Live Video Streaming 101: De-Mystified

Sometimes I just have to pinch myself, to make sure I’m not dreaming. It’s probably the same feeling and phenomenon that my dearly departed grandmother used to describe to me as a child, now that we are in the age of international air travel and interstate highways, considering that she was a little girl in the transitional horse-and-buggy days, and saw her first Model-T at the age of 10. What I’m relating this to is the blinding pace of internet-delivered video technology development and capability as compared with traditional broadcast and cable / satellite TV of yesteryear. It’s amazing how quickly we have already become jaded to the advent of Skype video phone technology (which is still very much in the Stanley Kubrick / 2001: A Space Odyssey realm to me, when I really think about it) as well as YouTube, Vimeo, video on the iPhone and Android, and the like. This is amazing stuff, but a lot of kids have now grown up with it, and so they don’t quite get it like I do… if there is anything special to “get.”

Left: Kulabyte XL 800 web streaming server.

In the context of this jaded perspective (which by the way, filters over even to the more “mature” sectors of our population as well), I have noticed a tendency within the average public’s level of understanding of video streaming, to merely uploading videos to a hosting site, or stretching the self imposed limits, to have one’s very own YouTube or Livestream channel. This blasé attitude permeates to the professional realm as well. When streaming is discussed or proposed, it is more often than not considered only in terms of “uploading edited or unedited video material” which is in turn then downloaded to the end-viewer, either in its content entirety, or as a progressively viewed download, and thus “streaming happens.” And all of that is, incidentally, not the main topic to be discussed here.

What we will discuss here is LIVE event video streaming, as opposed to archived video streaming. They are two different animals. Last week at the annual SXSW (South by Southwest) music, interactive and film festival in Austin, Texas, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to stream four solid days of the Fiat Fader Fort for MySpace.com to well over 1.3 million viewers, live! Of course we archived all of the great acts that filled those four solid days at SXSW, as bands changed out every thirty minutes. We can watch that even now, today, and we want to insure this capability, because two thirds of our audience in this era of short attention-span internet addiction will tune in after the fact, to watch the archive rather than the live stream. So, you have to plan for this, and you have to cover yourself on both bases, i.e. live as well as archived.

Above: Kulabyte XStream Live encoder interface.

The archiving part is easy. As you encode your event (I use the Kulabyte XStream Live faster-than-real-time HD encoding solution, exclusively), you will want to set up a folder to store your archive on a dedicated hard drive, and then hit “archive” after the live stream has started, and save the portion of the program that you want to preserve. After the live program is completed and you stop the archive (saved in one or several resolutions or bitrates (2200 kbps/super high, 1500 kbps/really good, 1000 kbps/not bad, 500 kbps/for your mom or grandmother’s computer and connection speed, and 275 kbps/ for the mobile devices, looks great at that small size and downloads and plays easily over wireless), you will now upload these archive files, encoded and saved in .mp4 format, as desired, to some storage site on some cloud server. This cannot be just a storage server such as for your everyday website or domain. This must be a video streaming server, dedicated to that purpose, and if it is not, then your video will not play smoothly or at all. There is also a CDN storage charge, accordingly for this service, anywhere from 25 to 50 cents per gigabyte per month, depending on the deal you can strike and the size of your account agreement and usage. Akamai requires a minimum usage of about $4,000 to $5,000 per month; other CDNs are considerably less. You surely may be able to drive a better deal, but you have to negotiate, and the prices will be coming down, I suspect, in the future. An hour of fairly high-res video will consume roughly a half-gigabyte of storage, and more for higher-res (high bitrate) and less for lower-res (low bitrate).

So now that we have a sufficient background in what we do not need to know for this article, let’s talk about what we do need to know for streaming, which is the coolest aspect of this new technology, and will thus set you apart from the pack, if you know how to pull it off and what you are talking about.

Left: Live switching console in studio.

The show-stopping limiting factor for live event streaming of concerts, lectures, sports events, ceremonies, etc., is available upload bandwidth, or the lack thereof. In my hometown of San Marcos, Texas, I can count on two hands the number of venues in town that have sufficient bandwidth (translation: UPLOAD SPEED) to carry an HD stream. Everywhere else is therefore off-limits for live-streaming, until we can get the imposed bandwidth cap lifted on 4G or the information super-highway is fully built-out. We are indeed still on the dirt roads of internet information delivery and access, compared to what will be in our future.

You can check your present download and upload speed at http://speedtest.net. While with a cable ISP, you may have great download speeds (10.0 mbps), but your upload speed may indeed be minimal (0.3 mbps). They are not the same, and using one simultaneously with the other (uploading while downloading) may indeed have an adverse affect overall. This minimal level of upload speed will not sustain an HD stream. We like to see at least 2.0 mbps upload speed in a perfect world, even more maybe, but that 2.0 will do for our purposes just fine.

So, you have your live camera sources, HD-SDI preferably into an HD switcher (such as the HD Tricaster) and then out with your HD-SDI with embedded audio into a BlackMagic Design Decklink card for capture, and then into the Kulabyte encoding software for live on-the-fly encoding. Come out of your encoding machine (a quad-core or faster PC running WinXP or better OS) via its Ethernet port into your 2.0 mbps (or better) connection.

Right: HD-SDI (cable at right) is key.

So now you are streaming HD video!

And with that, you can share the experience live, with your one best friend, and probably not two friends, unless they are watching it together on the same machine and/or monitor. So, this isn’t much use to us for a big event, to stream it to just one person or viewer.

My best friend in this particular case is my ingest point at my CDN (Content Delivery Network — I currently use Amazon, although I have used Level 3, CDNetworks, Mirror Image, and a couple others with varying desirable results). The CDN is a relatively new phenomenon which grew out of a need for replication and distribution of program material. CDNs grew from the points-of-presence internet nodes and server farms that existed prior to streaming video, in the attempt to efficiently utilize computer processing time over that which was required originally to process instantaneous transactions. CDNs deliver content more or less continuously instead of just in short data bursts. And everyone is getting into the business, from Akamai (the big dog), to Level3, to Limelight, to CDNetworks, to Mirror Image, to Amazon, and others.

The bottom line to all of this, is that over your existing upload connection and bandwidth at a given venue (remember it needs to be at least appx. 2.0 mbps), you can stream to and hit your ingest point (such as rtmp://akamai.com/live.mediadesign.net/12345 or whatever) with your video feed, and the CDN will in turn replicate and distribute your live program to all points of presence on their fat pipe network, such that when a user logs on from Los Angeles or New York to watch a live stream from SXSW in Austin, their client stream(s) will be essentially served from the West or East coast respectively, rather than from Austin, which would certainly slow things down somewhere along the food chain.

That’s basically how it works, and what the basic requirements are to originate an HD program live stream to a hundred or to a million viewers. What remains is what to do with your archived program material, since as I mentioned, that’s where more than two-thirds of your audience will interface with your production effort.

But content management on a VCMS (Video Content Management System) is the topic of yet another article, to follow shortly right here on DV Info Net.

About the Author

Dave Newman has operated Media Design Multimedia since 1995 and SMTX.TV Micro-Internet Television since May 2007. He is a freelancer for Kulabyte LLC, which has streamed the Masters 2010 Golf Tournament, the Michael Jackson Memorial Service, the Tony Awards, the 2011 Super Bowl, President Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech from Oslo, and most recently the MySpace / Fader Fort from SXSW 2011 in Austin, Texas). Dave does encoder beta-testing for Kulabyte and streams six to eight live shows a week from SMTX.TV Studios in San Marcos, TX.

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