In the era of multiplatform delivery the ability to create many formats at speed is vital, but where does the cloud fit in a broadcaster’s transcoding strategy?
At the heart of operational efficiency in the multi-platform world lies transcoding: the art and science of taking a file in one digital format and generating from it many other formats to suit all the target delivery devices.
By its nature, this is likely to be a peaky business. When a new piece of content becomes available then all the various versions need to be created as quickly as possible. Broadcasters want live programmes to be available on VoD as soon as possible after transmission. But when there is no content, then the transcoders lie idle.
This is an ideal application for the cloud, where as many software instances as are required can be spooled up, with the processors released as soon as the task is completed.
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But are there practical limitations to cloud transcoding, in security, connectivity and cost?
AWS Elemental has suggested that “the cost of cloud resources has fallen as cloud infrastructure providers take advantage of the economies of scale, accelerated data transport to the cloud, and the ability to offer enterprise-grade reliability and security aligned with Motion Picture Association of America requirements.
“This offers pay TV providers and other content distributors an opportunity to get out of the infrastructure business, and focus on what they do best – delivering the highest quality content.”
Matt Smith, VP and principal media evangelist at Brightcove, explains that “not too many years ago, OTT video preparation was done using on-premise hardware and software. But what happened when the business development guy rolled in on a Thursday saying he signed a deal to distribute a library of 1500 videos and they had to be ready the following Monday? Impossible.”
”A key operational benefit of file transcoding is the ability to take advantage of public cloud elasticity” - Tim Warren
Tim Warren, CTO of the video business at Harmonic, agrees. “A key operational benefit of file transcoding is the ability to take advantage of public cloud elasticity. There is always opportunity to increase parallelism, and hence maximise throughput and reduce latency.
“From a financial standpoint,” Warren adds, “when genuine total cost of ownership (including power, operations, disaster recover, the need to refresh hardware periodically) is taken into account, the cloud is cheaper than on-prem.”
Brightcove’s Smith was more guarded. “If there is excess capacity with a hardware encoder within a broadcast facility, it makes more financial sense to run it locally and then send it to the cloud for storage.”
That suggests that the cloud is just part of a wider workflow strategy. “The only intrinsically standalone app is long-term archive,” Tim Warren states. “Most other applications for file transcoding are part of a broader workflow where it is wiser to consider what happens downstream after the transcode.”
That could cover just-in-time packaging, the architecture where a single master file of a piece of content is stored, then when it is requested the master file is combined with appropriate advertising and branding, and transcoded on the fly – an ideal cloud application.
“To package on the fly and create stream assets from a master file or mezzanine in the cloud are table stakes” - Matt Smith
“The ability to package on the fly and create stream assets from a master file or mezzanine in the cloud are table stakes for today’s video workflows,” according to Brightcove’s Matt Smith. “Where master files sit in a ready state in the cloud it enables them to be extremely nimble, so they can send different stream rendition ladders to different syndication endpoints.”
One long-standing concern about using cloud workflows is the difficulty of shifting large media files there in the first place. This is seen to be a diminishing challenge, with services growing to provide the necessary bandwidth.
Alongside the well-known broadcast services like Aspera and Signiant, there are now cloud specific file transfer platforms like AWS Direct Connect, Vyvx from CenturyLink (formerly Level3) and Hibernia, now part of GTT Communications.
Harmonic’s Tim Warren dismisses the concerns about the cost and time needed to move content to the cloud, firmly stating that it is worth it.
“Once masters are in the cloud, there are significant cost savings and risk reduction compared with on-prem. If masters are kept on-prem, it is important to factor in the cost of creating and maintaining backups.
“The opportunity to offer disaster recovery as a service – DraaS – and pay for a backup facility only when needed creates significant differentiation.”
While each content owner and distributor will make their own finely balanced judgements on total cost of ownership, content security and operational agility, transcoding in the cloud is now a proven and valued route.