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GPUs mean encoder designs have changed forever


Published: 11 May, 2012


Building encoders used to be about putting core algorithms into chip designs, using FPGA's and ASICs. Today it is about finding as much power as you find lay your hands on and turning it to the processing of video pixels.

The industry now wants multiple HD frames, alongside many possible adaptive stream formats in different frame sizes. The classic problem is HD MPEG2 in, and the outputs are 20 plus simultaneous resolutions and formats, some HD, others transcoded for tablets, handsets, and laptops, all in one pass, taking as many shortcuts as you can along the way. All real time encoder designs are effectively obsolete.

Elemental Technologies seem to have a real edge, in that it has harnessed the parallel compute power of Nvidia GPUs - almost built from the ground up to do this type of repetitive, mathematical job, working on multiple processes in parallel.

The Cell chip, through Broadcast International, was one of the first efforts to harness native parallelism in hardware for the encoding job, but while there is a Cell chip for every PS3 in the world, there is also an Nvidia chip in each PS3, and often one in every computer. They are cheaper, because they are part and parcel of the general purpose environment you find in every blade server.

While this bodes well for Elemental, who must surely be on the acquisition list of every major encoder maker, it also lays down a challenge that every other encoder maker - they must also find a way to harness GPU parallelism, whether through the Nvidia chipset, through ATI devices, or through core designs of Imagination Technologies and ARM.

If we have to build video for 10 times as many screens and screen types as in the past, in higher and higher resolutions, what other compute resources can we find that supports parallelism and are this cheap?

Which is why some enlightened investors this week put another $13 million into Elemental and it landed yet another TV Everywhere customer at Columbia Communications, the Caribbean cable operator.

To underline how effective the approach is CEO Sam Blackman told us that at Comcast, where it powers their Xfinity encoding, "We found that Comcast Xfinity had grown to a substantial number of servers but we were able to replace five of each of these servers with just one of our own."

If those numbers sway a player like Comcast, expect them to sway many more, and for the entire science of encoding to follow the Elemental lead.

For a longer analysis of this news, request a copy of our paid sister paper Faultline from

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