Elemental Server Powers ESPN’s On-Demand Video

To address an insatiable fan base demanding up-to-the-minute sports content, ESPN has partnered with Elemental Technologies to create on-demand video for the network’s Websites and mobile applications.

Elemental Server, a file-based video-processing system that provides fast, high-quality video transcoding for multiscreen video applications, allows ESPN to create 14 distinct video outputs for adaptive-bitrate playback on broadband, iPhone, iPad, and Android platforms.

Using the Elemental Server, ESPN can input a variety of codecs, including MPEG-2, DVCPRO HD, and .MOV files, which are ingested as high-bitrate mezzanine-quality video images and converted to a range of Web-based outputs.

“If you’re on an iPhone, you want to be delivered the video in several different formats based on whether it’s going over a WiFi connection or a 3G connection,” explains Elemental Technologies CEO Sam Blackman. “Based on how much the bandwidth is fluctuating between that 3G connection or the WiFi connection, you might pick four or five different bitrates and resolutions to create a good video experience regardless of bandwidth to the iPhone.”

ESPN’s servers are each equipped with two traditional Intel six-core Westmere CPUs and two NVIDIA GPUs, which are leveraged to enable the encoding speed essential for quick content turnaround.

Elemental creates codecs from scratch, rather than relying on codec-specific hardware encoders, and builds in deinterlacing, color correction, and scaling processing functions.

“Sports is a premium content offering, and Elemental is very focused on high-quality video,” says Blackman. “We’ve been able to build some very high-performance codecs that generate great quality even for challenging video images like grassy fields in football or parquet floors in basketball.”

With 14 distinct streams for adaptive-bitrate playback on each platform, ESPN is able to deliver high-quality digital highlight packages to mobile devices and broadband sites faster than ever before. On-demand video is available immediately through ESPN’s flagship, regional, and international sites, as well as the network’s mobile applications.

“When you’re creating clips, the faster you can turn around those clips, the more you can distribute them to end users, because fans want to see highlights as soon as they are possibly available,” says Blackman. “By leveraging the GPUs, we are able to turn around clips incredibly fast relative to our competitors, and, for someone like ESPN, being able to turn around those assets quickly for distribution to the plethora of devices out there that ESPN syndicates content to is absolutely [essential].”