Encoding & Transcoding 2018: Part 2
We continue our survey of leading vendors in the encoding and transcoding market, which we began in part 1 with an overview of the technologies and looks at Harmonic, AWS Elemental, and Telestream. Part 2 will look at Encoding.com, Beamr, Brightcove, Bitmovin, Cisco/Synamedia, and Ericsson/MediaKind.
This year, Encoding.com is celebrating 10 years in business offering VOD transcoding and packaging workflows in the cloud (primarily AWS).
“We were the pioneer in leveraging the cloud to create the first transcode-as-a-service using cloud computing,” notes Jeff Malkin, Encoding.com’s president. “Our target market is the large media and entertainment (M&E) companies in the U.S. and abroad, and we’re powering complex VOD workflows for many of [them].”
Encoding.com built its platform using primarily open source tools, with a few commercial and proprietary exceptions. Encoding.com’s platform runs on general purpose CPUs in containers in public and private cloud data centers.
“The reason we … architected our platforms that way is that it makes it much easier to not only scale, but also to adopt and implement new tools to support new features and new requirements,” says Malkin.
Encoding.com runs about 40 different engines underneath its API. These engines drive a suite of micro services like transcoding and packaging, DRM encryption, server side ad insertion, technical QC, advanced audio, standards conversion, etc.
“What makes us unique … is the flexibility in our platform for adopting and how quickly we adopt new features,” says Malkin. “Because our clients’ requirements in the OTT space are changing so rapidly, they need a platform … that can quickly adapt to their ever-changing requirements.
“When a customer has new requirements,” adds Malkin, “if we don’t currently support those features we’ll go out and find an engine or build a new engine that does, add that to the platform, and expose those dials and knobs within the API as parameters.”
While Encoding.com encodes most content in H.264, it is starting to see more 4K and more HEVC.
“Several of our largest clients are working on complex HDR workflows now, but it’s really with an eye on 2019,” says Malkin. “We believe the near-term future is all about HDR and UHD workflows.”
Encoding.com does have some enterprise and education clients but made a strategic decision about three years ago to focus on the high end of the media & entertainment (M&E) market. The company also has some large eSports clients using them for VOD.
While most companies struggle to cope with the lack of standards in many corners of the streaming market, Encoding.com looks on the bright side.
“The chaos that is in the market [because of] the lack of universal standards for codecs and containers and caption formats and DRM formats and encryption [and the rest],” says Malkin. “[That] is the reason Encoding.com exists today.”
Beamr is a self-described “image science software” company founded in 2009 to develop photo and video compression software. Beamr still runs jpegmini.com, a platform that offers the company’s photo optimization technology.
In 2016, backed by funding from Verizon Ventures and Innovation Endeavors (Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s private VC entity), Beamr acquired Vanguard Video, a video codec engineering group that had been working with Netflix, among others. Suddenly, Beamr was in the video codec business.
Today, the company employs a team of around 70, of whom more than 50 are engineers. Of those, 40 are exclusively video codec engineers. With 36 patents granted and more than 20 pending, Beamr claims to have the strongest video codec engineering team in the industry.
Beamr’s perceptual optimization algorithm R&D group works out of Tel Aviv, Israel, while its video codec team is located in St. Petersburg, Russia. Beamr’s sales, marketing and product support units work out of Silicon Valley.
Beamr’s priority has been on developing CPU-driven, pure software, VOD encoding solutions, primarily for the high-end M&E market. Hollywood studios, MSO’s and some of the world’s largest OTT streaming services use Beamr’s CAE technology to achieve high video quality at low bitrates.
“We [initially] went with VOD because that’s where the industry was going,” notes Mark Donnigan, Beamr's vice president of marketing. “We had 4K delivery of VOD for two years before anybody did a live transmission.”
Since then, Beamr has read the industry tea leaves and plans to roll-out a live product by the end of this year.
“If you look at the live delivery of UHD content with HDR, the World Cup really pushed the limit and educated consumers about what is possible,” notes CTO Dror Gill. “And now they will demand more and more channels and events and content to be available at this level of quality.”
“We’ll be ready with live by the end of the year and we have the best performance for live,” adds Gill. “The limitation today is that you can only do 2 or 3 ABR layers on a single server with competing encoding technologies. In our case, we have such high performance we can do 10 layers on a single server and they’re all synchronized.
Beamr’s live encoder will incorporate CAE on a frame-by-frame basis.
“The challenge with live is keeping the delay as low as possible, using chunking, using some advanced protocols,” says Gill. “I think this is what the industry is looking for.”
Encoding speed is a critical differentiator in the market, and Beamr’s HEVC encoding on Intel processors has achieved impressive results. In addition, Beamr (and the rest of the streaming industry) is deep into efforts to optimize QoE, from HDR to high frame rates.
“Typically we do 30fps. In the latest 4K it was 60fps, which looked really great,” says Gill, who is also a fan of HDR. He adds, “Many experts in Hollywood think 1080p HDR is the thing.”
