Another free low latency solution

We really need to do something about this delay

Since we last brought up the topic, the industry has evolved a bit. Most of the big live streaming and social media players now routinely stream at under 5 seconds end-to-end latency, and your modest platform may be laughed at or lose business if still relying on the good old HLS/DASH and its inbuilt huge delays. 

The technological background hasn’t changed much, yet the emergence of ‘cord cutting’ has emphasized on the annoyingly big delays and pushed OTT providers to adapt and innovate. Where it could, LL-DASH has been implemented with relative success, periscope’s LHLS has had (and still has) its own success stories, and eventually apple had to step into the game and put together its own LL-HLS, currently already a published standard and deployed in the latest iOS. 

As we speak, there are a few factors at play that may set back your roadmap to low latency

  • Support for proprietary WebSocket based streaming is going away, most notable possibly being wowza’s announcement to discontinue its ‘ultra low latency’ thing; it makes sense in light of market-driven evolution of alternatives and fact that this was a stand-in solution from the get-go, with obvious drawbacks
  • WebRTC is not yet a grownup; while having been standardized and taken a giant step since available in Safari, remarkable implements are taking a while
  • Player and server support of LL-HLS is still limited to commercial products
  • LL-DASH support is still not ubiquitous

The treat

To the rescue, a friendly wrapped POC solution based on the rather amazing open source OvenMediaEngine. It supports both WebRTC and LL-DASH egress from a RTMP source, amongst other cool stuff. 

The WebRTC output lets you stream with sub-second latencies (!), and the LL-DASH can be configured to use a playback buffer of 1 second or less.

It’s here, to use as such or inspire from, enjoy!

Does it scale?

LL-DASH – scale with ease

As long as you can deploy/make use of reverse proxies that support chunked-transfer, scaling is a breeze. Nginx can do it, as do most CDNs – go for it. 

WebRTC – not as easy but it can be made to

The larger shortcoming of WebRTC is that it’s been designed for peer-to-peer and one-to-one; twisting it to support one-to-many means impersonating multiple one-to-one endpoints, each mildly resource consuming, to the point where it’ll choke any one server. 

Capabilities will largely vary depending on actual hardware, and stream characteristics. Consider just 200 viewers per cpu core when budgeting, any betterment will make your customer happy. 

There’s also the hot topic of transcoding. While AVC is (at long last) ubiquitous in WebRTC, you’ll need to transcode the audio to Opus. That’s surely a breeze for any CPU but it won’t scale, so the number of streams you can run on a server is limited. 

Is it worth it?

If you absolutely need cheap/free low latency, it is. 

Biggest conundrum being that DASH won’t work on iOS and WebRTC is harder/more expensive to scale, may I suggest you use both (have iOS users play the WebRTC feed) and see where your scalability needs take you. Provided you’re running a small/medium platform or just starting up, the odds are you’re better off than giving into commercial offerings. 

What about LL-HLS?

In OvenMedia, it’s reportedly in the works and may be available soon. In general, it may still be a while before we see it thriving. Partly due to its initial intent to mandate HTTP/2, the industry has been slow to adopt it, and the couple implements I’ve seen still get laggy provided near-perfect networking and encoding setups. 

Adaptive bitrate anyone?

Not supported with this product but it may soon be. 

Let me point out though that the two (ABR and extremely low latency) don’t go particularly well together. Think that

  • The need to transcode for ABR will add to the latency
  • Determining network capabilities and switching between ABR renditions is way tougher to properly plan ahead and execute given sub-second delays and buffers

In the big picture, you’re trading every second of latency for quality of experience or cost. Please don’t make it a whim and seriously assess how bad and how low you absolutely need it. Delivering near-instant high quality uninterrupted video over the open internet requires sophisticated/expensive tech, and even the most state of the art won’t deliver flawlessly to all.