Advances in Cloud Technology Improve Economics of Multiscreen Transcoding

ElementalElemental Technologies Overcomes Barriers to Flexible Use of the Cloud as a Seamless Extension of Premises Infrastructure
By Dustin Encelewski, Director of Product Marketing, Elemental Technologies
Media, entertainment and broadcast companies have an opportunity to reduce the costs of satisfying escalating demand for streamed content thanks to advances that allow them to flexibly utilize cloud-based transcoding resources on an as-needed basis.

This sea change in options available for alleviating pressure on transcoding infrastructures comes at a moment when consumer demand is pushing content suppliers to reach ever more devices with ever more content. Further complicating matters are government regulations requiring conformity to CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act and closed captioning rules on all live and on-demand streamed content.

Mounting capital expenditures associated with the requisite infrastructural shifts are hard to justify from an ROI perspective. Anything that can be done to improve the cost-benefit equation is welcome news, even if it means rethinking long-standing assumptions which, until now, have justifiably viewed cloud transcoding as a non-starter.

Why Cloud?

Video processing requirements are becoming ever more complex as media consumption habits change and the number of consumer devices capable of displaying video increases, requiring support for an expanding number of file formats. Multiscreen viewing of both live and on-demand content increasingly challenges media companies to assess how much onsite infrastructure to procure in order to satisfy spikes in demand without over-investing.

Figure 1 shows an example of predicted demand for video processing capacity compared to actual demand, where the gray steps represent capacity purchases over time. An obvious concern is where demand exceeds what fixed infrastructure can support. However, the opposite situation can prove even more costly over time, where demand runs lower than capacity, resulting in investments that go unused.

Figure 1


Media companies that don’t have enough video processing infrastructure to meet variable demand may find it difficult to keep up with customer expectations for top-quality service. And those that buy more infrastructure than they need will incur the unnecessary costs of maintaining resources that sit idle. Either way, they lose money.

The cloud offers a rational and cost-effective solution to the problem of variable demand by offering the ability to instantly scale up video processing capacity to accommodate high-traffic events and then to scale back down again as traffic wanes, thereby avoiding additional hardware investments that aren’t consistently utilized. Just like paying for a utility such as water or electricity, media companies can replace additional capital investments with more predictable operating costs that rise and fall depending upon the amount of cloud resources they actually use. In other words, cloud computing can help organizations handle variable video processing demand with great flexibility and agility, enabling them to improve customer service while at the same time reducing capital costs.

Cloud computing also presents exciting opportunities for media and entertainment companies that want to minimize the risk of launching new initiatives. For example, a broadcaster can quickly introduce a new program or channel using cloud transcoding and evaluate its success without investing in additional infrastructure. Once the new initiative is proven successful, investments in on-premise infrastructure can be made confidently to balance long term economics.

Likewise, the cloud offers the opportunity to take on one-time projects without long-term investment. For example, many media companies have an extensive catalog of content, but supporting the infrastructure required to convert a video library into new distribution formats can be costly and inefficient. Using cloud resources, broadcasters can enhance offerings and extract unrealized revenue to make archived video footage available to customers on demand.

Addressing the Challenges

While the cloud has been a hot topic for many enterprise applications, until recently several obstacles put cloud transcoding out of reach for many companies, particularly those that process high volumes of professional quality video. The good news is that these hurdles are quickly disappearing.

First, until recently, the cost of processing video in the cloud was prohibitive, especially for high-volume production houses. But with more providers like Google, HP, Rackspace and Amazon Web Services (AWS) entering the market, competition and increasing supply have driven down the price of cloud resources. As these providers continue to grow, users will benefit from improving economies of scale, which will make large-scale video processing even more affordable in the cloud.

Second, the transfer of data has been a tremendous challenge for organizations moving large, mezzanine-quality video files. Now this issue is being addressed by accelerated data delivery solutions. For example, Aspera and Signiant have designed highly efficient transport technologies that move data at maximum speed, regardless of file size, transfer distance or network conditions.

In addition, Amazon recently introduced the Direct Connect service, which makes it nearly as fast to move data between an on-premise facility and AWS as it is to move data across a high-speed local network. Elemental has also developed technology that makes it possible to progressively process a video while it is in transit, greatly reducing the duration of the overall workflow. Innovations such as these help mitigate data transfer bottlenecks.

Third, concerns about data center outages and system failures have prevented many media companies from moving assets offsite. However, this issue is ameliorated as the cloud matures and vendors build more enterprise-grade reliability. For example, most established cloud vendors have built redundancy measures into their services by replicating data and resources across multiple geographic zones for enhanced durability in case of outages.

Fourth, media executives are understandably concerned about security. In many cases, their video assets fuel a multi-billion dollar business, so they’re leery about letting them be processed offsite. However, as the cloud becomes more widely adopted, media companies are becoming increasingly comfortable with the concept of cloud-based video processing.

Large-scale data centers are capable of providing greater security than many individual media companies could afford on their own. Most established data centers support high levels of encryption and undergo industry-standard security audits. Amazon’s cloud, in particular, has received the highest possible maturity rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for securely storing, processing and delivering protected media and content.

A Hybrid Approach

How can media, entertainment and broadcast companies best leverage video processing in the cloud? Low-volume broadcast companies may want to move all transcoding functionality to the cloud so they can scale resources up and down as requirements fluctuate. But for companies that consistently process vast amounts of video, the economics of a cloud-only solution are still challenging. For those companies, a hybrid workflow makes the most economic sense.

A hybrid workflow is achieved by maintaining just enough on-premise infrastructure to fulfill day-to-day transcoding requirements, while leveraging cloud services for the elasticity to keep pace with demand. This ground-to-cloud approach has the potential to save organizations significant capital expenditures. Augmenting in-house transcoding capacity with cloud resources can reduce video processing costs by at least 50 percent, and by as much as 80 percent, according to a report by the multinational technology consulting firm Accenture.

Being flexible about leveraging both on-premise and cloud resources allows companies to cost-effectively balance transcoding resources, while optimizing capital investments already made. Figure 2 shows what an economically optimized video processing solution at the high end of the broadcast industry looks like over time.

Figure 2


Enterprise Video Processing in the Cloud

As illustrated in Figure 3, Elemental Cloud is a Platform as a Service (PaaS) that provides the ideal solution for media and entertainment companies interested in a hybrid cloud approach. Critically, as the industry’s most advanced architecture for video processing in the cloud, Elemental Cloud can be seamlessly integrated with on-premise video operations, enabling video providers to elastically scale capacity in response to rapidly shifting consumer behaviors and digital media market shifts.

Figure 3

Elemental Hybrid Workflow

No matter how resources are configured at any given moment, video providers can securely manage the creation of premium live and on-demand content for delivery to every screen in complete conformance with industry quality standards and government regulations. Moreover, Elemental Cloud allows them to rapidly incorporate new processing standards such as HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) without having to invest in new infrastructure.

This PaaS includes several powerful design concepts for effective economical and secure elastic video processing, including unified management, operational flexibility, feature parity, automated administration, uncompromised security and guaranteed reliability. These capabilities enable premium content providers to enhance multiscreen video offerings and grow audiences while generating greater revenues, maximizing existing infrastructures and decreasing capital expenditures

As cloud computing vendors continue to tackle the issues of cost, data transfer, reliability and security, interest in cloud-based transcoding is sure to grow among media, entertainment and broadcast companies in the near future. By taking a hybrid approach, these organizations can fully reap all the benefits the cloud has to offer while optimizing long-term investments.