A Buyers' Guide to Cloud Video Services
Hype frequently exceeds reality when it comes to new technologies, and cloud computing is no exception. Media enterprises recognise the key benefits of the cloud as an opportunity to replace up-front capital infrastructure expenses with low variable costs that scale with a project. They know that with the cloud, they no longer need to plan for and procure servers and other IT infrastructure weeks or months in advance. Producers of broadcast TV programming, B2B, or live events streamers can spin up hundreds or thousands of servers in minutes-and scale them down after use.
Yet while media companies have begun outsourcing their back office functions to the cloud, it's been a slower evolution to transition production and digital assets. There are concerns about the privacy and security of premium and exclusive content on servers owned by a third party.
There are also concerns about the real-time speed needed by organisations to meet deadlines for checking, reviewing, and collaborating on rushes. Broadcast news providers have further concerns about letting sensitive information out of their sight.
Yet the direction of travel is inevitable, with the majority of workflows moving from the desktop to the cloud over the next decade. Once companies get comfortable with it, then more and more of the heavy lifting such as encoding, transcoding, archiving, and retrieval will flow there.
The scalability of the cloud is perfectly suited for processor-intensive jobs, yet bandwidth constraints can make it challenging to transfer high bitrate content and continue to hinder craft editing online outside of a fixed fibre connection, but that's something that Next Gen compression schemes such as HEVC H.265 may solve. In the meantime, these cloud-based streaming media solutions are making the running.
Aframe is a private-cloud asset management platform primarily for the production of professional video/TV content with strong capabilities in collaboration, review, approval, and archive. At the present, Aframe software and websites only run on its own data centres, servers, storage, and network. A key function is a tagging/transcription service beginning from $20 per hour where the companies' own operators will log footage as it is uploaded. Costs for streaming clips, collaborative workflow, review, and approval range from $42 per seat per month including 250GB storage. Currently it hosts more than 24,000 hours of high-resolution footage, and it boasts 60-plus commercial accounts and 5,000 discrete users. Customers range from small two-to-three-person production companies to entire departments of large broadcasters such as the BBC and MTV. In 2012, it began operations in North America.
Amazon Web Services
One of the granddaddies of cloud computing, AWS is a collection of web services offered by Amazon accessed over HTTP, using REST and SOAP protocols and pay-as-you-go pricing and sheer scale that can only be matched by a handful of companies. Among AWS offerings are Amazon S3 for storage costing from 12 cents a month for the first 10TB; CloudFront for distribution of dynamic, static, or streaming content; and virtual computing environment Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). Amazon CloudWatch enables you to monitor your AWS resources such as CPU use, latency, memory usage, transaction volumes, request counts, or error rates.
Arguably the best-known cloud-based SaaS encoder with more than 10 million encodes and contracts with 1,700 brands under its belt, Encoding.com is venture-backed, privately held, and San Francisco-based. Like Zencoder, it claims to be the world's largest. It further claims to be the only such service to offer performance guarantees. Users can set up Watch Folders and profiles from bitrate to video dimensions and output to multiple formats in the software client; they can also check the source media location for new videos at any time frequency. Volume files are automatically encoded to the preset encoding profile and delivered to SFTP/FTP or Rackspace and Amazon Web Services, with which it is integrated. Desktop batch encoding is supported via an Adobe AIR application. Mobile output is easily configured for iOS devices, as well as some Android and BlackBerry devices.
Encoding.com pricing is monthly, pay-as-you-go, or tailored for large-volume transcoding needs.
A U.K.-based, AIM-listed provider of web-based video tools, Forbidden has amassed a strong reputation in professional video production in Europe since it launched in 2006. Its Java-based FORScene platform features the loss-free, broadcast-quality Osprey codec, as well as the drag-and-drop ability to edit and add effects, titles, colour correct, pan, and zoom.
Other increasingly critical offerings are frame-accurate metadata tools that enable users to log searchable text for archiving and repurposing and to link advertising to specific content. Productions with high volumes of rushes can upload to begin rough assembly while shooting continues, select shots for craft edit, and save digitisation and postproduction costs. Sold as a SaaS, priced by seat licence, each seat allows a simultaneous user to access the account and includes a set amount of video storage.
A consumer version, Clesh, was recently augmented for tablets using the Android OS. Forbidden may be able to further its presence in the U.S. following a deal with YouTube that has licensed the platform to provide editing and transcoding for its clients, notably NBC, streaming the London Olympics.
Unveiled in April, Haivision's HyperStream simplifies and automates transcoding in the cloud (via Amazon EC2) and global delivery over a CDN (via Akamai) to desktop or mobiles. Available as a user-managed, pay-per-use SaaS (Live) and as a fully managed service (Concierge), it allows users to reserve and initiate transcoding services within minutes. Transcoding is based on the KulaByte H.264 software, which is already firmly established for streaming live events to Dynamic Flash and Adaptive HTTP live streaming networks. With Haivision, users have a tech provider with prowess in live video encoding, cloud transcodes, and media distribution.
