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It is still early days for cloud-based transcoding but the concept is generating interest among media companies who need to deliver content in a multi-screen world. Cloud transcoding is credited with several advantages including the ability to ramp up capacity to cope with peaks in demand without buying more video processing capacity than you would normally need. Media companies can also harness the extra capacity to convert back catalogues to a new video format in order to match the requirements of a new CE device that has arrived in the market.
One company that is pioneering cloud transcoding is Elemental Technologies. In September it introduced its Elemental Cloud, a Platform as a Service (PaaS) that utilizes the hardware capacity of Amazon Web Services (AWS) to give video providers the chance to expand capacity or enhance their disaster recovery options. Several media companies have tested the solution and the first (unnamed) customers signed up late last year. “They are all extremely well known in the media industry and they are global in scope,” is all the vendor can say at this point.
Elemental is best known for its ‘traditional’ transcoding solutions, which have been gaining traction in the market (it doubled its customer base in 2012 to nearly 250 companies in 40 countries). These cover live and file-based (non real-time) transcoding for linear TV and on-demand viewing respectively. While it provides transcoding hardware, the core of the solution is software and this can now be hosted on the vast computing resources owned by AWS.
The cloud service is designed to complement onsite facilities at media companies and the close integration between the transcoding in the cloud and the on-premise transcoding is one of the factors that sets Elemental Cloud apart from some cloud transcoding services where you upload a file and wait for it to return transcoded.
According to Keith Wymbs, VP Marketing at Elemental Technologies, the media companies maintain full control of the process with the same ability to press buttons and change settings they expect in their own facility, using the same management console. “We have a single user interface model that has essentially abstracted the physical layer completely on behalf of the customer,” he explains.
The result is something like a virtual headend and it can cover all the features seen on-premise, including compression, packaging, DRM, watermarking, advertising insertion, subtitles, and audio processing. The cloud service can therefore be treated like a peak-demand or special projects extension of what you have onsite. “It is a headend in the cloud with all the capabilities you get on the ground,” Wymbs emphasizes. Elemental Cloud is available with a persistent or monthly license model or the service can be accessed by the hour for special projects.
Elemental Technologies outlines several key benefits for using cloud transcoding for multi-screen delivery. One is the ability to cope with the proliferation of viewing devices. “New tablets and smart phones are flooding the market, but to reach them, providers must convert video libraries at irregular intervals to support numerous screen sizes and resolutions. Elemental Cloud lets video suppliers scale seamlessly with market growth,” the company points out.
Users can elastically scale transcoding up and down during exceptional events. As an example, if some news created unusual interest in archived video content (the death of a celebrity being a good example) content providers can ensure transcoding capacity is in line with demand.
This has revenue implications; if you cannot cope with demand you could be losing eyeballs to other outlets that might have been monetized. Just as importantly, media companies do not have to provision their own facilities for exceptional events. They can procure the right amount of hardware to fulfill regular processing requirements and leverage cloud resources for the rest.
Wymbs says the per-stream cost for transcoding in the cloud using Elemental Cloud is similar to what you would get on-premise but with less capital expenditure. “Right now the driver is keeping Capex down and providing the flexibility to deal with demand spikes, and having some back-up in case you lose power or there is an earthquake,” he explains. “The motivation is not cost-per stream.”
Like all Elemental Technologies solutions, Elemental Cloud is designed for high-end video processing applications and it uses the same core technology innovation that is behind the company’s growing market success. This is the ability of the video engine to harness GPU (graphics processing units) in addition to CPU (central processing units) processing and match the distinct characteristics of these different processing units to the task in hand, thus optimizing the transcoding process.
GPUs are designed for computationally-intensive graphics-oriented operations. Because of their power they can support massively parallel computing architectures. Elemental Technologies explains: “Compared to the four or eight core processors that ship with typical workstation-class computers, an Elemental Live [live video processing system] appliance includes hundreds of core processors working in parallel.
“The massively parallel computational power of GPUs is ideal for generating the multiple synchronized output streams required for adaptive bit rate streaming (ABR). It also allows complex visual effects such as deblocking, motion adaptive deinterlacing and noise reduction to be used on multiple streams at the same time without compromising system performance.
“Our mastery of the rich programming languages that run on GPUs allows the optimization of processing and compression algorithms, which are designed from the ground up for the GPU instruction set. GPUs are also a commodity item, with all the pricing advantages that entails.”
The compression engine also uses CPUs for the serial tasks they handle best. “We figured out how to do video compression with graphics processors and we were the first to do that,” says Wymbs. “Our architecture is a hybrid of CPU and GPU so if it makes sense to parallelise across the hundreds of cores that we have then we can do that with GPU and if it makes sense to serialise the processing then we do it on CPU.”
The result is that if you need large scale live processing in parallel, with lots out streams going in and even more coming out, you get it, and with good density. If you need file based transcoding you can go very fast, like eight times real-time. The Amazon Web Services infrastructure includes locations with CPU-based processing and GPU-based processing.
Wymbs claims Elemental Technologies can provide savings of 20-30% on cost per stream or on the time needed to transcode a file, depending on the application. The company has customers handling more than 100 channels for multi-screen viewing with up to a 1,000 output streams for delivery to various devices. It announced recently that it now has over 250 customers, with Comcast and HBO among them. 2012 wins include the BBC, Columbus Communications, Media Prima, NHK and Red Bee Media.
The company promises a big announcement and possibly a customer name for Elemental Cloud at NAB in April.