Video: Player Optimisations

If you’ve ever tried to implement your own player, you’ll know there’s a big gap between understanding the HLS/DASH spec and getting an all-round great player. Finding the best, most elegant, ways of dealing with problems like buffer exhaustion takes thought and experience. The same is true for low-latency playback.

Fortunately, Akamai’s Will Law is here to give us the benefit of his experience implementing his own and helping customers monitor the performance of their players. At the end of the day, the player is the ‘kingpin’ of streaming, comments Will. Without it, you have no streaming experience. All other aspects of the stream can be worked around or mitigated, but if the player’s not working, no one watches anything.

Will’s first tip is to implement ‘segment abandonment’. This is when a video player foresees that downloading the current segment is taking too long; if it continues, it will run out of video to play before the segment has arrived. A well-programmed player will sport this and try to continue the download of this segment from another server or CDN. However, Will says that many will simply continue to wait for the download and, in the meantime, the download will fail.

Tip two is about ABR switching in low-latency, chunked transfer streams. The playback buffer needs to be longer than the chunk duration. Without this precaution, there will not be enough time for the player to make the decision to switch down layers. Will shows a diagram of how a 3-second playback buffer can recover as long as it uses 2-second segments.

Will’s next two suggestions are to put your initial chunk in the manifest by base64-encoding it. This makes the manifest larger but removes the round-trip which would otherwise be used to request the chunk. This can significantly improve the startup performance as the RTT could be a quarter of a second which is a big deal for low-latency streams and anyone who wants a short time-to-play. Similarly, advises Will, make those initial requests in parallel. Don’t wait for the init file to be downloaded before requesting the media segment.

Whilst many of points in this talk focus on the player itself, Will says it’s wise for the player to provide metrics back to the CDN, hidden in the request headers or query args. This data can help the CDN serve media smarter. For instance, the player could send over the segment duration to the CDN. Knowing how long the segment is, the CDN can compare this to the download time to understand if it’s serving the data too slow. Perhaps the simplest idea is for the player to pass back a GUID which the CDN can put in the logs. This helps identify which of the millions of lines of logs are relevant to your player so you can run your own analysis on a player-by-player level.

Will’s other points include advice on how to avoid starting playing at the lowest bandwidth and working up. This doesn’t look great and is often unnecessary. The player could run its own speed test or the CDN could advise based on the initial requests. He advises never trusting the system clock; use an external clock instead.

Regarding playback latency, it pays to be wise when starting out. If you blindly start an HLS stream, then your latency will be variable within the duration of a segment. Will advocates HEAD requests to try to see when the next chunk is available and only then starting playback. Another technique is to vary your playback rate o you can ‘catch up’. The benefit of using rate adjustment is that you can ask all your players to be at a certain latency behind realtime so they can be close to synchronous.

Two great tips which are often overlooked: Request multiple GOPs at once. This helps open up the TCP windows giving you a more efficient download. For mobile, it can also help the battery allowing you to more efficiently cycle the radio on and off. Will mentions that when it comes to GOPs, for some applications its important to look at exactly how long your GOP should be. Usually aligning it with an integer number of audio frames is the way to choose your segment duration.

The talk finishes with an appeal to move to using CMAF containers for streaming ask they allow you to deliver HLS and DASH streams from the same media segments and move to a common DRM. Will says that CBCS encrypted content is now becoming nearly all-pervasive. Finally, Will gives some tips on how players are best to analyse which CDN to use in multi-CDN environments.

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Speaker

Will Law Will Law
Chief Architect,
Akamai

Video: Reducing peak bandwidth for OTT

‘Flattening the curve’ isn’t just about dealing with viruses, we learn from Will Law. Rather, this is one way to deal with network congestion brought on by the rise in broadband use during the global lockdown. This and other key ways such as per-title encoding and removing the top tier are just two other which are explored in this video from Akamai and Bitmovin.