Founded in 2004 and based in Boston, MA, Brightcove delivers end-to-end video streaming services to a wide range of customers. With 500 employees in 12 global offices, and customers in over 75 countries, Brightcove is the world’s largest independent online video platform (OVP). In 2012, Brightcove acquired cloud-based video encoder Zencoder for $30 million.
“Our focus as a company is to have a comprehensive end-to-end platform that allows anyone who has created content to ingest, transcode, and prepare that content, manage the metadata, play the content out on multiple platforms, and be able to manage the integration of a multitude of third-party ecosystem partners, whether it’s analytics or advertising, and to be able to understand how users are engaging with that content,” says Anil Jain, Brightcove’s EVP & GM, media. “That is our platform and you can apply it to a multitude of industries.”
Brightcove focuses on broadcasters and content publishers—anyone for whom media is their business and content is their product. Media customers provide about 60% of Brightcove’s revenue, and account for 10 times more content volume than other categories, but the company also serves enterprise and marketing companies.
“We believe fundamentally that video will be ubiquitous [and that] video is a fundamental part of the marketing cloud,” adds Jain. “Utilizing marketing automation platforms, and being able to utilize video effectively as the most engaging means of communication to further the customer journey… is a maturing market right now. It’s nascent and it’s going to grow dramatically. Marketing using our video platform is key.”
Brightcove’s most prominent competitors are other OVPs like Kaltura and Ooyala. A degree of commoditization has crept into the OVP space, with differentiation occurring above the commoditization threshold - through innovative features, breadth of use case support, and ease of use.
Bitmovin was founded by two Austrian PhD video codec researchers who worked on the team that developed the MPEG-DASH standard. The Bitmovin encoder and player resulted from their research and was commercialized in 2013.
Since then, Bitmovin has experienced rapid growth and currently provides three core products: a cloud/on-prem software encoder, a widely distributed player, and an analytics/monitoring tool that can be deployed for both media analytics and to monitor end-user QoE.
“We don’t do everything,” notes Kieran Farr, Bitmovin’s vice president of marketing. “We do the core parts that enable developers to assemble those solutions together into an end-to-end OTT or web distribution platform.”
The majority of Bitmovin’s current customers are major broadcasters and content publishers like the BBC and The New York Times. Historically, much of Bitmovin’s business has been SVOD (subscriber-based VOD) encoding, but the trend has been moving toward 24/7 live linear broadcast channels and live events encoding.
Bitmovin offers its customers the flexibility to either use Bitmovin’s managed cloud service (via AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud) or license Bitmovin’s software for deployment within their own infrastructures, often a much less costly option for content providers that have the infrastructure to use.
The Bitmovin player, which the company says receives billions of impressions each month, can take advantage of hardware decoders when available and relies on software decoding when not.
Bitmovin was founded by researchers, and its analytics tools were born from the company’s efforts to create innovative solutions to its customers’ challenges. That can be particularly difficult when the messages from customers are mixed.
“We now are seeing very different priorities from the publishers,” says Farr. “We see one set of publishers saying we need zero latency. The other set of publishers say we need maximum efficiency… those are polar opposites.”
In any case, analytics is becoming a more critical piece of the streaming puzzle throughout the industry.
“[These analytics tools] give us a level of visibility that we never had before,” notes Farr. “For the first time… we now have actionable insights that we can actually do something with to improve the quality of experience.”
For example, Bitmovin’s analytics tools can help companies isolate where problems are originating, whether at the ISP, at the CDN, or with the encode.
All of which inspires Farr to note, “Where I think we’re going to see a lot of growth for Bitmovin in the next six months is with analytics.”
Synamedia (formerly Cisco SPVSS)
[Editor's note: The following section has been updated to reflect the fact that Synamedia is now independent from Cisco.]
Cisco is one of a few technology conglomerates (others include Verizon and Ericsson) that has played a significant role in the streaming media space. At this year’s IBC, two of the largest global conglomerates, Cisco and Ericsson, announced the spin-offs of their video units.
Cisco’s Service Provider Video Software Solutions (SPVSS) business was purchased by Permira Funds, a global private equity firm, for a reported $1 billion. The deal closed in late October, and the former Cisco division is now a privately owned, standalone company called Synamedia. The company is based in London and is focused on helping telcos, media companies, and pay TV providers optimize their current infrastructures while also expanding their OTT services.
Synamedia builds off of Cisco's strong reputation as a developer of appliances, and there are more than 24,000 units of its Digital Content Manager (DCM) series of encoding appliances in the field. The appliance is limited to AVC/H.264 and MPEG-2 encoding, but Cisco has been dipping its toe in the software waters with the introduction of its vDCM virtual encoder that includes its own optimized version of HEVC.
While more than 90% of Cisco’s video encoding business is still H.264, the less than 10% that is HEVC is based on a software codec developed in-house at Tandberg Telepresence, later acquired by Cisco. (Cisco’s WebEx and Telepresence units used HEVC to drive down bandwidth in those applications. The video unit took that core HEVC codec and adapted it to the broadcast industry.)
