Apple’s Adoption Of HEVC Will Drive A Massive Increase In Encoding Costs Requiring Cloud Hardware Acceleration

For the last 10 years, H.264/AVC has been the dominant video codec used for streaming but with Apple adopting H.265/HEVC in iOS 11 and Google heavily supporting VP9 in Android, a change is on the horizon. Next year the Alliance for Open Media will release their AV1 codec which will again improve video compression efficiency even further. But the end result is that the codec market is about to get very fragmented, with content owners soon having to decide if they need to support three codecs (H.264, H.265, and VP9) instead of just H.264 and with AV1 expected to be released in 2019.

As a result of what’s take place in the codec market, and with better quality video being demanded by consumers, content owners, broadcasters and OTT providers are starting to see a massive increase in encoding costs. New codecs like H.265 and VP9 need 5x the servers costs because of their complexity. Currently, AV1 needs over 20x the server costs. The mix of SD, HD and UHD continues to move to better quality: e.g. HDR, 10-bit and higher frame rates. Server encoding cost to move from 1080p SDR to 4K HDR is 5x. 360 and Facebook’s 6DoF video are also growing in consumption by consumers which again increases encoding costs by at least 4x.

If you add up all these variables, it’s not hard to do the math and see that for some, encoding costs could increase by 500x over the next few years as new codecs, higher quality video, 360 video and general demand increases. If you want to see how I get to that number, here’s the math:

  • 5x number of minutes to be encoded over today
  • 5x the encoding costs for new codecs like VP9 and HEVC over H.264
  • 5x as more video is in higher resolution, higher frame rate, HDR (e.g. 1080p60 SDR vs 4Kp60 HDR is 5x pixels)
  • 2x as now you have to support two codecs (H.264 & HEVC or VP9)
  • 2x if you have to support 360 video and Facebook’s 6DoF (Degrees of Freedom)

This is why over the past year, a new type of accelerator in public clouds called Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) is growing in the market. Unlike CPUs and GPUs FPGAs are not programmed by using an instruction set but instead by wiring up an electrical circuit. This is the same way traditional Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) are programmed but a big difference is that FPGA can be programmed “in the field”. This means it can be programmed on demand in the cloud just like CPUs and GPUs are. Fortunately, customers just need to change a single line of code to replace a software encoder with an FPGA encoder and still get the benefits of using common frameworks like FFmpeg.

Encoding software such as x265 contains a great many presets that allow the user to customize settings and trade-off overall computing requirements against the size of the encoded video. x265 can produce very high-quality results with the “veryslow” preset. The coding rate (frames per second encoded) is low, yielding the best compression, but with considerable cost of encoding resources. On the AWS EC2 c4.8xlarge instance running X265 deliver only 3 frames per second (fps) of 1080p video. Hence to deliver 60fps 20x c4.8xlarge instances would be required which would cost around $33 an hour.

To put that in comparison, video compression vendor NGCodec’s encoder running in the AWS EC2 FPGA instance f1.2xlarge can deliver better visual quality than x264 ‘veryslow’ but can deliver over 60 fps on a single f1.2xlarge instance. The total cost would be around $3 including the cost of the f1 instance and the cost of the codec. This is a total savings of over 10x as well as avoiding the complexity of parallelizing live video to use multiple C4 instances. This cost and quality benefit is why public cloud providers like Amazon, Baidu, Nimbix, and OVH have already deployed FPGA instances which their customers can use on demand. Many other data centers providers tell me they are also in development of FPGA public instances and I expect this trend to continue.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of FPGA and welcome their comments below.