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Encoding & Transcoding 2018: Part 1
Encoding and transcoding are at the heart of every OTT and online video workflow. The first article in this three-part series gives an overview of the technologies and a look at three major players in the space: Harmonic, AWS Elemental, and Telestream.
Learn more about the companies mentioned in this article in the Sourcebook:
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Now that we’ve established the terms, let’s dive into what various vendors in the space are doing. The following profiles cover a range of the video compression companies that presented at IBC. They include Capella Systems, with 12 employees, and Harmonic, with more than 1,200. Here’s a full list of the companies we’ll profile: 

  • Harmonic
  • AWS Elemental
  • Telestream
  • Encoding.com
  • Beamr
  • Brightcove
  • Bitmovin
  • Cisco/Synamedia
  • MediaKind/Ericsson
  • Verizon Digital Media Services
  • Media Excel
  • Comprimato
  • Elecard
  • Capella Systems
  • Epic Labs
  • EuclidIQ
  • NGCodec

This list of profiled companies is by no means exhaustive, but presents a number of the different approaches encoding companies are employing to satisfy the requirements of increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumers. If you see a company that wasn’t mentioned in our roundup, please contact the author for a future follow-up article.

Harmonic

With 1,200 employees, San Jose-based Harmonic is the largest company focused primarily on the delivery of streaming services. Harmonic has historically catered to the world’s largest broadcasters and cable companies and claims nine out of the world’s top 10 broadcast operators as customers. Harmonic has been targeting the OTT space since 2007.

Harmonic’s video business is primarily focused on live streaming, with the majority being 24/7 linear channels. Their contribution encoding business is event-based and provides services for high-profile events, including the most recent Olympics as well as this year’s FIFA World Cup.

In 2014, Harmonic expanded its presence in the VOD market with a strategic investment in Encoding.com, one of the world’s largest encoders of file-based content. Thierry Fautier, Harmonic’s vice president, video strategy, says “… where people want to launch a new service in VOD and want to transcode 10,000 titles in several weeks, then a cloud-based service is a really good solution for that.” 

Harmonic’s sales are shifting from appliances with loaded software to software only and SaaS on the cloud. Harmonic can use any public cloud service—Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud—as well as private cloud infrastructures behind the firewalls of its larger customers.

“The classical approach to stack up boxes is not really going to make the cut for massive scale OTT services,” says Fautier. “We believe the cloud is a great tool to scale, and we believe there is still a lot of innovation to be done on the quality of experience for live OTT services.” 

Besides being one of the biggest players in the streaming space, Harmonic also strives to be one of the most innovative. The company holds many patents and is actively involved in efforts to move the industry forward with AV1, VR, latency minimization, and AI applied to video compression. 

Harmonic leverages 25 years of experience and an extensive content library to train its AI. The company has also developed its own measurement tool, the HVQ metric, which it has incorporated into its EyeQ CAE algorithm. With EyeQ, Harmonic claims the world’s most extensive commercial deployment of CAE for live services. 

AWS Elemental 

Elemental may be the most high-profile streaming service provider in the land, having been acquired by Amazon for about $300 million in 2015. The company, now called AWS Elemental, was founded in Portland in 2006 to address the emerging OTT market.

Elemental’s customers were those broadcasters, pay TV companies, and content owners that were looking to deliver content direct to consumers over the Internet. The company adopted a novel approach to the technology for video compression: GPU-accelerated software video encoding as opposed to the previously favored ASIC powered encoding hardware. 

AWS purchased the company with the knowledge that cloud-native services that are rented on-demand on an as-needed basis would enable Elemental’s customers to scale up their OTT offerings without having to engage in endless hardware refresh cycles on their own premises.

AWS began offering cloud versions of Elemental’s products—now called AWS Media Services—about a year ago. These services include MediaConvert (file transcoding), MediaLive (live video processing), MediaPackage (just-in-time packaging), MediaStore (content storage), and MediaTailor (server-side ad insertion, or SSAI). The services are also still available on AWS Elemental appliances for customers still buying devices and deploying in their headends.