Microsoft's recent revamp of its online service Azure was by most accounts an effort to catch up with Amazon by embracing a wider set of outside development tools than Windows. Like Amazon, it offers an infrastructure in the cloud where developers can build and host applications or run their existing applications in the cloud whether Windows or Linux.
The reboot came with an API permitting use of Azure on most any software
platform, with almost any language-including more open source options. Node.js and Hadoop applications are now welcome alongside other existing Azure apps written in Java, Ruby, and more.
"Microsoft is invested in making sure that developers can use Windows Azure services from the languages of their choice," the company said. "To that end, we will continue to invest in the REST APIs so that developers can consume services from any language on any machine, including both Macs and PCs."
Headquartered in France, Mixmoov provides a white labelled, customisable, and browser-based online video editing solution. A text editor, effects, transitions, templates, and most standard features you would expect from a video editor are part of the interface. A special feature is frame-accurate cut. Once the video is ready, it can be downloaded or published in up to 1080p HD quality in multiple formats to OVPs, CMSs, websites, mobiles. Mixmoov is available in multiple languages, and APIs are provided for integrating it to websites and other products. The video editor can be easily incorporated into existing workflows as a cloud-based or on-premise solution.
Octoshape is a Danish-based purveyor of a cloud CDN that aggregates the resources of multiple cloud service providers to create instant capacity for video streaming, expanding or based on audience demand. This approach, which doesn't require the traditional requirements of server or network infrastructure at the edge, is claimed to enable more aggressive pricing than any competitive streaming services. Applications for Cloudmass include live-streamed video events, use in addition to a fixed CDN as an insurance policy, and delivery of video services in conjunction with Octoshape's Multicast, which shifts the streaming load off servers and into the network, reducing the bandwidth required in the process.
Sorenson's Squeeze Managed Cloud offers high-volume, cloud-based video encoding built on Amazon Web Services, placing its robust and popular Squeeze Server encoding engine at its core. Customers will get the same features found in Sorenson Squeeze, such as a wide selection of formats (Flash, H.264, Adaptive Bitrate, QuickTime, WMV, and WebM) and advanced preprocessing filters. If you already have your own encoding infrastructure but need more scalability, the Hybrid Cloud option presents a unique solution. Squeeze will access your source files from local and remote locations with very fast file upload to the cloud using technology from Aspera.
The Squeeze Server then self-scales as needed into the cloud to complete the encoding. It works as an infrastructure-as-a-service model and is billed by cloud encoding hours used. If your application demands that encoding is performed in-house behind the firewall, Squeeze can be run on your own servers and can be scaled by simply adding another encoding node.
Talk & Vision
A videoconferencing services specialist may seem an unlikely candidate for this list, but that was before the small British outfit was acquired by Dutch telecom KPN earlier this year (taking the 36% stake it didn't previously own). Talk & Vision previously offered a cloud-based VC system, bypassing the premises installation business of VC leaders such as Polycom, but now it has scale. Since the KPN deal it has made another with Videxio, a Netherlands-based provider of cloud videoconferencing services, enabling both companies to grow. The service is pay-per-use or fixed monthly fee and offers HD quality for global multipoint online reach. There are no investments in expensive videoconferencing infrastructure, and users can be up and running in minutes. Is this the future of business video meets?
WeVideo is a collaborative Flash-based video editing platform for the prosumer, offering a freemium business model. The free version provides 1GB of workspace but only with an export resolution of 360p. Additional storage for 10GB to 100GB and increased export resolutions range from $6.99 to $79.99 per month. An enterprise version is offered too, with pricing on request. WeVideo is the product of a California-based startup but is spun out of Norwegian venture Inspera and based on its education-focussed technology, Creaza. Streaming Media's review called it "easy to use and capable" but also mentioned "some limitations" that make it suitable for home users looking to edit personal video on smartphones and tablets rather than for serious production at this stage.
An online video encoding SaaS that claims to be the largest such vendor around (Encoding.com would say otherwise), Zencoder converts videos from any website or application into web- and mobile-compatible formats. Earlier this year it added support for Dolby Digital Plus and closed captioning, the latter now mandatory in the U.S. for internet delivery of broadcast content. It also partnered with Aspera to improve transfer speeds of large files. Costs range from 2 cents to 5 cents per minute of output based on volume, with HD minutes calculated at twice the cost of regular encoding minutes. (Just as we went to press, Zencoder was purchased by Brightcove, but it will continue to operate under the Zencoder name.)
This article was originally published in the autumn, 2012, issue of Streaming Media European Edition under the title "Buyers' Guide: Cloud Video Services."
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