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Ensure AWS video file conversion doesn't break the bank

Video file conversion can be a costly but necessary task for enterprises to reach their customers. Find the right mix of functionality and price with these services.

Amazon Elastic Transcoder is a workhorse for audio and video file conversions, but enterprises might also find success with more recent and cheaper alternatives.

IT professionals often must encode video and audio files in a more optimal format for a web or mobile client. Video, especially, often needs to be available over a variety of internet connections and form factors. To help enterprises meet these needs, Elastic Transcoder performs audio and video file conversion from one format into another, but it's not the only -- and sometimes not the best -- option for the task.

As some enterprises transcoded larger volumes of video for applications such as training videos, studio broadcasts, video on demand and high school sports broadcasts, they found Elastic Transcoder became quite expensive. There are cheaper, third-party alternatives, but most of those work outside the AWS ecosystem, which can lead to more development complexity and hefty data egress charges.

Late last year, Amazon added AWS Media Services, a family of tools to replace or complement Elastic Transcoder. These services are priced better for most uses and still keep media data within the AWS ecosystem. They include:

  • AWS Elemental MediaConvert transcodes and compresses media files.
  • AWS Elemental MediaLive transcodes live video streams and delivers them to viewers.
  • AWS Elemental MediaPackage adds digital rights management (DRM) to secure video content;
  • AWS Elemental MediaStore stores video for delivery to internet clients.
  • AWS Elemental MediaTailor inserts targeted advertisements into video streams.

Here's a closer look at these services and when to use one vs. another.

Define media streams with Elastic Transcoder

Modern web applications depend on several background processes to perform video file conversion into the right format for a webpage or mobile app. The latest cameras and smartphones capture video at ultra-high-definition resolutions to provide the best quality and improve the editing or post-processing steps. However, these video files might cause problems for users with slow or costly internet connections.

Developers who build video processing workflows can put these high-resolution videos into a variety of other formats suitable for the target device and connection type. They can incorporate DRM to make it more difficult for users to automatically copy and share premium video assets. In some cases, developers might also want to dynamically reassemble videos for specific users to provide, for example, personalized playback streams or customized ads.

Elastic Transcoder provides these kinds of services; essentially, developers can use the tool to specify how media streams are piped into various processes between video capture and delivery to consumers.

While other services within the AWS Elemental Media portfolio can be more cost-effective, developers will still need Elastic Transcoder to support WebM input and animated GIF video output; MP3, FLAC, Vorbis and WAV audio-only output; and encryption with AWS Key Management Service.

Use MediaConvert for files

The AWS Elemental family of tools provides the same functionality as Elastic Transcoder but is broken down into a more granular collection of services with a more competitive pricing model. For example, Elemental MediaConvert can transcode media files that don't need to be watched in real time at half the cost of Elastic Transcoder. It costs $0.45 per hour to transcode a minute of video into standard definition (SD) with MediaConvert and $0.90 per hour with Transcoder. For high definition (HD) video, the costs are $.90 an hour and $1.80 an hour, respectively.

However, the basic tier for MediaConvert only supports simple web distribution with advanced video coding-only outputs.

Enterprises need to use the Elemental MediaConvert professional tier for formats such as MPEG-2, HEVC or Apple ProRes codecs. This tier also supports different caption formats, DRM, ad signaling (a feature that tells an app where to insert an ad) and multiple audio tracks. The professional tier pricing starts at $0.72 per hour for SD and $1.44 per hour for HD.

The professional tier costs more upfront, but companies could ultimately save money if they use it. For example, HEVC can reduce storage and transit fees because it significantly shrinks the size of video files. The professional tier also supports multi-pass encoding, which can further shrink video files.

Developers can also be more flexible in how they organize complex video processing workflows. Elastic Transcoder uses pipelines to manage jobs tied to a single S3 bucket, whereas Elemental MediaConvert uses queues that can be tied to multiple S3 buckets.

Start with MediaLive for streams

AWS Elemental MediaLive is better suited to transcode live video streams in real time, such as a companywide conference or sporting event. But this service has a more complex pricing model, with inputs, outputs and add-on functionality all billed in hourly increments. There are also an on-demand price and a reserved price that are about 75% lower.

In the cheapest case with reserved pricing, it costs $0.0137 per hour for input and $0.0863 per hour for output to transcode SD video input into SD output. An HD input stream starts at $0.12 per hour and an output stream starts at $0.1726 per hour.

Large media organizations can use a professional tier if they need a common video capture, transcode and content delivery network (CDN) architecture. This falls under the Elemental umbrella and consists of different hardware, software and cloud components. These include AWS Elemental Live for video ingestion, AWS Elemental Server for transcoding files, AWS Elemental Delta for video delivery and AWS Elemental Conductor for unified video management.

Movement of streams to a CDN

After they perform video file conversion, developers need to upload that media to a CDN, such as Amazon CloudFront. AWS provides Elemental MediaPackage and Elemental MediaStore to optimize and transmit video from MediaLive and Elemental Live to a CDN.

AWS Elemental MediaPackage automatically provides DRM and enables developers to add DVR-like features to video streams, such as restart, pause and rewind. It works in concert with Elemental MediaLive and Elemental Live. It's priced based on data ingestion, starting at $0.050 per gigabyte, and origination and packaging, which represents the amount of data sent to a CDN.

AWS Elemental MediaStore is a cheaper alternative to MediaPackage when developers don't need to support DVR-like features or DRM. MediaStore pricing starts at $0.020 per gigabyte ingested and $0.0230 per gigabyte stored per month. It also incurs modest additional charges for different kinds of app requests, such as PUTGETHEADDELETE or LIST commands.

Of course, the devil is in the details with this Elemental family of services. Transcoded video must be stored, managed and billed through ancillary services that incur additional fees, such as S3 buckets for storage, CDN services via CloudFront and billing engines built on top of EC2 or Lambda apps.

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