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Elemental Introduces GPU-Based Video Processing System
Already in use at Brightcove, the beta Elemental Server uses massively parallel GPUs for H.264 and VC-1 output.
Wed., May 20, by Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen
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While the quality of GPU-based encoding remains controversial, we're beginning to see more and more implementations of it, at least at the consumer and prosumer levels. Elemental Technologies intorduced it last year in its Badaboom application, which promised much faster transcoding than CPU-based apps, and other consumer-level tools like Cyberlink's MediaShow Expresso soon followed.

Elemental also makes the RapiHD Accelerator for Adobe Premiere, a software solution bundled with an Nvidia Quadro FX board, and CEO and chair Sam Blackman said the company began getting feedback from people using Accelerator in studios and at online video platforms that they’d be interested in an enterprise-level appliance that offered GPU-based encoding.

Today, the company announced its enterprise-level product called Elemental Server, which puts four GPUs and two CPUs (they won't say which kind) in a single 2RU chassis. It’s currently in beta, but is already in use at Brightcove, which worked with Elemental to improve the GUI and APIs. Five other online video platforms and broadcasters are using the Server beta, Blackman says he’s not able to announce those names yet.

The genesis of all of Elemental’s products began soon after the company formed in 2006 and teamed with Pixelworks, a Portland-based semiconductor company. "We wanted to figure out how to run on common hardware rather than specialized ICs," says Blackman, who added that Server is designed to offer "the best of both worlds – the price of an off-the-shelf solution but with the power of custom hardware." As is typical of enterprise-level encoding and transcoding solutions, though, Elemental Server’s pricing isn’t public. All Blackman would say is that it matches the performance of seven dual quad-core CPU-only servers at a lower price.

And while there’s been no independent benchmarking of Server, Blackman claims it can do 32 concurrent real-time transcodes of 1080p input to 480x270 resolution output as opposed to five for CPU-only competitors. Initial reviews of Badaboom revealed quality concerns, but more recent looks found most of the artifacting problems had been rectified.

Aside from potential reduced capital expenditure, Blackman says that since fewer units are required to do the same volume of transcoding, Server also holds potentially reduced total cost of ownership from lower energy consumption and cooling costs.

Server outputs both H.264 and VC-1, and Elemental has worked with Adobe to ensure integration with Flash Media Server 3.5 and dynamic streaming. Blackman says the company is working on supporting Smooth Streaming for Microsoft Silverlight. (It already supports Silverlight, just not Smooth Streaming.)

"Both technologies really increase the user experience, but also require dramatically more processing on the server side," says Blackman, "Since if you’re going to deliver the same content at multiple resolutions and bitrates, you need separate encodes for each resolution and bitrate."