“The move from appliances to software has been going on for a long time, but pure cloud, in the way you easily deploy yet another channel … that whole game is very much in play right now,” says Morten Rasmussen, Cisco senior product manager for video compression.“We are still seeing quite a bit of interest in doing it on-prem with our larger customers.
“It’s pretty expensive to have a 24/7 channel on AWS, and large companies have their own infrastructures already,” adds Rasmussen. “The model might be to do something on-prem with some disaster recovery or to be able to spin up very fast some important programming … not necessarily the full line-up.”
Driven by the reality that live CAE is much more difficult than VOD, Synamedia has developed a Smart Rate Control technology that takes advantage of its patented Stream Video Quality (SVQ) monitoring and analysis tool to minimize bandwidth while maximizing quality.
“SVQ assesses in real time the quality achieved by the encoder. It’s an integral part of Smart Rate Control,” says Rasmussen. “It’s integrated into the encoder and takes very little extra CPU … We don’t charge for it. If you buy our encoder, you get this included.”
Rasmussen explains, “We analyze the video while encoding it, and make the right decisions to drop the bandwidth frame by frame, 40ms by 40ms, if that frame does not need to be encoded at the constant high bitrate. [We save] 30-40% in bandwidth as opposed to doing an ordinary constant bit rate encode.”
“You also save on storage costs for DVR applications,” adds Rasmussen. “[It’s cutting costs in multiple ways while still maintaining quality]. Everybody is doing this, but we believe we are doing it the best.”
Ericsson is the other technology multinational that showcased the spinoff of its video business at IBC, in Ericsson’s case into two distinct entities. The new Red Bee Media offers managed playout services to broadcast operators while the newly branded MediaKind handles technology development and deployment. Both units will remain under the Ericsson umbrella.
“Say [a 24/7 linear channel wants to stream] … if they want somebody to do that for them as a service, to operate it and do the playout and manage the content flow day-to-day and create the channels, that’s Red Bee’s business,” says Tony Jones, MediaKind's principal technologist. "If they want the equipment that compresses and streams it and makes them able to publish it, then that’s [MediaKind].”
Video compression is a core component of MediaKind’s business, most of which is live.
“What we’ve excelled in over the years is compression performance. It’s harder to do for live, and as a result it’s a more valuable proposition,” notes Jones. “In many cases, the VOD can achieve better quality by just taking longer, so the incremental value difference between different encoder vendors is not so great [with VOD].”
MediaKind is primarily software based, but not yet 100 percent. They still sell appliances, mainly from their previous Tandberg television business. The MediaKind technology portfolio includes additional IP from the smaller companies that Ericsson has acquired over the years. That technology includes contribution, video processing, cloud DVR, packagers and the TV platform business.
MediaKind and Red Bee will service Ericsson’s big legacy customers, including ATT, Verizon, the UK’s Sky TV and a plethora of smaller service providers. So far, MediaKind has found it hard to access nascent user-generated live content services like Facebook Live.
“The point that they start to care about the efficiency of what they’re delivering and how good it looks, then they [are] more open to opportunities for people like us. That in turn is a function of how popular it is,” notes Jones. “Once it becomes very popular, CDN costs start to go up and doing it more efficiently for the same quality becomes a tangible asset. If nobody’s watching- then who cares if it’s too much bitrate?”
MediaKind will also offer Ericsson’s Video Storage and Processing Platform (VSPP), which powers a unified solution for cloud DVR, on-demand, and time/place-shifted TV services.
“[VSPP] brings both processing and storage together with the aim of making a very high-performance cloud DVR. It does way more than that, but that’s its core value proposition,” says Jones.”
Ericsson has been supporting broadcast television for years, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interested in cutting edge video applications. Ericsson/MediaKind has been investigating VR, and more specifically 360° video, for quite a while, even while acknowledging that 360 will probably require at least 8K resolution and headsets that are not yet up to decoding 8K video.
“We like to explore new technologies like [VR] because … it’s the means by which you discover it might be useful for a lot of other things you’re doing,” notes Jones. “Everything about 360 video affects the way that we treat the human visual system and understand it in terms of compression and video processing. So, it does feed back into knowledge about what else we might be able to use.”
Continuing our look at the major players in the encoding and transcoding space, we look at what ATEME has been up to.
We wrap up our survey of the encding and transcoding landscape with looks at Verizon Digital Media Services, Media Excel, Comprimato, Elecard, Capella Systems, Epic Labs, EuclidIQ, and NGCodec.
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.
Now widely available, per-title encoding makes whatever codec publishers are already using more efficient by creating a custom optimized encoding ladder.
An insightful new service called Mux Data makes quality of experience monitoring and analysis easy. This illustrated guide explains how to use it when diagnosing problems big and small.
If you're not already using per-title encoding, it's time. Here's a guide to choosing the tool that's best for you.
A new generation of encoders looks at the context of content to deliver better video playback and higher efficiency. Here's what publishers need to know about CAE.