Streaming Protocols for Live Broadcasting: Everything You Need to Know [2022 Update]
Did you know that 80% of people would rather watch a live stream than read a blog post? Additionally, the typical viewer watches a live stream for at least twice as long as they stick with a standard video.
Streaming platforms are increasingly popular as live video content becomes a preferred type of media. It is engaging, fresh, personal, and easy to access.
When it comes to live broadcasting, there is a lot of technology that works behind the scenes. A streaming protocol is a technology that makes streaming live video possible.
Today, we’re going to talk about six of the most prominent live streaming protocols used by professional broadcasters today. Before we get into the specific streaming protocols, we are going to talk about what exactly a video protocol is. We’ll also compare some similar technologies that are related to live streaming, including codecs and video streaming formats.
You will learn all about streaming protocols, including what is the best streaming protocol for your specific application.
The Basics of Streaming Protocols
Streaming protocols make up one of the building blocks of professional broadcasting.
A streaming protocol, also known as a broadcast protocol, is a standardized method of delivering different types of media (usually video or audio) over the internet.
Essentially, a video streaming protocol sends “chunks” of content from one device to another. It also defines the method for “reassembling” these chunks into playable content on the other end.
That points toward one important aspect of streaming protocols: both the output device and the viewer have to support the protocol in order for it to work.
For example, if you’re sending a stream in MPEG-DASH, but the video player on the device to which you’re streaming doesn’t support MPEG-DASH, your stream won’t work.
For this reason, standardization is important. There are currently a few major media streaming protocols in widespread use, which we’ll look at in detail in a moment. Six common protocols include:
1. HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)
2. Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP)
3. Secure Reliable Transport (SRT)
4. Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (MPEG-DASH)
5. Microsoft Smooth Streaming (MSS)
6. Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC)
Before we dive into the specific protocols, let’s clear up some potential confusion in the realm of live streaming protocols and codecs.
Live Streaming Protocol vs. Codec
“Codec” is a word that comes up often in the world of live streaming, and at first glance, the definition seems similar to that of a video protocol. However, a live streaming protocol is different from a video codec.
Codec stands for “coder/decoder.” It is a tool for making video files smaller. RAW video files are made up of many still images played quickly in sequence (typically at 30 frames per second). Now, imagine thirty photos that are two megapixels each. That’s a lot of storage space. That is where a codec comes into play.
The solution for saving space is compression, which uses mathematical algorithms to discard data that isn’t very important. For example, if a corner of the video is black, and remains black for a few seconds, you can toss the individual pixel data and just include a reference instead.
Once the file has arrived at its destination, it is then decompressed so that the video can play as normal. This process happens in real-time when it comes to live streaming. This process is what happens when a video codec is used. A video codec is essentially streaming method tool.
Streaming Protocols vs. Video Streaming Formats
Another source of potential confusion is the video streaming format. This refers to the “container” or “package” that’s used for video transmission. A container format usually contains compressed video, compressed audio, and metadata such as subtitles, timing info, and so forth.
This data is transmitted via a streaming protocol. The transport format defines how the content is stored within the individual chunks of data as they are streamed. Common transport formats or containers for streaming video include MP4 (fragments) and MPEG-TS.
6 Common Streaming Protocols
Different video streaming protocols are used for different use cases. Certain streaming protocols are better suited for some streaming setups and others. The best protocol for live streaming depends on the situation.
There are six common streaming protocols that professional broadcasters should be familiar with, including HLS, RTMP, SRT, MSS, and MPEG-DASH, and WebRTC. Let’s take some time to explore some of the background and technical requirements for the most popular protocols.
1. HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)
The popularization of Apple products demanded an iOS-compatible protocol.
HLS streaming is an alternative protocol developed by Apple. HLS stands for HTTP Live Streaming, and today it is the most widely used streaming protocol on the internet. However, this was not always the case because when Flash was still around, the top streaming protocol was RTMP.
HLS is an adaptive bitrate protocol and also uses HTTP servers. This protocol is an evolving specification, as Apple continually adds features and regularly improves HLS.
