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ASIC Transcoding Revolution - BOLD MSS's vision in Latin America

ASIC Transcoding Revolution – BOLD’s vision in Latin America

This post summarizes NETINT’s Voices of Video interview with Martin Azpiroz, a director at BOLD MSS, and discusses the innovative strategies and technological advancements propelling the streaming industry forward. Beyond exploring the comprehensive solutions that BOLD MSS provides, the conversation illuminates the significant role of ASIC-based transcoding, which enhances performance, ensures signal robustness, and dramatically reduces power costs, marking a pivotal shift from traditional CPUs and GPUs. Ideal for tech enthusiasts and industry professionals alike, this interview offers a multifaceted look at the future of streaming in Latin America.

Recently, Martin Azpiroz, CEO at BOLD MSS, spoke with NETINT’s Jan Ozer on Voices of Video. By way of background, BOLD MSS, a systems integrator and software developer based in Uruguay, has been expanding its footprint across Latin America since 2011. The company specializes in end-to-end solutions for streaming video, covering everything from live and VOD content transcoding to content delivery via CDNs coupled with CMS applications and TVEverywhere APPs.

Customers, Workflows, Components

According to Martin, BOLD MSS primarily caters to pay TV operators and telecommunications companies, providing platforms that enable these businesses to offer content over-the-top (OTT) to their customers. The company sources signals from a variety of origins, predominantly satellite feeds, which are then processed and adapted for OTT distribution. Additionally, BOLD MSS manages other sources such as SRT for secure and reliable streaming, SDI for local content, and video files for VOD, showcasing its capability to manage diverse inputs for content delivery.

BOLD MSS primarily offers a comprehensive software stack, licensing the software they’ve developed to provide a platform-as-a-service or product, covering the entire spectrum from end to end. This approach goes beyond mere consulting, delivering tangible products to their clients.

Martin outlined a typical workflow that spanned from content ingestion to client delivery. The process segments into distinct layers:

  • The ingest layer, where all input types are received; the processing layer includes CMS for VOD and a linear live-streaming platform (LSP) for live channels, with a notable integration of ASICs from NETINT for transcoding.
  • The distribution layer, where content is managed via CDN software and distributed across various edges, including the capability to integrate with third-party CDNs.
  • The client layer, which encompasses the applications running on mobile devices or TVs, renders the videos or content for the end-users.

Codecs and Packaging

Martin shared that BOLD MSS predominantly utilizes HLS and DASH for packaging, with H.264 being the most commonly used codec among these formats. While other protocols like RTMP and RTP are supported, they are less popular.

In terms of 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) content, BOLD MSS works with 4K HEVC, but the adoption of 4K content in their service region has been slow, with only a few customers having channels in 4K. The expectation that 4K would become a dominant format has not yet materialized in their market.

Otherwise, HEVC usage is relatively low, constituting about 5% of their encoding output. The limited adoption is attributed to the lack of content available in this format from content providers, indicating a desire within BOLD MSS to increase the use of HEVC, pending broader content availability.

From CPU to GPU to ASIC

Martin detailed the evolution of transcoding technology at BOLD MSS, starting with CPUs around 2011, which were initially adequate, especially for VOD content that required less hardware. However, as the demand for live OTT services surged around 2015-2016, CPUs proved insufficient for handling larger channel lineups, necessitating a shift to GPUs. GPUs offered significant performance improvements, enabling the handling of extensive channel lineups with better quality and efficiency. Despite these advancements, GPUs introduced challenges related to high energy consumption, operational costs, and heat generation, leading to hardware failures and maintenance difficulties.

To address these issues, BOLD MSS transitioned to ASICs for transcoding, marking a new phase in their operations. ASICs, specifically designed for transcoding tasks, offered superior performance with much lower energy consumption and heat output, enhancing the reliability and stability of the platform. This transition significantly improved the operational efficiency and robustness of BOLD MSS’s transcoding infrastructure, particularly for live content, by providing better quality, higher density, and reduced server requirements without the frequent hardware failures associated with GPUs.

Martin explained that BOLD MSS utilizes several technolgies to control encoding. With over 14 years of experience working with encoding, the team has developed a deep understanding of video transcoding technology. The transition to ASIC technology was smooth, and it took only two weeks to get a basic system running and a few months to integrate ASICs fully into their production environment. This swift adaptation was positively viewed within BOLD MSS, highlighting the efficiency and flexibility of their software development processes in accommodating new transcoding technologies.

The Many Benefits of ASIC-Based Transcoding

Martin discussed the impact of different transcoding technologies on the robustness and stability of satellite signals. He highlighted that ASIC transcoding was more resilient than CPU and GPU technologies, especially given the various factors that can affect satellite streams, such as solar flares and storms. According to Martin, the transition to ASICs resulted in fewer system failures and reboots, which is attributed to their ability to maintain a more stable and purer elementary stream, which is crucial for effective transcoding. This stability allows for more reliable content delivery, even when the original satellite signal faces issues, improving service quality and reliability overall.

Martin noted that most of BOLD MSS’s customers have transitioned from CPU to GPU for transcoding needs, with a few still using CPUs for legacy VOD transcoding due to lower content volume. BOLD MSS is recommending these customers upgrade to ASIC technology to benefit from its improved features and efficiencies.

In terms of power costs, Martin explained there are two main considerations. Firstly, there’s an environmental perspective, focusing on reducing energy consumption and the overall carbon footprint, which aligns with the company’s and its customers’ sustainability goals.

