How to Choose the Right Service Provider for Live Cloud Transcoding

September 19, 2018 by

You’re a live streaming producer, and you’re sold on transcoding in the cloud. You have multiple options, so how do you choose the right one? Here are three steps to take, and some key factors to consider, when choosing a live cloud transcoding service provider.

 

1. Identify Your Live-Streaming Requirements

Start by creating lists of both the “must-have” and “nice-to-have” features required for your event. This will help you define the functionality you’re seeking from your service provider. These lists should include:

  • Input source and protocol. Identify your on-site encoder and make sure the service you choose supports the codec and protocols you’ll be using.
  • Output target(s). Identify the platforms you want your videos to play on (computers, mobile devices, etc.), as well as how you want playback achieved (browser-based or in-app). If mobile playback is via an app, make sure the service provider provides software development kits (SDKs). Identify where you want viewers to access the videos (either your own website, or a page on the service’s website), plus other distribution targets, such as Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Periscope.
  • Low latency. Many interactive use cases, such as auctions and sports wagering, need glass-to-glass latency of under three seconds. For these applications, general-purpose solution providers probably won’t do; you’ll need a low-latency solution.
  • Customizable transcoding. Do you need the ability to customize transcoding parameters, such as the number of streams in your adaptive group or their resolution and data rate, or will stock parameters supplied by the vendor suffice? Not all vendors let you adjust these parameters.
  • Content protection. You may need content protection if your video will be encrypted, or if you will need to apply geo-restrictions so only certain audiences can view it.
  • Captions. If you need to broadcast captions with your live video—for example, to meet broadcast standards for accessibility—then your transcoder will need to support this functionality.
  • Monetization. Do you need to monetize your live video, whether through pay-per-view or advertising? If so, you’ll need a service that provides a paywall or access to advertising platforms, or that can interact with third-party paywalls or advertising platforms.
  • End-to-end solution vs. part of an existing workflow. As you’ll see in a moment, multiple classes of service providers can transcode your live streams. Some offer a complete platform with a player, content management capabilities, live and video-on-demand (VOD) transcoding, delivery, analytics and other features, while others offer modular technologies for deployment within an existing ecosystem. Understanding the functions you’re looking to acquire will help focus your selection.

 

2. Understand Your Live Cloud Transcoding Service Providers

As mentioned, there are multiple classes of cloud providers of live transcoding services. Here is an at-a-glance look at how the different types stack up:

LSSP Platform Infrastructure SATP
Companies Livestream, Ustream, DaCast Brightcove, Kaltura, Ooyala Akamai, Azure, AWS Elemental Wowza, Bitmovin
Description Simple end-to-end solution, primarily for live Comprehensive integrated platform for VOD and live video Development platform with multiple functional offerings Offers limited set of standalone functions
Transcoding as a stand-alone service Mostly no Some yes Yes Yes
Advanced feature support (captions, DRM) Mostly no Yes Yes Yes
Transcoding locks you into other platform components Yes Usually no Maybe No
Ease of use transcoding services NA Good Better Best
Cost of transcoding services NA $$$ $$ $
Table 1: Features of the various classes of providers. Not all features apply to all companies listed in each category.

  Now, we’ll explore in more depth the capabilities each type of provider typically offers:

Live-Streaming Service Providers (LSSP). This category includes companies such as Livestream, Ustream and DaCast. Typically, companies in this class are designed for users seeking a simple end-to-end live-streaming solution, including ingest, transcoding, delivery, player and analytics. While there may be exceptions, these companies don’t typically provide stand-alone transcoding services for plugging into an existing infrastructure. Though some offer monetization options, they may not offer digital rights management (DRM), captioning and other advanced features.

Platform Providers (PP). This class includes online video services such as Brightcove, Kaltura and Ooyala, which are designed to provide a single turn-key platform for a company’s on-demand and live videos. These companies offer a deep and comprehensive breadth of services, including all those listed above, plus extensive content management, advertising insertion and more robust support for DRM, captions and broadcast-oriented features.

Platform providers work well if you’re looking for an integrated solution for on-demand and live videos, including encoding; transcoding; content management and protection; computer and mobile players or SDKs; monetization; and distribution. While some of these companies offer live transcoding as a stand-alone service, typically, it’s not as easy to use as what is offered by stand-alone technology providers—and may not be as affordable.

Infrastructure Providers. This class includes companies such as Akamai (which is a content delivery network, or CDN), Microsoft Azure and Amazon/Elemental (which are both cloud services programs). These companies offer a range of services including storage, transcoding, delivery and other compute functions. They may be good options for stand-alone transcoding functions if you’re currently using other infrastructure components within the service, but this selection may lock you into other elements of the service, such as storage or delivery.

