Technology, Top

Operators Crack The Code

Decisions on how and where to manage bulk transcodes of assets have become critical for media enterprises, but software-defined video solutions and the cloud are not necessarily the answer. BY …

Decisions on how and where to manage bulk transcodes of assets have become critical for media enterprises, but software-defined video solutions and the cloud are not necessarily the answer.
                       BY ADRIAN PENNINGTON

On-premise, in cloud, or a mix? 
With nearly infinite combinations of consumer preferences, devices, formats and protocols and a flurry of new OTT and live-to-linear VOD services, operators require limitless flexibility and scalability to keep pace. Core to an operator’s ability to quickly capitalise on new business opportunities is to efficiently repurpose material from one platform format to another.

“Operators are looking for flexible solutions to be able to quickly adapt to any codec, resolution and packaging options that may be required for the end device,” underlines Mark Seneca, product development with Imagine Communications. “As such, any transcoder must address their core needs for density and video quality, but must also have the capability to support new evolving standards.” The business necessity to do more work for less money makes automation a pre-requisite. “Automation not only allows operators to do more with their existing staff, but also allows the system to be selfmonitoring, self-adjusting and in some cases self-correcting,” says Paul Turner, VP of enterprise product management at Telestream. “This fundamentally enables them to offer services which are of importance to their business, while significantly reducing the costs of doing so. The revenue models for some of these services are starting to solidify, so customers also want to be sure that their transcoding systems are flexible enough to handle the ad insertion and recognition process that will become standard practice as these models mature.”
One of the fundamental decisions facing operators as they build out or upgrade their transcoding facility is where to actually place it. The decision swings between on-premise equipment, a private cloud on-premise, a public cloud, or a mix thereof. The key decision points are based on the amount of content and assets they want to manage and transcode, budget restrictions of CAPEX versus OPEX, availability of additional applications being able to take advantage of a cloud system, and the skill level of the operators. “Will delivery of an operator’s any-screen product be limited to in-network delivery within homes and businesses?” asks Chris Knowlton, VP & Streaming Industry Evangelist, Wowza Media Systems. “If so, this leans towards an on-premises transcoding solution. Conversely, a TV Everywhere product is likely using cloud-based delivery, and in some cases, it makes sense to have the transcoding also go to the cloud.”

Will the content be a predictable load, perhaps including every channel that the operator delivers? For a transcoding load that is likely to stay fixed for several years, an on-premises deployment is sometimes more costeffective. If the load is variable, however, with perhaps a core set of channels and some special event or seasonal offerings, then a hybrid model is worth consideration, where cloud transcoding can be used to pick up the temporary additional capacity needed. Questions must asked of the operator’s financial model.
“Are they better served by investing in hardware up-front and depreciating it over time, or by tax-deductible pay-as-you-go operating expenses?” poses Knowlton. “While creative financing is available to turn most IT assets into operating expenses, for many businesses, transcoding in the cloud provides a simpler way to align expenses to revenue and maintain their cash flow targets.” Another consideration impacting location is whether the operator has capacity in their infrastructure to accommodate more on-premises gear. “If they prefer to run on-premises but don’t have the room, they can start in the cloud, and then either free up current rack space by consolidating other gear with higher-density upgrades or by building out additional capacity,” he says. “Either way, as the on-premises capacity becomes available for transcoding, they can start transitioning off the cloud.”

Each operator situation is different.Low-volume broadcast companies may want to move all transcoding functionality to the cloud so they can scale resources up and down as requirements fluctuate.For companies that consistently process vast amounts of video, the economics of a cloudonly solution are still challenging. For those companies, a hybrid workflow makes the most economic sense.

 “A hybrid solution reduces barriers to entry and enables broadcasters to ebb and flow their video processing resources – enabling them to hedge a bet against new products and services without putting all their capex eggs in one basket” Keith Wymbs, CMO, Elemental

Elemental’s CMO, Keith Wymbs, explains that a hybrid is achieved by maintaining “just enough” on-premise infrastructure to fulfil day-to-day transcoding requirements “while leveraging cloud services for the elasticity to keep pace with variable demand.”This ground-to-cloud approach has the potential to save organisations significant capital expenditures, claims Wymbs, by instantly scaling up video processing capacity to accommodate high-traffic events, and scaling back down again as traffic wanes  while avoiding additional hardware investments that aren’t consistently utilised.