Will Law starts the talk explaining why congestion happens in a world where ABR (adaptive bitrate streaming) is supposed to deal with this. With Akamai’s traffic up by around 300%, it’s perhaps not a surprise there’s a contest for bandwidth. As not all traffic is a video stream, congestion will still happen when fighting with other, static, data transfers. However deeper than that, even with two ABR streams, the congestion protocol in use has a big impact as will shows with a graph showing Akamai’s FastTCP and BBR where BBR steals all the bandwidth rather than ‘playing fair’.

Using a webpage constructed for the video, Will shows us a baseline video playback and the metrics associated with it such as data transferred and bitrate which he uses to demonstrate the different benefits of bitrate production techniques. The first is covered by Bitmovin’s Sean McCarthy who explains Bitmovin’s per-title encoding technology. This approach ensures that each asset has encoder settings tuned to get the best out of the content whilst reducing bandwidth as opposed to simply setting your encoder to a fairly-high, safe, static bitrate for all content no matter how complex it is. Will shows on the demo that the bitrate reduces by over 50%.

Swapping codecs is an obvious way to reduce bandwidth. Unlike per-title encoding which is transparent to the end-user, using AV1, VP9 or HEVC requires support by the final device. Whilst you could offer multiple versions of your assets to make sure you still cover all your players despite fragmentation, this has the downside of extra encoding costs and time.

Will then looks at three ways to reduce bandwidth by stopping the highest-bitrate rendition from being used. Method one is to manually modify the manifest file. Method two demonstrates how to do so using the Bitmovin player API, and method three uses the CDN itself to manipulate the manifests. The advantage of doing this in the CDN is because this allows much more flexibility as you can use geolocation rules, for example, to deliver different manifests to different locations.

The final method to reduce peak bandwidth is to use the CDN to throttle download speed of the stream chunks. This means that while you may – if you are lucky – have the ability to download at 100Mbps, the CDN only delivers 3- or 5-times the real-time bitrate. This goes a long way to smoothing out the peaks which is better for the end user’s equipment and for the CDN. Seen in isolation, this does very little, as the video bitrate and the data transferred remain the same. However, delivering the video in this much more co-operative way is much more likely to cause knock-on problems for other traffic. It can, of course, be used in conjunction with the other techniques. The video concludes with a Q&A.

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Speakers

Will Law Will Law
Chief Architect,
Akamai
Sean McCarthy Sean McCarthy
Technical Product Marketing Manager,
Bitmovin

Video: DASH: from on-demand to large scale live for premium services

A bumper video here with 7 short talks from VideoLAN, Will Law and Hulu among others, all exploring the state of MPEG DASH today, the latest developments and the hot topics such as low latency, ad insertion, bandwidth prediction and one red letter feature of DASH – multi-DRM.

The first 10 minutes sets the scene introducing the DASH Industry Forum (DASH IF) and explaining who takes part and what it does. Thomas Stockhammer, who is chair of the Interoperability Working Group explains that DASH IF is made of companies, headline members including Google, Ericsson, Comcast and Thomas’ employer Qualcomm who are working to promote the adoption MPEG-DASH by working to imrove the specification, advise on how to put it into practice in real life, promote interoperability, and being a liaison point for other standards bodies. The remaining talks in this video exemplify the work which is being done by the group to push the technology forward.

Meeting Live Broadcast Requirements – the latest on DASH low latency!
Akamai’s Will Law takes to the mic next to look at the continuing push to make low-latency streaming available as a mainstream option for services to use. Will Law has spoken about about low latency at Demuxed 2019 when he discussed the three main file-based to deliver low latency DASH, LHLS and LL-HLS as well as his famous ‘Chunky Monkey’ talk where he explains how CMAF, an implementation of MPEG-DASH, works in light-hearted detail.