Here are a couple examples of how Apple has improved HLS in recent years:
- Performance: When compared to a streaming protocol like DASH, HLS had a few shortcomings in the past. Notably, DASH was arguably able to deliver better quality streams than HLS, but that’s no longer the case.
- Resolution: DASH was previously able to support videos with higher resolution than HLS. Now, HLS supports 4K video resolution, so HLS is no longer at a disadvantage compared to DASH on this front either.
Despite improving on their past shortcomings, Apple has not yet been able to fix the latency issue associated with HLS. The HLS protocol has a relatively high latency compared to RTMP, for example. As mentioned, though, Apple is constantly working on HLS and has even come out with Low-Latency HLS.
Low-latency HLS is an extension of the HLS protocol that can enable latency at 2 seconds or less. This latency is a great improvement from the 15-30 seconds of latency that HLS live streams are generally associated with.
Unfortunately for Apple, this protocol hasn’t grown in popularity as fast as Apple would like, so they’ve tried a few things to speed up adoption. Still, vendor support is lacking across the video delivery ecosystem.
HLS is one of the protocols that Mslive uses. Mslive has also added support for HLS ingest, which is still relatively new. Keep in mind that very few streaming platforms at the moment support HLS ingest.
2. Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP)
The RTMP protocol sends video files from the encoder to the online video platform.
Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) is a protocol that was previously used to deliver videos to the Adobe Flash player. RTMP was developed by Macromedia with the primary use case of working with Adobe Flash player, but as you already know, Flash player is now dead.
To understand the popularity of RTMP as a delivery protocol, consider that at one point, Adobe Flash Player was installed in about 99% of desktops in the West. RTMP was heavily used for many years.
And because RTMP and Flash worked so closely together, many people now confuse the two terms as being interchangeable, but they’re not. In other words, Flash is dead, but RTMP isn’t. Instead, it lives on with a new use-case now that HTML5 has replaced Flash.
RTMP has limited playback support nowadays. Instead, RTMP is now used for ingestion from the encoder to the online video platform.
RTMP ingest allows users to tap into the support of low-cost RTMP encoders. Much of the online video streaming industry, including leading streaming software and OVPs, is still compatible with RTMP ingest.
When paired with HLS delivery, RTMP ingest produces a low-latency stream. RTMP is still powerful because it’s capable of supporting low latency, which is a top reason RTMP ingest has remained popular. Another top reason RTMP ingest is currently the most popular protocol for ingesting has to do with compatibility. HLS ingest, for example, is still not widely supported by streaming services.
3. Secure Reliable Transport (SRT)
SRT is a new, innovative streaming protocol.
Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) is a relatively new streaming protocol from Haivision, a leading player in the online streaming space. SRT is an open-source protocol that is likely the future of live streaming. This video streaming protocol is known for its security, reliability, and low latency streaming.
SRT is still quite futuristic because there are still some compatibility limitations with this protocol. The protocol itself is open-source and highly compatible, but other streaming hardware and software have yet to develop to support this protocol.
Haivision has created the SRT Alliance, which is a group of companies in the technology and telecommunications industry that are dedicated to bringing SRT up in the live streaming space. Currently, the best way to access SRT is by using technology that is founded by or backed by any of the SRT Alliance members.
The world of live streaming can be quite confusing, especially for new broadcasters. Becoming an expert requires knowledge of not just streaming protocol but also codecs, container formats, CDNs, video workflows, and much more, and we are here to help.
In this article, we’ve reviewed the basic functionality of six of the most popular video streaming protocols, including MPEG-DASH, RTMP, SRT, HLS, MSS, and WebRTC.
Each streaming protocol comes with pros and cons. Which protocol you use will depend on who you are trying to reach and which devices they use. The best protocol for live streaming depends on your needs and the needs of your audience.
We believe that HLS is currently the best protocol for most video streaming use-cases. It remains the most popular streaming protocol for good reason. That’s why it, along with HDS, is our default protocol here at Mslive. We believe HLS and HDS are currently the best streaming protocols for reaching the widest audience with the highest quality video. However, we believe that right now for first-mile delivery, RTMP ingest is a safer choice compared to HLS ingest because of compatibility. This may change in the future.
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