From Cloud to Local Transcoding For Minimum Latency and Maximum Quality

From Cloud to Local Transcoding

Over the last ten years or so, most live productions have migrated towards a workflow that sends a contribution stream from the venue into the cloud for transcoding and delivery. For live events that need absolute minimum latency and maximum quality, it may be time to rethink that workflow, particularly if you’ve got multiple sharable inputs at the venue.

So says Bart Snoeks, Account & Partnership Director of THEO Technologies (“THEO”). By way of background, THEO invented and has commercially implemented the High-Efficiency Streaming Protocol (HESP), an adaptive HTTP- based video streaming protocol that enables sub-second end-to-end latency. You see how HESP compares to other low latency protocols in the table shown in Figure 1 from the HESP Alliance website – the organization focused on promoting and further advancing HESP.

From Cloud to Local Transcoding - Figure-1
Figure 1. HESP compared to other low latency protocols.

THEO has productized HESP as a real-time streaming service called THEOlive, which targets applications like live sports and betting, casino igaming, live auctions, and other events that require high-quality video at exceptionally low latency with delivery at scale. For example, in the case of in-play betting, cutting latency from 8 to 10 seconds (HLS) to under one second expands the betting window during the critical period just before the event.

When streaming casino games, ultra-low latency promotes fluent interactions between the players and ensures that all players see the turn of the cards in real time. When latency is lower, players can bet more quickly, increasing the number of hands that can be played.

According to Snoeks, a live streaming workflow that sends a contribution stream to the cloud for transcoding will always increase latency and can degrade quality as re-transcoding is needed. It’s especially poorly suited for stadium venues with multiple camera locations that want to enhance the attendee experience with multiple live feeds. In those latency-critical use cases you are actually adding network latency with a roundtrip to and from the cloud. Instead, it makes much more sense creating your encoding ladder and packaging on-site and pulling that directly from the origin to a private CDN for delivery.

Let’s take a step back and examine these two workflows.

Live Streaming Workflows

As stated at the top, most live-streaming productions encode a single contribution stream on-site and send that into the cloud for transcoding to a full ladder, packaging, and delivery. You see this workflow in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Encoding a contribution stream on-site to deliver to the cloud for transcoding, packaging, and delivery

This schema has multiple advantages. First, you’re sending a single stream to the cloud, lowering bandwidth requirements. Second, you’re centralizing your transcoding assets in a single location in the cloud, which typically enables better utilization.

According to Snoeks, however, this workflow will add 200 to 500  milliseconds of latency at a minimum, depending on the encoding speed, quality, and contribution protocol. In addition, though high-quality contribution encoders can minimize generational loss from the contribution stream, lower-quality transcoders can noticeably degrade the quality of the final output. You also need a contribution encoder for each camera, which can jack up hardware costs in high-volume igaming and similar applications.

Instead, for some specific use cases, you should consider the workflow shown in Figure 3. Here, you transcode on-site and send the full encoding ladder to a public CDN for external delivery and to a private CDN or equivalent for local viewing. This decreases latency to a minimum and produces absolute top quality as you avoid the additional transcoding step.

From Cloud to Local Transcoding - Figure-2
Figure 3. Encoding and packaging the encoding ladder on site and transmitting the streams to a public CDN for external viewers and a private CDN for local viewers.

This schema is particularly useful for venues that want to enhance the in-stadium experience with multiple camera feeds. Imagine a stock car race where an attendee only sees his driver on the track once every minute or so. Encoding on-site might allow attendees to watch the camera view from inside their favorite driver’s car with near real-time latency. It might let golf fans follow multiple groups while parked at a hole or following their favorite player.

If you’re encoding input from many cameras, say in a casino or even racetrack environment, the cost of on-site encoding might be less than the cost of the individual contribution encoders. So, you get the best of all worlds, lower cost per stream, lower latency, higher quality, and a better in-person experience where applicable.

If you’re interested in learning about your transcoding options, check out our symposium Building Your Own Live Streaming Cloud, where you can hear from multiple technology experts discussing transcoding options like CPU-only, GPU, and ASIC-based transcoding and their respective costs, throughput, and density.

If you’re interested in learning more about HESP, THEO in general, or THEOlive, watch for an upcoming episode of Voices of Video, where I interview Pieter-Jan Speelman, CTO of THEO Technologies. We’ll discuss HESP’s history and evolution, the power of THEOlive real-time streaming technology, and how to use it in your live production stack. Make sure you don’t miss it!

Now ON-DEMAND: Symposium on Building Your Live Streaming Cloud

Cloud or on-premise – streaming publisher’s dilemma

Publisher's dilemma - cloud or on-premise

Processing your media in the cloud or on-premises is one of the most critical decisions facing a streaming video service. Two recent articles provide strong opinions and insights on this decision and are worthy of review. Our take? Do the math and make your own decision.

The first article is “Why we’re leaving the cloud.”

By way of background, Hansson is co-owner and CTO of software developer 37signals, the developer of the project management platform Basecamp , and the premium email service Hey.

After running the two platforms on AWS for a number of years, Hannson commented that “renting computers is (mostly) a bad deal for medium-sized companies like ours with stable growth. The savings promised in reduced complexity never materialized.” As an overview, he asserts that the cloud excels at two ends of the spectrum: 1) simple and low-traffic applications and 2) highly irregular load with wild swings or towering peaks in usage.