Secondly, from an economic standpoint, switching to ASICs offers significant cost savings in energy expenses. Given the high energy costs associated with running servers, especially GPUs, transitioning to ASICs can substantially reduce operational costs. In some cases, the savings in energy costs alone can justify the investment in new servers within a few years, making ASICs an economically viable option for upgrading transcoding infrastructure.

Minimizing Latency for Sports Viewing

Martin emphasized the significance of sports broadcasting, particularly soccer, in their region and its impact on configuring their encoding ladder. He highlighted the importance of low latency in sports streaming to prevent the common frustration of hearing about a goal from a neighbor before seeing it on the stream. To address this, BOLD MSS has implemented CMAF and low latency technologies, improving the latency of the transcoding process with ASICs, which is crucial for live sports events where even milliseconds matter.

Martin noted that many of their pay-tv customers offer traditional cable TV and OTT streaming services to their customers. For OTT, using CMAF and low latency technology often results in goals being shown before they are seen on cable TV setups due to lower latency. He explained that latency can vary depending on the amount of transcoding performed at the cable headend, with OTT services today capable of achieving latencies as low as one to two seconds, or sub-second, compared to the eight to ten seconds common with cable.

However, achieving such low latency levels in OTT can reduce signal robustness, making the stream more susceptible to glitches or failures in the event of bandwidth fluctuations. Martin suggested that extremely low latency is not always necessary, as the goal is to match or beat the latency experienced by cable TV viewers to avoid spoilers from neighbors rather than pushing for the lowest possible latency at the expense of stream stability.

Streaming Distribution in Latin America

Martin stated that BOLD MSS primarily distributes content to mobile devices, with smartphones accounting for about 80% of their distribution. However, there is a growing trend towards smart TV platforms such as Android TV, Tizen, and webOS, with smart TVs now making up around 12% of their distribution, not including Android TVs.

In terms of network connectivity, the region mainly utilizes 4G, though 5G is available and functions well. The variability in network speeds, especially in areas with only 2Mb connections, necessitates a carefully tiered bitrate ladder to ensure quality streaming across different bandwidths. BOLD MSS customizes these bitrate ladders based on customer feedback and network capabilities, with some starting as low as 400Kb for areas with poor infrastructure.

For smart TVs, which are always connected to a power source, BOLD MSS employs HEVC encoding to deliver higher quality at lower bandwidths, unlike mobile devices where HEVC usage is limited due to hardware constraints and potential battery drain issues. The company also tailors manifests to match the capabilities of the viewing device, whether it’s a mobile phone on 4G or a smart TV, to optimize the viewing experience. For 1080p smartphone content, they recommend a maximum bitrate of 3.5Mb using H.264 encoding, considering the balance between quality and bandwidth usage.

DRM is a Must

Martin confirmed that 100% of the content distributed by BOLD MSS is protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM), covering both premium and most non-premium content. This uniform application of DRM across all content ensures security and compliance with content rights owners’ requirements, even if some local channel owners who hold the rights to their content may not initially request DRM.

BOLD MSS utilizes various DRM technologies, including Widevine by Google and FairPlay by Apple, to cater to different platforms and devices. While BOLD MSS is not a DRM provider, it partners closely with companies like NAGRA to leverage its DRM solutions. This partnership enables BOLD MSS to integrate these technologies into their service seamlessly.

Additionally, BOLD MSS employs engineers certified in Widevine and FairPlay, ensuring they have the in-depth knowledge required to implement these DRM systems effectively. Although they have considered adding watermarking as an additional layer of content protection, it has not been a requirement in their region, and thus, they have not pursued it extensively. However, BOLD MSS remains open to exploring emerging technologies, including advanced content protection schemes, as part of its commitment to security and innovation in content distribution.

As is Multi-CDN Support

Martin explained BOLD MSS’s approach to Content Delivery Networks (CDN), highlighting the flexibility in their CDN strategy. They offer solutions for both closed environments, where clients might opt for their own CDN servers and open OTT solutions that leverage BOLD MSS’s CDN infrastructure and potentially offload to third-party CDNs like CloudFront, Leaseweb or Akamai for scalability and redundancy.

BOLD MSS has integrated more than ten CDNs into its system, allowing for logical offloading based on bandwidth usage and contractual limits with specific CDNs. This capability enables them to manage traffic dynamically, ensuring efficient content delivery even during peak demand, such as during significant sports events where viewer numbers can surge unexpectedly.

Martin acknowledged that while a single CDN might suffice for regular operations or when serving content within a single country, the nature of live events, particularly sports, often necessitates a multi-CDN strategy. This approach ensures that the infrastructure can manage sudden increases in viewership without compromising the quality of service, making it an essential aspect of BOLD MSS’s content delivery network.

Coming to America

Martin discussed BOLD MSS’s strategic expansion into the United States, highlighting the challenges of conducting business from Latin America and establishing a corporate presence in the U.S. for more direct commercial engagement. BOLD MSS, with its extensive experience and developed expertise in Latin America, plans to leverage its established relationships by attending major trade shows like NAB to transition from friendly to commercial interactions with prospective U.S. customers.  Martin expressed confidence in the company’s end-to-end software solutions and their potential for success in the U.S. market.  

Picture of Jan Ozer

Jan Ozer

is Senior Director of Video Marketing at NETINT.

Jan is also a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine , writing about codecs and encoding tools. He has written multiple authoritative books on video encoding, including ‘Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from your Streaming Video’ and ‘ Learn to Produce Video with FFmpeg: In Thirty Minutes or Less’ and has produced multiple training courses relating to streaming media production.

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