“In addition to lowering barriers to entry and reducing up-front capital investments, broadcasters can ebb and flow their video processing resources – enabling them to hedge a bet against new products and services without putting all their capex eggs in one basket,” he says. “If those products and services are wildly successful, then broadcasters can rapidly scale up their processing resources. If they are not, broadcasters can simply turn the processing resources off.” Here’s Imagine’s take on the subject:

“The advantage of on-premise equipment is that it can handle large amounts of content based on an initial outlay. On-premise cloud has a similar advantage, while also being able to provide compute resources for other applications when not needed for content management. Public cloud works well for a hybrid approach to offload during peak capacity and when there is much less content to handle, or for operators who are facing a CAPEX challenge and prefer an OPEX model.”

Software or hardware?
The location decision goes hand-in-hand with consideration of whether the merits of software-based transcode systems outweigh that of hardware-based ones. Elemental’s business is built on software so it’s unsurprising it evangelises this route. “Relying on traditional video processing infrastructure is becoming increasingly difficult and costly, yet video distributors simply do not have the option of ignoring demand for multiscreen video services as they risk permanent loss of customers to Internetbased OTT alternatives,” argues Wymbs.
“For video processing tasks and broadcast workflows, video providers need to evolve their systems from dedicated hardware based on ASICS, FPGAs and other custom chips to software-defined video solutions running on standard off-the-shelf hardware,” he argues.“In order to lead and manage the transition to new video codecs such as HEVC, advanced audio codecs, advanced colour spaces, increased colour bit depth, objectoriented audio specifications, forensic watermarking and new display formats like 4K Ultra HD, video providers should look to content delivery services built upon a software-based platform.”

 “Automation not only allows operators to do more with their existing staff, but also allows the system to be selfmonitoring, self-adjusting and in some cases self-correcting, significantly reducing the cost of offering important services” paul turner Vice-president at Telestream

There is a long-standing debate that software-based encoders ultimately produce higher quality results than those that are hardware based, particularly if you also bring in GPU vs. dedicated ASICs. Imagine, which recently acquired RGB Networks to its portfolio, having considerably strengthened its media processing ability by taking over Digital Rapids last year, adopts this more nuanced view. “Fully hardware solutions tend to bring high video quality and service density thereby providing the best cost per service for operators,” advises Seneca. “The disadvantage of hardware solutions is that they require dedicated hardware that cannot be easily repurposed for other applications. They also have a longer development cycle of new features and functionality, if available at all. A full software solution brings ultimate flexibility with a higher service and density cost. Hybrid solutions with hardware acceleration address the advantages of both by increasing density and reducing service costs while remaining flexible for new feature development.”


MAM integration
Over the last decade, integration with asset management has become vital and all the major vendors of encoders and transcoders have integrated with all the major asset management vendors. This happened before the advent of common interface standards like FIMS. So, while that standard offers hope for common control, it is not widely deployed for encoding today as it arrived a little late on the scene. Other traditional hardware functions are moving into smart transcoders like the Dalet AmberFin platform.

“This platform includes frame rate conversion and frame rate fix-up,” explains Dalet’s chief media scientist, Bruce Devlin. “A lot of content is today assembled from new and old footage that may have been shot at different rates. Whilst assembling movie content, European TV content and American TV content on a timeline in and editor may be easy to do. The results do not look good when broadcast on a low bandwidth transmission channel and displayed on a big, bright, flat screen. Patented frame rate conversion technology from Dalet can fix up may of these problems without resorting to a re-edit of the original content.” Integration with a facility’s asset management layer can range from simplistic to deep. Wowza’s Knowlton explains that the simpler the integration such as using watch folders to capture newly-archived live video assets and metadata), the more the operator can treat the various components of their video workflow as modular components, choosing best-of-breed technologies rather than a monolithic technology stack. Telestream’s Turner notes that MAMtranscoder integration is generally done via API, “although less sophisticated systems may only offer hot folder integration, which as you can imagine offers much less interaction, and places all of the management burden on the asset management system itself.” All of these issues will come into sharper focus at NAB in Las Vegas. “We’re at an inflection point in the industry which creates the opportunity for new suppliers to emerge in due course,” predicts Wymbs. “This only happens once every decade or more, but we believe Elemental is well positioned to be the dominant suppliers of core video infrastructure over the next decade.”

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