When Hey first launched, running in AWS allowed the new service to seamlessly onboard the 300,000 users that signed up in the first three weeks, wildly exceeding the forecast of 30,000 in 6 months. However, since then, Hansson reported, these capacity spikes never reoccured, and by “continuing to operate in the cloud, we’re paying an at times almost absurd premium for the possibility that [they] could.”

In abandoning the cloud, Hansson had to stare down two common beliefs. First, is that the cloud simplifies systems and computer management. As it relates to his own businesses, he reports that “anyone who thinks running a major service like HEY or Basecamp in the cloud is “simple” has clearly never tried. Some things are simpler, others more complex, but on the whole, I’ve yet to hear of organizations at our scale being able to materially shrink their operations team, just because they moved to the cloud.”

He also tackles perceptions regarding the complexity of running equipment on-premise. “Up until very recently, everyone ran their own servers, and much of the progress in tooling that enabled the cloud is available for your own machines as well. Don’t let the entrenched cloud interests dazzle you into believing that running your own setup is too complicated. Everyone and their dog did it to get the internet off the ground, and it’s only gotten easier since.”

“Up until very recently, everyone ran their own servers, and much of the progress in tooling that enabled the cloud is available for your own machines as well. Don’t let the entrenched cloud interests dazzle you into believing that running your own setup is too complicated. Everyone and their dog did it to get the internet off the ground, and it’s only gotten easier since.”

In “Media Processing in the Cloud or On-Prem—Which Is Right for You?” , Alex Emmermann, Director of Business Development for Cloud Products at Telestream, takes a more moderate view (as you would expect).

Emmermann starts by pointing out where the cloud makes sense, zeroing in on the same capacity swings as Hansson. “A typical painful example is when capacity requirements shift underneath you, such as a service becoming more popular than you had initially allocated resources for. For example, when running a media services operation, there are many situations that can stress systems... In media processing, full-catalog licenses, mergers, or content migrations can cause enormous capacity requirements for transcoding and QC.”

Emmermann also introduces the concept of hybrid operations. “For many companies, a wholesale move may feel too risky, so a hybrid approach works well by allowing excess capacity requirements to burst into the cloud as required. This allows run rate systems to continue functioning while taking immediate advantage of cloud scaling when and if required. Depending on the needs of the service, a hybrid setup could continue to run indefinitely and very cost-effectively if on-prem CapEx resources have already been spent and the resources are in place to keep them running.”

In terms of companies that should operate on premises, Emmerman cites two examples. First are companies with significant CAPEX investments in encoding gear. “For the many thousands of busy on-premises servers processing run-rate media workflows throughout the world, they’re efficiently and cheaply doing what they need to do and will no doubt continue to do so for a long time.” He also mentions that inexpensive and reliable connectivity is an absolute requirement, and “there are certain places on the planet that may not have reliable interconnectivity to a cloud provider.”

All told, Emmerman concludes, “There’s no question that any media company investing in new services or wanting to have the capacity to say yes to any customer request will want to do this with a public cloud provider… On the other hand, any steady-state, on-premises service that is happily functioning as designed and only occasionally requires a small capital refresh will be happy to stay the course.”

Our Take? Do the Math

Play Video about Hard-Questions-on-Hot-Topics-1-cloud-or-on-prem
Watch the full conversation on YouTube:

Anyone who has ever provisioned an EC2 instance from AWS and paid the hourly rate has wondered, “how does that compare to buying your own system?” We’re certainly not immune.

Given the impetus of this article, we decided to put pencil to paper or keyboard to a spreadsheet. We recently launched the NETINT Video Transcoding Server, which costs $7,000 and includes ten T408 transcoders that can output H.264 and HEVC. In benchmarking the entry-level system, it produced 21 five-rung H.264 ladders and 27 4-rung H.264 ladders. What would it cost to produce the same number of streams in AWS?

We checked the MediaLive price list here and confirmed it with the pricing calculator estimate here (Figure 3 for HEVC). Though a single hour of H.264 live streaming costs $0.46, this adds up to $4,004.17/per year. This jumps to $1.527 per hour for HEVC, or $13,375.55 per year. Both are for a single ladder.

Figure 3. Yearly cost for streaming a single five-rung HEVC encoding ladder.

To compare this to our streaming server, we multiplied each ladder by the number of ladders the server could produce, and extended all calculations out to five years. This translates to a five-year cost of $420,441 for H.264 and a staggering $1,805,712 for HEVC.

To compute the same five-year cost for the server, we added $69/month for colocation charges to the $7,000 base price. This came to $11,140 for either format.

Cloud or on-premise - streaming publisher's dilemma - table 1
Table 1. Five-year cost comparison, AWS MediaLive pricing compared to the NETINT server.

This comparison brought to mind Hansson’s comment that “Amazon, in particular, is printing profits renting out servers at obscene margins.” Surely, no streaming publisher is using MediaLive for 24/7 365 operations.

Taking a step back, it’s tough not to agree with the key points from both authors. The cloud does make the most sense when you need instant capacity for peak encoding. For steady-state operations, owning your own gear is always going to be cheaper.

All that said, run the numbers no matter what you’re doing in the cloud. While the results probably won’t be as startling as those shown in Table 1, you won’t know until you do the math.