A Buyers' Guide to Encoding and Transcoding Products
The lines are blurring in the field of encoding solutions. Not long ago there seemed to be a specific product for a narrow range of input and output file types. Now, nearly every product outputs files that are suitable for multiple low-bandwidth mobile devices through high-definition broadband and broadcast quality. Adaptive streaming and H.264 solutions are widely available, and most of the products have a server option for workgroup encoding and distribution. Workflow solutions are integrated, and the need for real-time live stream encoding is expanding quickly.
Where stand-alone in-house implementations were once the norm, it is now common to have a cloud-based solution to make it even easier for those in need of an efficient and cost-effective solution. And why not use it? With ever-increasing consumer demands for formats for smartphones, game consoles, desktops, web, TV, and any number of other emerging devices, the complexity of large-volume in-house encoding is getting both unwieldy and potentially frustrating.
Some solutions incorporate a hybrid approach with encoding performed locally with easy scalability into a virtualized cloud environment. It used to be easy to delineate among software-based and hardware-based products. Many hardware products now have a software solution available and vice versa. So with the blurring of feature sets in mind, here are some of the top encoder choices.
Many of you have used Carbon Coder over the years. That core product still exists, but it has been renamed ProMedia Carbon since Rhozet became part of Harmonic. The ProMedia Suite includes ProMedia Carbon for file-based transcoding for multiple formats, ProMedia Live for real-time encoding, and ProMedia Package for preparing streams for adaptive streaming. Harmonic also provides an HTTP streaming video server for multiscreen distribution in the ProMedia Origin product. The Harmonic products support formats from mobile to HD and can integrate DRM, closed captioning, and a scalable workflow. Carbon Server can be used to set up an enterprise transcoding farm of up to 100 ProMedia Carbon nodes.
Inlet Technologies has always been one of the leading companies providing SD and HD hardware-based encoding solutions and is now part of the Cisco family. The well-known Spinnaker family is now renamed the Cisco Media Processor Family, and Armada is renamed the Cisco Transcode Manager. The Media Processor solutions have always been strong in delivering live streams for sports, web, and IPTV applications as evidenced by their use in the Olympic Winter Games and Major League Baseball. The Media Processors support adaptive streaming including Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming, and Apple HTTP Live Streaming. The family supports streaming to smartphones and iOS devices. The Cisco Transcode Manager is the workflow management solution for automation in high-volume transcoding needs and provides advanced settings for preprocessing and transcoding into live and video-on-demand (VOD) formats.
Elemental Technologies provides multiscreen solutions for broadcasters, content programmers, and service providers. A centerpiece of the Elemental offerings is the Elemental Server running on Linux. It leverages the capabilities of multiple parallel GPUs and can deliver faster-than-real-time file-based video transcoding. These features make the product very desirable for large-scale transcoding for VOD as would be required by broadcasters. Output formats include all H.264 profiles, MPEG-2, and VC-1 with targeting to Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Apple HTTP Adaptive, and Flash Media Server. They can also provide CableLabs-compliant streams. Elemental Live is the company’s processing system for delivering multiscreen adaptive bitrate streams and out-of-the-box connectivity to major CDNs while concurrently archiving multiple bitrate streams.
Digital Rapids is well-known in the hardware-based encoding and transcoding arena. Digital Rapids products will accommodate encoding applications from mobile to broadcast delivery. Its StreamZHD encoders are a “do-all” platform. They can ingest, preprocess, format, and output concurrent streams for VOD and live adaptive streaming distribution to multiple compression and container formats. Adobe Flash, H.264, Microsoft VC-1, and MPEG-2 are supported, and the encoders are used by large broadcasters with high-volume transcoding requirements. What is not so well-known is its Transcode Manager software encoding solution. It can be used as a stand-alone multiple input and output solution for mobile phones through broadcast television. Version 2.0 will be available soon and adds a compelling feature. It can be deployed into the cloud on Windows Azure with full configuration and encoding control and not just as a cloud-based service. Finally, its TouchStream appliances provide a fully self-contained and portable streaming solution. It is designed for easy operation by nontechnical users and incorporates a touchscreen interface with live video monitoring.
The ViewCast Niagara series represents an established line of hardware streaming media appliances and encoders. The Niagara Pro II encodes multiple streams and is compliant with streaming to Apple iPhones and iPads. It is used by CDN broadcasters and incorporates ViewCast’s SimulStream software, which encodes multiple streams to multiple resolutions and formats concurrently. It is a self-contained unit with support for adaptive streaming in Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple HTTP. The Niagara GoStream SURF is a portable live streaming appliance that features push-button selection of encoder profiles and quick setup. Niagara SCX management software can be used to remotely control the Niagara line through an easy web interface. The enhanced Niagara SCX 6.2 software version specifically supports better streaming capabilities to iOS devices. All of the ViewCast products feature easy setup, multiple inputs, and industry-standard output formats.
Telestream Episode Pro features drag-and-drop flexibility in a graphical user interface for creating encoding workflows. The company’s newest version is one of the fastest software encoders on the market. A unique feature of Episode Pro is its capability to support encoder clustering. The one-click clustering feature has built-in file sharing and permits encoding across multiple workgroup machines or clusters and can encode two files simultaneously in the Pro version. Clusters can be configured in a mixed environment of Mac and PC machines. Telestream also provides a product for high-volume encoding environments in Episode Engine. Episode Engine can take full advantage of parallel processing by assigning simultaneous encoding tasks to each core of a multicore machine and cluster and can accomplish faster-than-real-time processing. Engine also supports unlimited parallel encoding jobs as opposed to the two simultaneous encodes in the Pro version. Episode supports most input formats and hundreds of output formats including H.264, Flash, and Windows.
