There are many factors to consider when choosing a cloud encoding platform, including workflows supported, available codecs and output formats, the availability of features like DRM support and per-title encoding, and many, many more. But once you identify the services that check all the checkboxes, it will come down to price. And given that most cloud vendors work with a similar set of encoding tools and codecs, like FFmpeg and x264 and x265, there’s a truly shocking range of pricing. If you shop wisely and ask the right questions, you can save a bundle.
In this article, I’ll describe the available pricing models, detail how they work, and cover the questions to ask to flesh out the true cost of encoding. I’ll also provide a table identifying some of the better-known cloud encoding vendors and their supported pricing models.
Let’s jump in chronologically, starting with encoding.com, which launched in 2008 as one of the first cloud encoding platforms (if not the first), and is still one of the largest (if not the largest) cloud encoding services.
Cloud Encoding as a Software as a Service (SaaS)
Encoding.com launched as a Software as a Service (SaaS). Under this model, you upload your video files to encoding.com, and they process the videos, produce the outputs, and charge you based on the total GB of input and output video.
As you can see on this pricing page, the cost-per-GB varies according to volume commitments, which is typical of virtually all cloud services. It’s a straightforward and easy-to-understand business model and pricing scheme, though it seems to make less sense given that codecs, like HEVC and AV1, take significantly longer to encode than H.264.
Most other cloud vendors initially adopted the same business model but charged by the minute of video output, not by file size. Most services have a base charge of between $0.01 – $0.025/minute, which is adjusted by different factors that impact the processing load related to the encoding job. These adjustments typically include:
- Codec – often 2-4x for HEVC and VP9, and up to 30 – 50x for AV1. Not all vendors charge more for different codecs; as an example, Zencoder doesn’t charge extra for HEVC.
- Resolution – usually 2x for HD, 4x for 4K
- Audio pricing – usually .25x – .5x per minute for AAC audio
- Frame rate – usually 1.25x for 60 fps, 1.5x for higher frame rates.
- Quality levels – sometimes this is expressed as the number of passes, sometimes just a quality differential. For example, Microsoft’s Azure cloud offers three prices for HEVC encoding, Speed, Balanced, and Quality with 4x difference between speed and quality. AWS Elemental MediaConvert charges a 7x difference between 1-pass (Speed Optimized) and 2 Pass (Quality Optimized). In contrast, Bitmovin charges a 1.25x premium for two-pass encoding and a 1.5x premium for three-pass.
- Per-title encoding – several vendors offer per-title encoding; some charge for it, some don’t.
- Transmuxing – some vendors offer reduced pricing for additional ABR formats you create from the same source file, so while HLS might be full price, DASH might be .5x. This can make a huge difference if you’re producing multiple ABR formats.
- Ingress/egress – some vendors charge for getting data into their system and for delivery.
Reserved Cloud Pricing (PaaS) For Cloud Encoding
Several services, including Elemental and encoding.com, offer platform as a service (PaaS) pricing, where you buy encoding capacity and can push as much processing as possible through the system within a specified period.
Here’s encoding.com’s description of its ReservedCloud pricing.
“Process all you’d like with the most cost-effective way to handle your media processing workflow. Pay a fixed fee per month for 24/7/365 unlimited encoding on an AWS Reserved Instance in any one of their 10 MPAA aligned data centers. Choose our recommended AWS RI or the RI of your preference.”
Here’s AWS Elemental’s description of its MediaConvert Reserved pricing:
Purchase one or more reserved transcode slots for a fixed monthly charge (additional fees for Dolby Audio and Audio Normalization usage minutes), with a minimum 12-month commitment. Each slot runs a single job at a time, with access to all available encoding features, and can process jobs continuously one after the other. See the documentation pages for more information.
This pricing model might make sense if you have a relatively fixed demand that can keep one or more instances encoding continuously for a full month. On the other hand, I corresponded with an executive at encoding.com who mentioned that most of their large customers prefer the per-GB model for its simplicity and scalability.
Private Cloud Pricing For Cloud Encoding
Two companies, Bitmovin and encoding.com, also offer the option to install and run their software on your own private cloud or public cloud environment.
For example, with Bitmovin’s Cloud Connect, “ Bitmovin deploys its software encoder into a supported AWS public cloud environment under the customer’s own account, so the underlying compute infrastructure is not bundled with the software usage itself. This way, a customer can benefit from their own negotiated compute costs with the public cloud provider.”
Pricing under this model is less expensive than Bitmovin’s SaaS because you’re paying for computing resources directly. However, you accrue the price using the same structure described above, just with a lower cost per minute.