In today’s talk, Will sets out what ‘low latency’ is and revises how CMAF allows latencies of below 10 seconds to be achieved. A lot of people focus on the duration of the chunks in reducing latency and while it’s true that it’s hard to get low latency with 10 second chunk sizes, Will puts much more emphasis on the player buffer rather than the chunk size themselves in producing a low-latency stream. This is because even when you have very small chunk sizes, choosing when to start playing (immediately or waiting for the next chunk) can be an important part of keeping the latency down between live and your playback position. A common technique to manage that latency is to slightly increase and decrease playback speed in order to manage the gap without, hopefully, without the viewer noticing.

Chunk-based streaming protocols like HLS make Adaptive Bitrate (ABR) relatively easy whereby the player monitors the download of each chunk. If the, say, 5 second chunk arrives within 0.25 seconds, it knows it could safely choose a higher-bitrate chunk next time. If, however the chunk arrives in 4.8 seconds, it can choose to the next chunk to be lower-bitrate so as to receive the chunk with more headroom. With CMAF this is not easy to do since the segments all arrive in near real-time since the transferred files represent very small sections and are sent as soon as they are created. This problem is addressed in a later talk in this talk.

To finish off, Will talks about ‘Resync Elements’ which are a way of signalling mid-chunk IDRs. These help players find all the points which they can join a stream or switch bitrate which is important when some are not at the start of chunks. For live streams these are noted in the manifest file which Will walks through on screen.

Ad Insertion in Live Content:Pre-, Mid- and Post-rolling
Whilst not always a hit with viewers, ads are important to many services in terms of generating the revenue needed to continue delivering content to viewers. In order to provide targeted ads, to ensure they are available and to ensure that there is a record of which ads were played when, the ad-serving infrastructure is complex. Hulu’s Zachary Cava walks us through the parts of the infrastructure that are defined within DASH such as exchanging information on ‘Ad Decision Parameters’ and ad metadata.

In chunked streams, ads are inserted at chunk boundaries. This presents challenges in terms of making sure that certain parameters are maintained during this swap which is given the general name of ‘Content Splice Conditioning.’ This conditioning can align the first segment aligned with the period start time, for example. Zachary lays out the three options provided for this splice conditioning before finishing his talk covering prepared content recommendations, ad metadata and tracking.

Bandwidth Prediction for Multi-bitrate Streaming at Low Latency
Next up is Comcast’s Ali C. Begen who follows on from Will Law’s talk to cover bandwidth prediction when operating at low-latency. As an example of the problem, let’s look at HTTP/1.1 which allows us to download a file before it’s finished being written. This allows us to receive a 10-second chunk as it’s being written which means we’ll receive it at the same rate the live video is being encoded. As a consequence the time each chunk takes to arrive will be the same as the real-time chunk duration (in this example, 10 seconds.) When you are dealing with already-written chunks, your download time will be dependent on your bandwidth and therefore the time can be an indicator of whether your player should increase or decrease the bitrate of the stream it’s pulling. Getting back this indicator for low-latency streams is what Ali presents in this talk.

Based on this paper Ali co-authored with Christian Timmerer, he explains a way of looking at the idle time between consecutive chunks and using a sliding window to generate a bandwidth prediction.

Implementing DASH low latency in FFmpeg
Open-source developer Jean-Baptiste Kempf who is well known for his work on VLC discusses his work writing an MPEG-DASH implementation for FFmpeg called the DASH-LL. He explains how it works and who to use it with examples. You can copy and paste the examples from the pdf of his talk.

Managing multi-DRM with DASH
The final talk, ahead of Q&A is from NAGRA discussing the use of DRM within MPEG-DASH. MPEG-DASH uses Common Encryption (CENC) which allows the DASH protocol to use more than one DRM scheme and is typically seen to allow the use of ‘FairPlay’, ‘Widevine’ and ‘PlayReady’ encryption schemes on a single stream dependent on the OS of the receiver. There is complexity in having a single server which can talk to and negotiate signing licences with multiple DRM services which is the difficulty that Lauren Piron discusses in this final talk before the Q&A led by Ericsson’s VP of international standards, Per Fröjdh.