Stand-Alone Technology Providers (SATP). This class includes Wowza Media Systems, which offers transcoding supported by a few complementary technologies, such as CDN delivery and a player, priced on modular basis. You can access this technology by licensing Wowza Streaming Engine™ software: which is a stand-alone media server software that you can install on-premises, in the cloud with your public provider or as part of a hybrid deployment.

If you don’t want the hassle of standing up your own infrastructure, you can also choose to access the media server as a cloud-based, managed software-as-a-service (SaaS) by purchasing a license to the Wowza Streaming Cloud™ service. In the rest of this article, we will primarily focus on Wowza Streaming Cloud.

If you’re seeking stand-alone transcoding capabilities, companies that focus primarily on this feature—such as Wowza—have several key advantages over companies offering more generalized solutions, which we’ll see below.

 

3. Compare Providers and Choose Your Key Capabilities

At first glance, the transcoding and ancillary services provided by all of the above companies are more similar than dissimilar. All will produce streams in multiple adaptive bitrate formats. If desired, most can supply a player that works on most computers and mobile devices, along with access to delivery through a CDN.

To narrow down your choice, make sure you’ve created your list of requirements from the first section. Next, identify the class of service provider that best fits your requirements, and the candidates within each class that support all of your required features. Then consider the following capabilities for all service providers who have made the cut:

Ease of Use/Control/Support

Available user interfaces and control mechanisms should match your technical level and application-specific needs. For example, non-programmers deploying simple applications will want an HTML-based interface that simplifies setup and operation. Look for step-by-step wizards that walk you through all critical configuration options, with presets for common encoders and outputs. If the company offers a trial, create and configure a live stream to gauge ease of use, configurability and the range of supported features.

More advanced users will want a REST-based application programming interface (API) for automated and advanced features, such as scheduling for future or repeat streaming events. Beyond that, users seeking to create a comprehensive end-to-end live streaming app or service will want software development kits (SDKs) for iOS and Android integration.

Beyond these basics, make sure that the system lets you customize configuration options to meet the unique needs of your target viewers and content. For example, if you’re streaming primarily to mobile viewers, you’ll want a different encoding ladder than if you’re delivering primarily to Smart TVs and OTT devices. If latency is an issue, make sure the service provider offers a low-latency solution.

During the event, you’ll want access to data regarding connection health and system status, so you can resolve any issues as quickly as possible. After the event, you’ll want viewer statistics for each event in order to enable cost allocations. You’ll also need details such as viewer platforms, format watched and stream viewed, so you can better customize events for your target viewers. If you’re streaming internationally, details such as viewers by country can help focus your content and marketing efforts.

Check the support options offered by the vendor—particularly how much you’ll have to pay for support during the hours you plan on broadcasting. Since these products are highly technical, check the quality of the tutorials and documentation, as well as the comprehensiveness of the forums or message boards.

System Robustness and Scalability

System robustness is hard to gauge from a spec sheet, but there are several objective data points and features to look for. First, the service should offer multiple input and transcoding points around the globe, including one or two geographically proximate to your stream origination point. This reduces latency and promotes stream quality. Support for delivery protocols such as Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) further ensures stream quality.

Second, the service should offer stream redundancy by enabling multiple on-site encoders to deliver video during the same event. If the primary stream fails, the backup stream should automatically kick in, ensuring uninterrupted playback for your viewers.

One measure of technology robustness is the customer base enjoyed by the service provider. In this regard, it’s interesting to note that Wowza supplies transcoding technology to several of the providers mentioned above in other product classes.

Finally, to the extent that the service offers CDN delivery, it should be through a market-leading service provider such as Akamai, Limelight or Level 3.

Pricing

Finally, once you’ve whittled away all services that don’t meet your needs, pricing will be a significant differentiator between the available services. The most important thing is to find modular pricing that matches your intended usage and consumption.

For example, if you’re producing a single event per month to a relatively small audience, you should expect a low monthly charge with per-GB pricing for the actual delivered video. If you’re running a 24/7 channel, you should expect a different pricing structure that reflects the machine time required to support the service, but isn’t exorbitant. If you simply need a certain number of hours of live transcoding per month to pass through to a third-party CDN for delivery, that should be an option as well.

Beyond modularity, pricing should also be transparent and simple to understand and apply. You shouldn’t need an MBA to project pricing for a particular event or events, or to allocate expenses each month after receiving your monthly invoice.

 

Next Steps

If you followed the flow of this document, you should have identified your needs, chosen the desired class of service provider and narrowed down the right vendor for you. If you’d like more information on Wowza Streaming Cloud, visit our product page, or sign up for a free trial.