Sarah Cook Aug 26, 2021 7:56:29 AM 9 min read

Choosing a Codec: Why Free is Not Always Free

[Editor's Note: Article reprinted from InBroadcast, June 2021, Issue 6.]

When it comes to designing and building a video workflow, companies have a lot of software and hardware options to choose from. One of the first decisions is whether to go with a turnkey solution, custom design, or something in between. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. One factor not always considered is the long-term labor and costs to maintain the chosen setup. These costs can come in the form of extra staffing, unplanned consulting or support fees, or an unexpected demand for more storage capacity or bandwidth. Decisions about which solution to use become especially important when deciding about foundational technologies such as codecs.

Open source versus commercial implementations

Software codecs are the heart of professional video production and broadcast operations. There is no shortage of codecs to choose from, nor is there a lack of ways to implement them. One of the more common approaches is to use open source, free community-supported software that is primarily designed for use by developers with advanced programming skills. The open-source community currently maintains video codecs for H.265, H.264, AV1, VP9 and many other popular standards.

Commercial codec solutions

The viable alternative to open source comes from companies that develop commercial software codecs. These companies invest in optimizing their codecs to achieve the highest performance and quality. They employ experienced engineers, many of whom have been in the industry throughout different codec generations, and who influence future standards and product developments. Many of these companies also offer professional consulting services that can evaluate an organization’s needs and then help pick and implement the ideal solution.

Why companies choose open source codecs

Companies have reasons to choose commercial or open-source codecs. Those with a staff of experienced codec engineers and a direct line to their customers may be well-suited to using open-source software. However, for those looking to solve a unique problem, need a specialized codec, or who have a tight timeline, a commercial codec is the better option.

Cost is typically the primary reason companies choose open source. After all, why pay for something when it is available for free? This is where companies need to be careful because while the open source software itself does not require any payment for usage, that doesn’t mean there is no cost in using it. In fact, eventually the true cost of open source often far exceeds that of a commercial codec. Why would open source cost more? Let’s address some of the most common reasons.

Unplanned costs

Open source is often the right option for simple setups, especially if the company already employs individuals who understand codec technology and have advanced programming skills. However, as complexity advances, so does the likelihood that problems will arise. If you are lucky, the problems will be obvious during setup and can be mitigated with minimal impact to budget and timeline. Too often, problems are discovered post-launch. Hopefully, these are not mission-critical issues affecting customers or requiring the new setup be taken offline.

Storage capacity and bandwidth are two other areas that are not always fully considered when budgeting a new workflow. Inefficiencies like suboptimal compression can result in higher bandwidth and storage costs. An organization may not even be aware that an unnecessary portion of their operating budget is being spent on something that could have been avoided with a commercial codec and professional support services.

Time to implement and maintain

The team is available and fully grasps the situation and is confident a fully optimized process can be built in-house. Is the timeline realistic? Is some of that time actually needed for other team priorities? How about the long-term staffing view? Is your team ready to dedicate the time to maintain and upgrade the codecs, multiplexers and other essential components?

These are all questions that need to be considered when scoping video projects. If the answers to these questions do not align with the project goals, open-source software may cost much more than you expect.

Design flexibility

Using open source often does not leave opportunity for unique configurations, and let’s be honest, most video workflows need some sort of customization. Lack of customization can mean an unoptimized workflow which in turn may require workarounds, causing scaling inflexibility and reliability issues downstream.

Conversely, by considering professionally designed codecs, developers get access to specialized video expertise to help choose the right software for the need, rather than force-fitting what is available for free. Codec experts are especially adept at offering suggestions to meet today’s needs while keeping an eye towards the future, ensuring minimal effort is needed to keep up with industry advancements. Ongoing maintenance and support is also a valuable accoutrement with commercial codecs and allows these experts to further tune and optimize codec libraries to ensure video frameworks maintain superior quality, performance and reliability after implementation.

Support and security

With open source, direct support is impersonal and haphazard, forcing users into community forums and other resources as their primary means of problem solving. While this isn’t inherently bad, a business might want to be at least a bit skeptical about leaving their critical video operations to a community-based platform, no matter how well-intentioned that community may be. Businesses might also be wary of sharing information about their technology implementations with competitors or even cybercriminals.

Bottom line, codecs are complex to build and maintain. Relying on independent contractors or volunteer-led forums for support injects considerable risk and cost into the equation.

MainConcept Codec Plugin for DaVinci Resolve Studio 

While there are dozens of companies that offer one type of software codec or another, one has been leading codec development for nearly three decades. MainConcept has been at the industry forefront, with companies like Adobe, Avid, Wowza, MAGIX, iStream Planet, Telestream and hundreds more relying on their codec technology to power their digital video workflows. MainConcept has products and support for a variety of needs, from developers to end users. Their SDKs are used in some of the most complex workflows, while their applications and plugins are ideal for those looking for ready-to-use solutions. No matter whether choosing an SDK, application or plugin, all use the industry-leading MainConcept technology at their core. MainConcept offers complimentary, no-obligation consultations as well as free trials for all their products. Learn more at www.mainconcept.com.

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Sarah Cook

Sarah Cook joined the MainConcept team early in 2021 and brings deep expertise in product marketing, communications, and thought leadership. Sarah has worked for some of the biggest names in technology including Dell and Cisco and holds a B.A. in English Composition with a minor in Music from the University of North Texas. She sings with and serves on the Board of Directors for Panoramic Voices, a 501(c)3 choral collaborative in Austin, TX. When she is not working or singing, you might find her walking, riding her bicycle, or at a Pilates class.