Similarly, with encoding.com’s HybridCloud, you can install encoding.com’s software in your own private cloud. Here’s a snippet from the encoding.com website. “Run Encoding.com within your own private cloud. Managed encoding software delivered and maintained in lightweight containers. Cloud-based job orchestration and automatic failover to on-demand public cloud.”
If you’ve got significant unused compute resources, arrangements like these can save significant OPEX.
Machine-Based Private Cloud (Dolby Hybrik)
The last model is solely offered by Dolby Hybrik. With this model, you run the Dolby Hybrik software on either AWS or the Google Cloud Platform and pay based upon the number of cloud instances that the software can address, starting at $1,000/month for 10 instances and increasing to $10,000/month for 1000 instances with logical steps in between. There are no per-minute or per-GB charges; you pay the monthly and your own machine charges.
This model has proved cheaper than the other models in multiple use cases that you can read about in this white paper, which will soon be updated. Full disclosure: the author consults with Dolby Hybrik and was the author of the existing white paper and soon-to-be-released update.
What About Quality and Control?
These are both significant and related issues. When you run your own local encoder, you directly control the quality and encoding time tradeoff. In x264/x265-speak, you can choose this option if you decide that you need Placebo-level quality and don’t mind the cost. If you decide that Medium is fine, you can do that as well.
You may not have that level of control with all cloud vendors. For example, some vendors, like Telestream Cloud with its Flip cloud service, only offer single-pass encoding though at the rock bottom price of $0.01/minute subject to many of the multiples discussed above. Is that good enough? That depends upon your own quality expectations.
With each vendor, ask about the quality-related options that you can enable and disable. Note that SaaS services make the most money when they encode your file as quickly as possible.
Getting to an Apples-to-Apples Comparison
Again, the pricing comparison is the final step of the process, not the first. Don’t start the pricing analysis until you’ve narrowed down your list to the companies that can meet all of your other requirements. Then, take these steps.
1. Prepare to test. You’ll need to test multiple services to gauge and compare output quality and may have to test different quality levels within each service to estimate costs. You should start with a few test clips encoded with your current solution to your existing ladder and more aggressive parameters. That is, if you’re encoding even high motion 1080p content to 6 Mbps or above, it’s unlikely that you’ll see much difference between any of the services. Push the same content out at 4 Mpbs, and quality differences will emerge.
When comparing services and encoding options, be sure to check both average and low-frame quality, the latter an indicator for transient quality issues. For example, Figure 1 is the Results Plot of the Moscow State University Video Quality Measurement Tool, showing a VMAF comparison of AWS Elemental MediaConvert encoding to the H.264 format using its multipass HQ option (in red) and single-pass option (in green).
The average scores were very close, with multipass at 90.37 and single-pass at 90.28. However, the lowest frame for multipass was 67.03 while single-pass quality dropped to 52.45, the stalactite-looking green drop you see around frame 870. The average VMAF score might convince you that the 75% premium for two-pass encoding isn’t necessary. The low-frame score is compelling evidence that it’s probably worth the cost.
Don’t assume that the quality of all the cloud services is the same because it’s not. This is particularly true if you’re considering options like per-title encoding or advanced codecs like HEVC.
2. Channel your inner MBA. Be prepared to get down and dirty with Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. Choosing the right cloud vendor can save even smaller companies thousands a year, but getting to an apples-to-apples comparison won’t be simple, particularly if you consider encoding.com’s per-GB option, which works on a totally different model than per minute. Start with the work detailed in step 1, so you know which quality level you require.
Then map out your encoding ladder so that you know how many rungs you’ll be producing in each price range, SD, HD, and 4K, and for each codec. If you’re packaging into multiple formats, check the transmuxing rate offered by the vendor, if any, and factor that in—ditto for per-title encoding.
3. Prepare to commit. Estimate your yearly encoding load and identify what financial commitments you’d be willing to make for a lower price.
4. Get on the phone or Zoom. Most companies publish only entry-level pricing on their websites. If you want to get the best pricing, you’ll need to talk with a sales rep. Most smaller companies will probably go with a SaaS option, but larger companies should consider all other pricing options.
Here’s a table to help you get started. You might also find this Moscow State University Cloud Transcoding comparison helpful.
|Bitmovin||AWS ElementalMediaConvert||Dolby Hybrik||Encoding .com||Microsoft Azure||Telestream|
|SaaS Cost Basis||per- minute||per-minute||NA||per-GB||per- minute||per- minute||per- minute|
|Private/ Public Cloud||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||No||No||No|
Develops training courses for streaming media professionals; provides encoding-related testing services to encoder developers; helps video producers perfect their encoding ladders and deploy new codecs. Jan blogs primarily at the Streaming Learning Center.