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Speakers

Thomas Stockhammer Thomas Stockhammer
Director of Technical Standards,
Qualcomm
Will Law Will Law
Chief Architect,
Akamai
Zachary Cava Zachary Cava
Software Architect,
Hulu
Ali C. Begen Ali C. Begen
Technical Consultant, Video Architecture, Strategy and Technology group,
Comcast
Jean-Baptiste Kempf Jean-Baptiste Kempf
President & Lead VLC Developer
VideoLAN
Laurent Piron Laurent Piron
Principal Solution Architect
NAGRA
Per Fröjdh Moderator: Per Fröjdh
VP International Standards,
Ericsson

Video: Three Roads to Jerusalem

With his usual entertaining vigour, Will Law explains the differences to the three approaches to low-latency streaming: DASH, LHLS and LL-HLS from Apple. Likening them partly to religions that all get you to the same end, we see how they differ and some of the reasons for that.

Please note: Since this video was recorded, Apple has released a new draft of LL-HLS. As described in this great article from Mux, the update’s changes are

  • “Delivering shorter sub-segments of the video stream (Apple call these parts) more frequently (every 0.3 – 0.5s)
  • Using HTTP/2 PUSH to deliver these smaller parts, pushed in response to a blocking playlist request
  • Blocking playlist requests, eliminating the current speculative manifest request polling behaviour in HLS
  • Smaller, delta rendition playlists, which reduces playlist size, which is important since playlists are requested more frequently
  • Faster rendition switching, enabled by rendition reports, which allows clients to see what is happening in another playlist without requesting it in its entirety”[0]

Read the full article for the details and implications, some of which address some points made in the talk.

Furthermore, THEOplayer have released this talk explaining the changes and discussing implementation.

Anyone who saw last year’s Chunky Monkey video, will recognise Will’s near-Oscar-winning animation style as he sets the scene explaining the contenders to the low-latency streaming crown.

We then look at a bullet list of features across each of the three low latency technologies (note Apple’s recent update) which leads on to a discussion on chunked transfer delivery and the challenges of line-rate delivery. A simple view of the universe would say that the ideal way to have a live stream, encoded at a constant bitrate, would be to stream it constantly at that bitrate to the receiver. Whilst this is, indeed, the best way to go, when we stream we’re also keeping one eye on whether we need to change the bitrate. If we get more bandwidth available it might be best to upgrade to a better quality and if we suddenly have contested, slow wifi, it might be time for an emergency drop down to the lowest bitrate stream.

When you are delivered a stream as individual files, you can measure how long they take to download to estimate your available bandwidth. If a file can be downloaded at 1Gbps, then it should always arrive at 1Gbps. Therefore if it arrives at less than 1Gbps we know that there is a bandwidth restriction and can make adjustments. Will explains that for streams delivered with chunked transfer or in real time such as in LL-HLS, this estimation no longer works as the files simply are never available at 1Gbps. He then explains some of the work that has been undertaken to develop more nuanced ways of estimating available bandwidth. It’s well worth noting that the smaller the files you transfer, the less accurate the bandwidth estimation as TCP takes time to speed up to line rate so small 320ms-length video segments are not ideal for maximising throughput.

Continuing to look at the differences, we next look at request rates with DASH at 20 requests per second compared to LL-HLS at 720. This leads naturally to an analysis of the benefits of HTTP/2 PUSH technology used in LL-HLS and the savings that can offer. Will explores the implications, and some of the problems, with last year’s version of the LL-HLS spec, some of which have been mitigated since.

The talk concludes with some work Akamai has done to try and establish a single, common workflow with examples and a GitHub repository. Will shows how this works and the limitations of the approach and finishes with a look at the commonalities in approaches.

[0] From “Low Latency HLS 2: Judgment Day” https://mux.com/blog/low-latency-hls-part-2/

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Speakers

Will Law Will Law
Chief Architect,
Akamai