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The State of Streaming Media Protocols 2013
It's all about DASH: Adoption is moving at a rapid pace, as industry insiders see a strong need to get DASH implemented in the field in the coming year.
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Protocols are a geeky thing, almost up there with metadata -- which we've covered in years past in the Sourcebook -- or IP address schemes, which are covered in this year's Sourcebook. Without protocols, there would be no concept of a webpage, email delivery, or even VoIP (voice or video over IP). In fact, there would be no streaming of any flavor.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the latest developments in a few key protocols, some of which are just coming into widespread use for streaming.

On Time or On Target? The UDP Question

You may have heard the truism that "time is money." We often use that concept when we talk about hardware- or software-based transcoding: If a job needs to be done quickly, even faster than real time, go for the hardware; if time is less critical, use software.

The same concept, slightly morphed, can be applied to the world of streaming protocols: If low latency is key, go with UDP (User Datagram Protocol), but if delivery guarantee is more critical, go with TCP (Transmission Control Protocol). The latter provides control over guaranteed packet delivery -- the control in the transmission control protocol name -- while the former does not.

Every other protocol that we discuss in this article will hinge on TCP, but recent advances on the UDP front bear mention.

I'm not going to retrace step by step the key points that Dom Robinson travels in his recent article titled "Reliable UDP (RUDP): The Next Big Streaming Protocol?", but I do want to point out several highlights.

First, in and of itself UDP is unreliable, but it's fast and efficient. The protocol itself has no mechanism to guarantee delivery or request missing packets, as does TCP. A properly constructed application, though, can act as the first line of defense in detecting loss or packet corruption with subsequent request for dropped packets.

"[I]t can take TCP upward of 3 seconds to renegotiate for the sequence to restart from the missing point," wrote Robinson, "discarding all the subsequent data, which must be requeued to be sent again. Just one lost packet can cause an entire ‘window' of TCP data to be re-sent."

Second, UDP can work hand-in-hand with error-correction techniques. Many legacy intermittent networks, including those based on asynchronous transfer protocols such as ATM, used forward error correction (FEC) to anticipate intermittent outages. FEC provides "packet flooding" at a certain percentage above 100% of packets -- be it 15%, 20%, 30% -- to then allow the client application to reconstruct the missing or corrupt packets without the need to request that packets be retransmitted.

Third, the concept of reliable UDP has been around for quite some time and can be accomplished with a number of open source tools, but there are also a number of commercial licensees that offer tools based on RUDP.

Your mileage may vary if you want to tinker under the hood of a freeware application such as UDP Data Transfer, or you may just want to reach out to a vendor in the RUDP space. Regardless of your choice, there are enough RUDP options out there to warrant research, especially if very low latencies and FEC are part of your workflow.

HTTP Über Alles

The fanfare around Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP, or DASH for short, continues to build at a rate we'd only ever seen back in the early streaming days of Real versus Microsoft. DASH was ratified back in late 2011, but its adoption has moved at a rapid pace. Let's take a look at the HTTP flavors out there in current circulation: HDS, HLS, MPEG DASH, and Smooth Streaming. We'll look first at DASH followed, in alphabetical order, by the Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft proprietary offerings.

DASH IT ALL, OR JUST 264?

Due to DASH's ability to deliver any of several types of files -- from the fragmented MP4 version of ISO Base Media File Format (ISOBMFF) to the Apple-modified MPEG2 Transport Stream (M2TS) -- the DASH specification reads like an encyclopedia of encoding, encryption, and delivery technologies.

To offset the potential problem that plagued MPEG 4 system -- a wide-ranging specification, based on Apple QuickTime, that was too complex to easily implement -- the industry has begun looking at options and commonalities of all the major HTTP delivery solutions. It has, as of the time of this writing, begun drafting a subset specification that centers on H.264 served as fragmented MP4. This use of ISOBMFF and H.264 is being dubbed as DASH 264.

What impact the DASH 264 specification has on the potential of bringing Apple into the DASH fold -- it was a contributor to the DASH specification, but is the only M2TS-based HTTP solution -- remains to be seen. But several industry players we spoke to stated the strong need to get solid DASH implementations into the field in early 2013.

ADOBE'S FLASH VS. DASH CONUNDRUM

While Adobe wouldn't publicly come out in support of DASH, despite co-sponsoring an ISOBMFF white paper in late 2011, the company did put its weight behind DASH in late February 2012.

"I am excited to announce that Adobe's video solutions will adopt the emerging video standard, MPEG-DASH across our video streaming, playback, protection and monetization technologies," wrote Kevin Towes in an Adobe blog post. "Adobe will support MPEG-DASH ISOBFF on demand and live profiles which are recommended in DASH-264 recommendation."

Towes anticipated the question many would ask: What about Flash and the Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) protocol? He noted that Adobe will continue to push forward with HDS, even as Adobe supports DASH.

"Adobe will continue developing its HDS format used to deliver high quality, protected video experiences across multiple devices," wrote Towes, noting that the DASH profile for ISOBMFF "is similar to Adobe's HDS format and supports many of the performance objectives of the HDS format."

The continued development of HDS makes sense, as it offers Adobe the chance to try out new functionality within the confines of the Flash Player, but as we move into 2013, we wonder whether this is a sustainable model.

Adobe MAX 2013, to be held in May, may shed some light on HDS -- and perhaps even RTMP -- but meanwhile Adobe continues to show DASH functionality in the Flash Player.

AN APPLE (PROTOCOL) A DAY

Much has been made of the idea that HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) is a standard in the marketplace, but as one panelist at a recent DASH event quipped, "[T]he IETF drafts of the Pantos spec are more a suggestion than a standard."