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ASICs – The Time is Now

A brief review of the history of encoding ASICs reveals why they have become the technology of choice for high-volume video streaming services and cloud-gaming platforms.

Like all markets, there will be new market entrants that loudly announce for maximum PR effect, promising delivery at some time in the future. But, to date, outside of Google’s internal YouTube ASIC project called ARGOS and the recent Meta (Facebook) ASIC also for internal use only, NETINT is the only commercial company building ASIC-based transcoders for immediate delivery.

“ASICs are the future of high-volume video transcoding as NETINT, Google, and Meta have proven. NETINT is the only vendor that offers its product for sale and immediate delivery making the T408 and Quadra safe bets.”

Delaying a critical technology decision always carries risk. The risk is that you miss an opportunity or that your competitors move ahead of you. However, waiting to consider an announced and not yet shipping product means that you ALSO assume the manufacturing, technology, and supply chain risk of THAT product.

What if you delay only to find out that the announced delivery date was optimistic at best? Or, what if the vendor actually delivers, only for you to find out that their performance claims were not real? There are so many “what if’s” when you wait that it rarely is the right decision to delay when there is a viable product available.

Now let’s review the rebirth of ASICs for video encoding and see how they’ve become the technology of choice for high-volume transcoding operations.  

The Rebirth of ASICs for Video Encoding

An ASIC is an application specific integrated circuit that is designed to do a small number of tasks with high efficiency. ASICs are purpose-built for a specific function. The history of video encoding ASICs can be traced back to the initial applications of digital video and the adoption of the MPEG-2 standard for satellite and cable transmission.

Most production MPEG-2 encoders were ASIC-based.

As is the case for most new codec standards, the first implementation of MPEG-2 compression was CPU-based. Given the cost of using commodity servers and software, dedicated hardware is always necessary to handle the processing requirements of high-quality video encoding cost-effectively.

This led to the development and application of video encoding ASICs, which are specialized integrated circuits designed to perform the processing tasks required for video encoding. Encoding ASICs provide the necessary processing power to handle the demands of high-quality video encoding while being more cost-effective than CPU-based solutions.

With the advent of the internet, the demand for digital video continued to increase. The rise of on-demand and streaming video services, such as YouTube and Netflix, led to a shift towards CPU-based encoding solutions. This was due in part to the fact that streaming video required a more flexible approach to encoding including implementation agility with the cloud and an ability to adjust encoding parameters based on the available bandwidth and device capabilities.

As the demand for live streaming services increased, the limitations of CPU-based encoding solutions became apparent. Live streaming services, such as cloud gaming and real-time interactive video like gaming or conferencing, require the processing of millions of live interactive streams simultaneously at scale. This has led to a resurgence in the use of encoding ASICs for live-streaming applications. Thus, the rebirth of ASICs is upon us and it’s a technology trend that should not be ignored even if you are working in a more traditional entertainment streaming environment.

NETINT: Leading the Resurgence

NETINT has been at the forefront of the ASIC resurgence. In 2019, the company introduced its Codensity T408 ASIC-based transcoder. This device was designed to handle 8 simultaneous HEVC or H.264 1080p video streams, making it ideal for live-streaming applications.

The T408 was well-received by the market, and NETINT continued to innovate. In 2021, the company introduced its Quadra series. These devices can handle up to 32 simultaneous 1080p video streams, making it even more powerful than the T408, also adding the anticipated AV1 codec.

“NETINT has racked up a number of major wins including major names such as ByteDance, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Kuaishou, and a US-based global entertainment service.”

As described by Dylan Patel, editor of the Semianalysis blog, in his article Meet NETINT: The Startup Selling Datacenter VPUs To ByteDance, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, And More, “NETINT has racked up a number of major wins including major names such as ByteDance, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Kuaishou, and a similar sized US-based global platform.”

NETINT Quadra T1U Video Processing Unit
– NETINT’s second-generation of shipping ASIC-based transcoders.

Patel also reported that using the HEVC codec, NETINT video transcoders and VPUs crushed Nvidia’s T4 GPU, which is widely assumed to be the default choice when moving to a hardware encoder for the data center. The density and power consumption that can be achieved with a video ASIC is unmatched compared to CPUs and GPUs.

Patel commented further, “The comparison using AV1 is even more powerful… NETINT is the leader in merchant video encoding ASICs.”

“The comparison using AV1 is even more powerful…NETINT is the leader in video encoding ASICs.”

-Dylan Patel

ASIC Advantages

ASICs are designed to perform a specific task, such as encoding video, with a high degree of efficiency and speed. CPUs and GPUs are designed to perform a wide range of general-purpose computing tasks. As evidence of this fact, today, the primary application for GPUs has nothing to do with video encoding. In fact, just 5-10% of the silicon real estate on some of the most popular GPUs in the market are dedicated to video encoding or processing. Highly compute-intensive tasks like AI inferencing are the most common workload for GPUs today.

The key advantage of ASICs for video encoding is that they are optimized for this specific task, with a much higher percentage of gates on the chip dedicated to encoding than CPUs and GPUs. ASICs can encode much faster and with higher quality than CPUs and GPUs, while using less power and generating less heat.

“ASICs can encode much faster and with higher quality than CPUs and GPUs while using less power and generating less heat.”

-Dylan Patel

Additionally, because ASICs are designed for a specific task, they can be more easily customized and optimized for specific use cases. Though some assume that ASICs are inflexible, in reality, with a properly designed ASIC, the function it’s designed for may be tuned more highly than if the function was run on a general purpose computing platform. This can lead to even greater efficiency gains and improved performance.

