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Chewing Our Way Through Video’s Alphabet Soup

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Chewing Our Way Through Video’s Alphabet Soup
    

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2 May 2018
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Battles involving fledgling video technology standards are starting to heat up.

Even though we here at the WR blog do not typically get too excited about the alphabet soup that seems to emerge when technology companies start fighting over obscure video formats and protocols, that should not deter us from paying some attention to the recent machinations surrounding AV1 (sponsored by the Alliance for Open Media) and SRT (an open-source initiative that originated with Haivision and Wowza).

First, let’s consider the momentum developing for the AV1 video codec. Last week, Facebook told the world that it would start serving up video encoded in the AV1 format to its viewers.

The could be pretty good news for those interested in a world where high-quality video can be squeezed into smaller data packages that are easier to distribute over connected networks. That group certainly includes the bevy of industry giants, including Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Amazon and Mozilla, that banded together several years ago to promote AV1 an alternative to the HEVC video compression format (also known as H.265, a standard jointly developed by the ITU and ISO/IEC). The goal of the Alliance for Open Media is to provide a compression option to video technology developers balking at the royalty fees that are charged to those using the HEVC format.

Facebook’s announcement last week is a meaningful step forward for the consortium. Already, plenty of vendors are talking about incorporating AV1 playback capabilities into next-generation web browsers and devices. Indeed, a raft of vendors supporting AV1 unveiled plans for incorporating the technology into future solutions at the NAB trade show held in Las Vegas in April.

The Facebook decision to roll out AV1 essentially ensures that there will be some AV1 content that will actually play on those next-generation platforms. It’s the kind of announcement that can spur a virtuous cycle of adoption for a would-be industry standard. Secure in the knowledge that AV1 content be available, more vendors will incorporate AV1 playback into their offerings. As AV1 becomes more ubiquitous, more content providers will begin formatting their content in the format, further fueling the AV1 adoption loop.

So why is this a big deal for the enterprise? Well, anything that jumpstarts the use of solutions offering improved video quality at lower bit rates will make it easier to use video for business applications. Smaller data footprints for video files make them better suited for network distribution and improves the quality of the video that is ultimately available to corporate viewers.

We have yet to see much adoption of HEVC (H.265) in enterprise streaming environments. That’s due, in part, to the royalty fees associated with implementing the technology.  But it wouldn’t be surprising to see those fees trimmed in the years ahead if the standard’s patent holders begin feeling competition from AV1. At that point, it would be irrelevant whether AV1 or HEVC “wins” the standards battle. What would matter is that next-generation video compression formats gain broader acceptance, fueling the cycle of streaming video adoption in all markets.

Unfortunately, squeezing video into ever-smaller packets is not the only challenge facing network engineers these days. Securing the content as it travels from place to place is also a priority. Enter SRT – the second entrant for our video alphabet eye chart.

SRT stands for Secure Reliable Transport and is a set of protocols used for scrambling video content at its source and then unscrambling it for viewing when it reaches its destination. The protocol originally was developed by Haivision, which had touted SRT for several years as a proprietary protocol that differentiated its encoders for those of its rivals. Last year, however, Haivision made a surprising move to make its proprietary SRT solution available to outside companies on an open-source basis.

Haivision launched its open-source initiative by partnering with Wowza to make SRT available via Wowza’s video processing solutions. Since then, more than 100 streaming technology vendors have pledged to support the SRT protocol.    

Until last month, most of the SRT support has come from vendors focused on the media-oriented “over-the-top” streaming market. That changed at the NAB trade show in Las Vegas when Microsoft gave an unexpected boost to the SRT case for enterprise users.

Microsoft, which produces nearly 500 webcasts for employees every year, announced at the show that it would begin using SRT when distributing its in-house streaming events.

The SRT open source team (led by Haivision) has developed a desktop app that runs on Windows 10 devices that can capture video at its source and convert it into a file wrapped by the SRT protocol. The wrapping scrambles the signal so that it can’t be intercepted during the file transfer process.

Essentially, in the Microsoft implementation, SRT takes the place of the real-time messaging protocol (RTMP) that is most often used for live streaming. While widely deployed, RTMP is panned by many as being difficult to manage through corporate firewalls, lacking security features and ill-equipped to address network latency issues.

Microsoft is adopting SRT for in-house use because it addresses many of those challenges, said Jeff Tyler, the Digital Experience Lead for Microsoft Events & Production Studios – the unit that handles Microsoft’s in-house events. The goal for Microsoft in using SRT is to make the process of acquiring and packaging content as consistent as the networks now used to distribute that content.

Jeff Tyler

“We’ve done a pretty good job in solving the issues in the last mile of delivery, but the first mile is still a challenge,” Tyler said at a public presentation on the show floor at NAB last month.

For now, the scope of Microsoft’s SRT support only extends to its in-house webcasting operations. SRT support, for example, is not yet baked into the Microsoft Stream platform service. Given the in-house support for SRT within Microsoft, however, commercial integration of SRT options would not seem to be far away.

While such support still does not guarantee ubiquity for SRT protocols in the enterprise streaming environment, it is a step in the right direction for the still-fledgling open standard.