The Media Live service is primarily designed for pop-up and ad hoc channels. Even commercial broadcasters with lots of infrastructure might find it cost-effective to use AWS Media Services to manage dynamic rights opportunities like the Olympics or major sports events rather than spin up another head end for two months.

Like all companies working in the live encoding space, AWS Elemental is focused on the latency challenges that surfaced this year.

“This year we had a lot of live big sporting events and streaming latency came up as a big topic,” says Simon Frost, AWS Elemental’s head of marketing and business development, EMEA. “We’ve done a lot of research… about how we can optimize every stage of the encoding, packaging, CDN chain, and the players.” 

“The goal is to be better than broadcast, with latency as good or slightly better than typical broadcast delivery latencies,” adds Frost. “[We think] we can get those latencies down to the 6- to 8-second mark, which would be comparable to broadcast streams.”

Most of AWS Elemental’s business so far has been on the VOD side. The VOD workflow lends itself to doing file-to-file transcoding either in real time or slower than real time. And VOD takes best advantage of Amazon’s S3 data storage service. For example, the entire Netflix workflow is based on AWS. That’s a very big VOD workflow.

Like most companies at this year’s IBC, the great bulk of AWS Elemental’s encoding today is in H.264, with a smattering of HEVC for 4K UHD. AWS Elemental is not doing much of anything with 8K at this stage, but is very interested in HDR. 

“If we look at the visual impact of 4K … and then you look at 1080p with HDR, you actually get as much customer benefit in terms of perceived picture quality through 1080p with HDR and you don’t get the bandwidth impact of trying to deliver a UHD service,” says Frost. “We support both … but I think 1080p with HDR is quite interesting.” 

Like many encoding companies, but with more internal resources, AWS Elemental is exploring ways that AI and machine learning can optimize their workflows.

“Once you’ve got your video data pulled into AWS, you can use machine learning techniques on top of that,” notes Frost. “You might want to add subtitle tracks by doing audio-to-text recognition. We are able to do text translation, so you can bring one language in and translate it to multiple languages … you can even do text-to-speech automatically and create audio language tracks that didn’t exist before.”

As with all machine learning models, degrees of confidence are still limited. At this point, AI may be best used as an adjunct to human capabilities. But as customers look for ways to be faster, more agile, and more innovative toward their own customers, expect companies like AWS Elemental to find ways to help them out.

Telestream 

Founded in 1998 and based in Nevada City, CA, Telestream is a market leader in file-based transcoding and video. In the past couple of years, the company has expanded into live streaming and introduced its Lightspeed Live Capture and Lightspeed Live Stream products to enable ingest, encoding, and delivery of multiscreen ABR OTT content. 

Lightspeed integrates with Vantage, Telestream’s popular software-enabled media processing platform that manages media services (ingest, editing, transcoding, QC, packaging, monetization, and distribution). 

“We are the worldwide leader in production transcoding and workflow automation,” notes Stuart Newton, Telestream’s vice president for business development, iQ Solutions. “[We do] all of NBC’s sitcoms, all of CBS’s shows, and small and large post houses who are handing off shows for distribution, for example, to Netflix.” (Newton notes that Netflix’s transcoding for its own distribution to end users is a completely different process and workflow.)

Telestream plans to continue to work with content creators as the latter build direct relationships with consumers. 

“For example, Disney is going to stand up next year a live streaming channel,” says Newton. “They’re not going to hand Disney content over to anybody else. They want that direct [connection to the consumer]. They have the production chain all the way from content creation to distribution to the end user.” 

Last year, Telestream acquired IneoQuest, a leader in pre-encode and post-encode video quality assurance and monitoring. IneoQuest has now become the iQ Solutions business unit within Telestream. The iQ solution is built-in at the outset, when a channel is spun up to the cloud or on-prem behind a firewall.

“We’ve got the first instantiation of one-click channel spin up in the cloud with fully integrated monitoring,” adds Newton. “That has now built a framework for us to move into self-aware video delivery.”

Today, around 40% of Telestream’s business is live, while about 60% is file-based. 

“We’re really, really strong on the file side,” says Newton. “The direction we’re heading is to not neglect the file side, but to see more growth in the distribution side, the live side.”

Check back Monday, November 12 for part 2.

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