Progress in the Vital Transcoding Sector

April 16, 2014
Transcoding of content for distribution to end users - who today are almost as likely to be recei...
Transcoding of content for distribution to end users - who today are almost as likely to be receiving that content on tablets or IP-connected TVs as on legacy sets - is an extremely complex procedure that still faces many developmental challenges.

It is a pivotal cog in the machine, however. If transcoding is not done quickly and efficiently, the end-to-end processes of supporting the ever expanding number of formats used by subscribers will bog down.

The overall transcoding sector is making progress, said Yoav Derazon, Harmonic's director of product management for cloud services and transcoding. "At NAB this year, we definitely [saw] much more openness and less [limiting] concern with security, logistics and other things," he said. He added, however, that the overall market still is "very segmented."

During the past few weeks, three vendors have made transcoding-related announcements. While the importance of these steps is not limited to the cable - transcoding is used across all broadcast industry - each will have impact on operators:

Harmonic (NASDAQ:HLIT) has entered an agreement with Encoding.com that will offer telecommunications providers the option of a completely cloud-based service or a hybrid in which normal operations are handled by Harmonic infrastructure run by the operator and burst capabilities in Encoding.com's cloud.

Derazon said Harmonic has replicated its system - in the sector's jargon, its presets and templates - in Encoding.com's cloud. Operators will be able to toggle between the two based on need. "We took the engine out of our workflow system and we put in on the Encoding.com platform," Derazon said. "They have their own system that creates job flows and pushes through their system and can dynamically instantiate additional worker flows to sustain SLAs. Encoding.com brings a dynamic system and a pay-per-use system to measure how much content comes in and out and enables customers to only pay for what is being used."

Appear TV has expanded the capacity of its Universal Transcoder Module, which is part of its overall transcoding suite.

Stephen Luff, Appear TV's director of business development, said the platform supports 16 slots in a module. He said the upgraded modules have the capability of transcoding four full high-definition, 16 standard-definition or 28 substandard definition streams. The system will provide a total throughput of 64 HD, 256 SD or 448 sub-SD streams per frame or chassis, Luff said. "If you look at a one-rack solution, there are 600 to 700 channels available, with all the signaling and everything else," he said.

Digital Rapids upgraded the software to its Transcode Manager 2, which is built on the company's Kayak Workflow Platform. The key for cable operators, said Director of Marketing Mike Nann, is that the system now supports MPEG-DASH, the industry effort to standardize on a single adaptive bitrate streaming protocol.

Nann said the standard is making progress. "MPEG-DASH got a lot of attention early on for live and linear [based encoding]," Nann said. "Now it is very important for on-demand. With version 2 of the guidelines now available, MPEG-DASH has become a very commercially viable reality."

The Digital Rapids press release was issued on the same day that the announcement was made that it had been acquired by Imagine Communications.

The activities in the vendor community are good news for operators who are struggling to support more types of operating systems with a wider variety of content. It is clear that a lot of work remains, however. Transcoding appears to be a particularly tricky process for several reasons. First and foremost is that there actually are two types of transcoding. One version is aimed at linear and on-demand file-based content, and the other at live streaming content. Live transcoding, Appear TV's Luff said, has a level of demand requiring that it be done in hardware.

Beyond the different types of transcoding, the complexities include the great number of formats that the transcoding must support and the need to marry the transcoded data with ancillary processes, such as automatic quality and loudness control and the integration of the data streams with the necessary metadata.

At the end of the day, the vendors who simplify these processes will be the ones who thrive. Imagine's Nann could well have been addressing the goals of all the vendors in a comment about the goal of development path of the Transcode Manager 2. "The key from our perspective, and one of big things we are driving toward, is to give people the ability to abstract from lower levels of complexities and define what they really want to do."

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at [email protected].