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Transcoding Trends for 2015
What are operators and MVPDs looking for from today's transcoding solutions? Automation, flexibility, and future-proofing are high on the list, and the old hardware vs. software debate continues.

Ten years ago, it was perhaps idealistic but not entirely unreasonable to hope that the fragmentation in delivery codecs, formats, and DRM schema would be resolved by 2015. Instead, the landscape has gotten even more complex, as the number of connected devices and operating systems has proliferated.

So what are operators looking for when they make investment decisions to refresh their content transcoding capabilities? There are variables in product scope, content scope, financial considerations, and infrastructure capacity to consider. Here are the thoughts of select vendors in this space, gathered ahead of new product launches at NAB in April.

“Today's file interoperability isn't perfect, and every system will have to cope with toxic files, pathological bitstreams, missing assets, and a whole host of operational issues in an elegant fashion,” says Bruce Devlin, chief media scientist at Dalet Digital Media Systems. “They have to do this while simultaneously providing configurations for very low-level encoding and wrapping controls to make the files just right for the enormous range of non-standard delivery specifications that are out there in the wild.”

Emphasis on Automation

His prescription is a transcoding system that can create all of the output formats that an operator's new business model requires, but with a level of automation that allows them to do this without a huge increase in staff.

From a file-based perspective, operators require access to flexible resources, says Tony Jones, head of technology, TV compression for Ericsson. While core processing can deal well with day-to-day processing requirements, he suggests, operators will also have times when they gain new libraries of content, and at these times Ericsson views the cloud and other pay-as-you-go options as more appealing to operators. Businesses are increasingly looking to the cloud to manage peaks in content processing, and also to avoid the hefty opex costs tied to on-site provisioning,” says Jones.

For linear content, Ericsson believes operators’ perspectives have changed a great deal over the last twelve months. “A year ago operators were primarily concerned with getting services up and running; now operators are having to pay storage and peering costs every time that content is viewed, and encoding performance is starting to matter much more,” he says. “By reducing the bitrates for linear content or the size of the files captured, the CDN costs, peering costs, and storage costs can all be brought down. Now more than ever, operators are focused on ways to reduce costs per view.”

Time and time again, transcoder vendors argue that scalability, reliability, and future-proofed technologies are the keys to unlock operator wallets.

Flexibility typically has many parameters, outlines Chris Knowlton, streaming industry evangelist for Wowza Media Systems. “A transcode solution must be compatible with their existing infrastructure, integrate with their existing workflows, and be fully accessible via API to allow tailored management and automation.

For Wowza, reliability includes predictable performance, round-the-clock operations, and redundancy for high-priority content. Scalability includes scaling up to take advantage of more powerful hardware, scaling out across geographies and both on-premises and cloud compute instances, and a licensing model that scales with usage.

“The solution also needs to be future-proof,” says Knowlton. “Most operators need support for transcoding and trans-rating into multi-bitrate H.264 video and AAC audio, which can be packaged into common traditional and adaptive streaming formats. For those in emerging markets with legacy technology in many devices, support for H.263 video is sometimes still a key requirement. With streaming codecs, formats, and devices in constant flux, operators can’t risk buying a solution today that won’t support their needs for tomorrow, such as HEVC video, 4K resolution, MPEG-DASH streaming, and whatever comes next. As technologies evolve, it’s much better to have a software-upgradeable solution that they know won’t need a truck roll for every update.”

John Riske, director of product marketing for media at Brightcove knows that operators will find an encoding bottleneck an unacceptable impediment to business growth. He says the buying criteria for operators should be around solutions that scale automatically to meet demand, without any capacity planning or other operational friction.

“Another key to avoiding operational friction and expense is to avoid encoding errors and any manual intervention in the process,” says Riske. “Content providers also need instant access to the state-of-the art for video formats and codecs so that they can deploy content as quickly as possible. Formats like HLS and DASH are evolving rapidly, and content providers are looking for solutions that get them what they need in a timely manner, without added expense or a long upgrade cycle.”

HDMI Dongles, Adaptive Bitrates Create New Challenges

A companion trend that Ericsson raises is a rise in higher versions of profiles, such as 720p50 or 720p60 full frame rate HDR. This has been driven by consumer use of HDMI dongles (such as Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick) with 50- or 60-inch TVs as well as improving capabilities of high-end tablets.

“Use of high-resolution profiles being on consumer TV screens means that image quality is becoming more important and, particularly when it comes to valuable content such as sports, the step from 25/30 frames per second to 50/60 frames per second makes a dramatic difference to the viewing experience,” says Ericsson's Jones.

He contends that as the number of people viewing content via adaptive bitrate (ABR) formats increases, the importance to and expectations of those consumers for multiscreen services increases. “As consumers start using the ABR service as their primary source of TV viewing on larger screens than mobile devices, we’re seeing expectations grow more demanding, and greater pressure put upon TV service providers than before,” says Jones, “This trend is particularly pronounced in the U.S. where use of HDMI dongles has penetrated the most.”

With  ABR becoming a more common consumption method, particularly on big screens, greater emphasis is being placed on the video quality provided by encoding/transcoding solutions.

“Many operators are combining ABR and broadcast encoding/transcoding systems (as these are the most stable with respect to standards and configuration) and leveraging a separate ABR packaging and origin stage to manage the volatility of standards and devices on the consumption side,” observes Tom Lattie, VP, market management & development, Video Products at Harmonic.

A main preoccupation for transcode vendors at NAB 2015 will be multiscreen, as operators tug in opposite directions when it comes to hardware or software encoding and transcoding. It's a perennial theme, but two fundamental differences remain—hardware encoding has lower latency, and software encoding can more readily be tweaked for higher quality.

“For operators trying to reach any screen, a few hundred milliseconds of extra latency at the encoder is rarely an issue, while the need for quality increases as the video capabilities of our playback devices continue to improve,” contends Knowlton for Wowza.

He argues that software-based encoding is more flexible in three key ways. First, operators can continue to upgrade the encoding software as standards evolve and algorithms become more efficient, thus providing a level of future-proofing not typically available with hardware. Second, software typically provides much more granular control, allowing one to fine-tune the look or playback characteristics of the streams as needed. Third, software doesn’t tie you to a specific location, allowing you to spin up transcoder instances wherever you need them, whether on-premises or in the cloud.

Of course, there is a hybrid solution, which is to run transcoding software on computers containing video acceleration chipsets or GPUs from companies such as Intel and NVIDIA, respectively. Wowza sees significant improvements in these technologies making it possible to combine the benefits of software encoding with performance and quality similar to hardware encoders.

“With cloud infrastructure providers, such as Amazon Web Services, providing hardware-based video acceleration in some of their compute instances, it’s getting easier to get great transcoding results without buying hardware,” says Knowlton.