The key takeaway is that ASICs are a superior choice for video encoding due to their application-specific design, which allows for faster and more efficient processing compared to general-purpose CPUs and GPUs.

Confirmation from Google and Meta

Recent industry announcements from Google and Meta confirm these conclusions. When Google announced the ASIC-based Argos VCU (Video Coding Unit) in 2021, the trade press rightfully applauded. CNET announced that “Google supercharges YouTube with a custom video chip.” Ars Technica reported that Argos brought “up to 20-33x improvements in compute efficiency compared to… software on traditional servers.” SemiAnalysis reported that Argos “Replaces 10 Million Intel CPUs.”

Google’s Argos confirms the value of encoding ASICs
(and shipped 2 years after the NETINT T408).

As described in the article “Argos dispels common myths about encoding ASICs” (bit.ly/ASIC_myths), Google’s experience highlights the benefits of ASIC-based transcoders. That is, while many streaming engineers still rely on software-based transcoding, ASIC-based transcoding offers a clear advantage in terms of CAPEX, OPEX, and environmental sustainability benefits. The article goes on to address outdated concerns about the shortcomings of ASICs, including sub-par quality and the lack of upgradeability.

The article discusses several key findings from Google’s presentation on the Argos ASIC-based transcoder at Hot Chips 33, including:

  • Encoding time has grown by 8000% due to increased complexity from higher resolutions and frame rates. ASIC-based transcoding is necessary to keep video services running smoothly.
  • ASICs can deliver near-parity to software-based transcoding quality with properly designed hardware.
  • ASICs quality and functionality can be improved and changed long after deployment.
  • ASICs deliver unparalleled throughput and power efficiency, with Google reporting a 90% reduction in power consumption.

Though much less is known about the Meta ASIC, its announcement prompted Facebook’s Director of Video Encoding, David Ronca, to proclaim, “I propose that there are two types of companies in the video business. Those that are using Video Processing ASICs in their workflows, and those that will.”

“…there are two types of companies in the video business. Those that are using Video Processing ASICs in their workflows, and those that will.”

Meta proudly announces its encoding ASIC
(3 years after NETINT’s T408 ships).

Unlike the ASICs from Google and Meta, you can actually buy ASIC-based transcoders from NETINT, and in fact scores of tens of thousands of units are operating in some of the largest hyperscaler networks and video streaming platforms today. The fact that two of the biggest names in the tech industry are investing in ASICs for video encoding is a clear indication of the growing trend towards application-specific hardware in the video field. With the increasing demand for high-quality video streaming across a variety of devices and platforms, ASICs provide the speed, efficiency, and customization needed to meet these needs.

Avoiding Shiny New Object Syndrome

ASICs as the best method for transcoding high volumes of live video has not gone unnoticed, meaning you should expect product announcements that are made pointing to “availability later this year.” When these occur around prominent trade shows, it can indicate a rushed announcement made for the show, and that the later availability may actually be “much later…”

It’s useful to remember that while waiting for a new product from a third-party supplier to become available, companies face three distinct risks: manufacturing, technology, and supply chain.

Manufacturing Risk:

One of the biggest risks associated with waiting for a new product is the manufacturing risk, which means that the product may have issues in manufacturing. That is, there is always a chance that the manufacturing process may encounter unexpected problems, causing delays and increasing costs. For example, Intel has faced manufacturing issues with its 10nm processors, which resulted in delays for its upcoming processors. As a result, Intel lost market share to competitors such as AMD and NVIDIA, who were able to release their products earlier.

Technology Risk:

Another risk associated with waiting for a new product is technology risk, or that the product may not conform to the expected specifications, leading to performance issues, security concerns, or other problems. For example, NVIDIA’s RTX 2080 Ti graphics card was highly anticipated, but upon release, many users reported issues with its performance, including crashes, artifacting, and overheating. This led to a delay in the release of the RTX 3080, as NVIDIA had to address these issues before releasing the new product. Similarly, AMD’s Radeon RX7900 XTX graphics card has been plagued with claims of overheating. 

Supply Chain Risk:

The third risk associated with waiting for a new product is supply chain risk. This means that the company may be unable to get the product manufactured and shipped on time due to issues in the supply chain. For example, AMD faced supply chain issues with its Radeon RX 6800 XT graphics card, leading to limited availability and higher prices.

The reality is that any company building and launching a cloud gaming or streaming service is assuming its own technology and market risks. Compounding that risk by waiting for a product that “might” deliver minor gains in quality or performance (but equally might not) is a highly questionable decision, particularly in a market where even minor delays in launch dates can tank a new service before its even off the ground.

Clearly, ASICs are the future of high-volume video transcoding; NETINT, Google, and Meta have all proven this. NETINT is the only vendor of the three that actually offers its product for sale and immediate delivery; in fast-moving markets like interactive streaming and cloud gaming, this makes NETINT’s shipping transcoders, the T408 and Quadra, the safest bets of all.

author avatar
Anita Flejter
is a Director of Digital Marketing at NETINT and a producer of Voices of Video bi-monthly event and podcast, as well as Hard Questions on Hot Topics - a weekly discussion with Jan Ozer.
author avatar
Anita Flejter
is a Director of Digital Marketing at NETINT and a producer of Voices of Video bi-monthly event and podcast, as well as Hard Questions on Hot Topics - a weekly discussion with Jan Ozer.