Sorenson Squeeze has always provided ease of use, multiple output formats, excellent quality, and fast encoding speed. The latest iteration is Squeeze 7, which continues to build on the feature set. It supports a range of input formats and output formats for mobile devices through the ability to create a DVD directly from Squeeze and the inclusion of new encoding options for broadcast videos. Squeeze 7 incorporates GPU acceleration for H.264 on video cards supporting NVIDIA CUDA technology. Adaptive encoding is now supported for mobile devices, including iOS devices, and the batch encoding features are robust and easy to use. Automatic publishing options to multiple major CDNs, as well as YouTube and Sorenson 360, are easy to use and definitely speed the process. Sorenson 360 is a unique feature that immediately uploads your encoded video to your password-protected account. The feature is free for 1 year and can be used for review and customer approval processes. Presets are increasingly important for multiple devices, and Squeeze provides dozens of them in the product; it also has the Sorenson Media Exchange, where additional presets configured by users are available for specific tasks and are freely downloadable.
Microsoft Expression Encoder
Microsoft Expression Encoder Pro 4 supports encoding, live streaming, and options for streaming to Silverlight projects. Microsoft’s adaptive bitrate IIS Smooth Streaming for devices includes H.264 streaming to iOS devices as well as Windows Phone 7. For Windows Media the Microsoft VC-1 codec is included, as is H.264 Main, High, and Baseline profiles for MP4 output. Apple TV, Xbox 360, and Sony PlayStation Portable are just some of the device presets available. Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo presets provide a good starting point for users of those online services. Basic editing features included in the user interface are cropping and trimming media as well as the ability to add markers and metadata. Live streaming capability is another feature, and it is easy to add multiple live and file sources. Standard output presets include H.264 Smooth Streaming to iOS and HD-capable devices. Microsoft’s VC-1 codec is another option for delivery. Live connections are easy to establish either to a Windows Server or to CDNs. It is important to note that H.264 encoding is only available in the Pro version of the product.
Adobe Media Encoder
Adobe has tightly integrated its encoder into its familiar Creative Suite packages. In its latest product, Adobe continues its drag-and-drop capability for easily loading Premiere Pro and After Effects projects into the encoder. A new interface with a live preview window is a nice addition for previewing encoding results without having to wait for a full encode to complete. Support for adaptive streaming has been added for Flash streaming. More presets are available ranging from 3G phone and tablet configurations to high-definition presets for television and PCs. Presets provide a good starting point for encoding and can be customized to suit the needs of a particular encoding job. For live streaming, the Flash Media Live Encoder creates streams for the Flash Media Server or a CDN deployment. Adobe Dynamic Streaming is supported on Flash Media Server 4 software, and the encoder can send three streams at multiple bitrates.
Cloud & Hybrid Solutions
Encoding.com is probably the best known cloud-based encoding service. Files can be easily uploaded from a simple browse tool or can be added via a desktop application that includes encoding presets and drag-and-drop upload. The company supports huge numbers of file types for ingest and delivery. The user can control nearly every aspect of the encoding process from bitrate to video dimensions and output to multiple formats from H.264 through MPEG-2. Mobile output is easily configured for iOS devices as well as some Android and BlackBerry devices. Adaptive bitrate encoding is supported for iPad/iPhone at as many bitrates as the customer chooses. After transcoding, the user can have the files delivered to any of the major CDNs, or the files can be delivered via FTP to wherever the user desires. It is interesting to note that the company is the only video encoding service integrated with Rackspace and Amazon Web Services. Encoding.com pricing is monthly or pay as you go, or it can be customized for large-volume transcoding needs.
No mention of this company would be complete without including the Vid.ly universal video platform. The idea behind the service is that customers just want their videos to play anywhere on every platform. It is a simple process of telling Encoding.com where your video is, and it will do the transcoding and deliver a unique Vid.ly URL. Vid.ly will transcode your video into 22 formats and will provide you with HTML5- compliant embed codes. With the reasonably priced Vid.ly Pro, the user has access to analytics, API access, and a choice of a growing number of CDNs.
Sorenson Squeeze Server
Sorenson Squeeze Server builds on the stand-alone Squeeze encoding engine and extends its capabilities into the cloud. The Managed Server option is designed for high-volume encoding jobs using the Amazon Web Services cloud with automated workflows and certified Sorenson presets for reliable, high-quality encodes. 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.
A common thread runs through these encoding solutions: Each vendor is interested in providing a product solution that will encode for quality delivery to as many devices as possible. Clearly, mobile delivery is critical on one end of the spectrum, but broadcast qual- ity for over-the-top delivery is equally important on the other end and will continue to improve. Encoding tools have matured to the point that quality encodes in mul- tiple formats is to be expected by the customer. The growth of cloud encoding provides the scalability, flexi- bility, and efficiency that will lead to more content being encoded while minimizing the upfront infrastructure costs. There is no better time than now to easily and effectively deliver your content to the most viewers.
This guide first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Streaming Media European Edition.