't talking about the Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird when he says, "It's a nice horse to ride." He's talking about NVIDIA’s GPU technology used in the company's new transcoding appliance. One Elemental Server simultaneously processes and encodes video to multiple resolutions and bit rates and replaces as many as seven CPU-only transcoding platforms at a fraction of the cost.

"We're riding a performance curve that's driven by demands of gaming, which is a huge market," Blackman says. "More GPUs are shipped annually than CPUs, [and they offer a] huge cost advantage over any type of specialized hardware."

As operators start delivering video to any screen, one of their biggest challenges is supporting an exploding number of video formats.

"Some of our potential customers create 200 different renditions of each video — for example, NBC/Universal," Blackman says. "On top of that, a lot of these [renditions] also support multiple bit rates. The way this was dealt with in the past was [by adding more] CPU-based servers: throw boxes at the problem. That technology isn't scalable [because] the management system becomes unbelievably complicated."

Founded in 2006, the Portland, OR-based startup's first product, Elemental Accelerator, was a GPU-based video encoding system as part of the Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 workflow. After seeing Accelerator dramatically improve encoding speed, Blackman says, customers started asking Elemental for a system to accelerate creating different renditions and lower the overall cost of doing it.

Introduced at the NewTeeVee conference in November, the Elemental Server can simultaneously perform 32 mobile-resolution or 12 Web-quality HD transcodes, according to Blackman. The server architecture is built on two Intel CPUs and four NVIDIA GPUs for highly optimized processing, "We were able to replace seven dual quad-core CPU-only systems with one Elemental Server." He ticks off the benefits: "Lower cost of ownership, HVAC, rack space, floor space."

This isn't just important for keeping current costs down and avoiding future expenditures for addition servers and floor space — not to mention "green" IT initiatives — Blackman says. "A lot of customers in New York City, for example, [face a situation where] there is no more space, there is no more electricity. They have to get that additional processing power in a different manner. Today, some big companies have 200 servers. Elemental reduces that to 30 servers."

Elemental's transcoding server uses completely standard hardware — Dell servers with two video cards on a 2RU chassis — and fits into existing workflows. The server enables concurrent processing of multiple resolutions and bit rates on a single system, simplifying adaptive bit rate content creation and streamlining content production. Elemental Server supports many codecs including MPEG-2, VC-1 and H.264, as well as a wide variety of output containers including F4V, ASF, WMV, 3GP and MP4.

The Elemental Server is just the first in a product family of GPU-accelerated solutions, Blackman says. What's next? "Real time transcoding," he says. "Processors are getting cheaper and cheaper, the number of renditions you need is going up, but the cost of storage [needed for file-based transcoding] isn't going down at the same rate. Currently, NVIDIA’s GPU chip has 240 [streaming processor] cores; the next chip will have 512 for the same price, he says. "That's a nice horse to be riding."