Video Streaming Protocols: The Ultimate Guide for Brands and Creators

By Emily KringsOct 13, 2022

A well-built video streaming setup provides a seamless experience for viewers. This seamless experience is only made possible by a variety of technologies that work hard behind the scenes.

Video streaming protocols are an important building block of the system that makes live streaming both easy and possible.

In this article, we will discuss all things video streaming protocols. We’ll start by reviewing what a video streaming protocol is before we discuss how to choose one for your setup. From there, we will compare a variety of popular video streaming protocols.

Table of Contents

What is a Video Streaming Protocol?

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A video streaming protocol is a data transport technology that carries video signals throughout the streaming process. This technology is used to transport video between sources, encoders, video hosting platforms, and other streaming software.

Streaming protocols break the video files into pieces and carry them from one step of the video streaming process to the next. Video streaming protocols use codecs to make this transport easy and seamless.

This sort of technology is constantly evolving to keep up with industry innovations. What’s popular and cutting-edge today could be obsolete six months or a year from now. However, the streaming protocols that we are discussing today are the most relevant and important in the current streaming landscape.

Video Streaming Protocol vs. Video Streaming Formats

While we’re on the topic of protocols, it is important to note the difference between video streaming protocols and video streaming formats. There is often a bit of confusion regarding the differences between these two technologies.

As we’ve covered, a protocol is what carries a video from one point in its journey to the next. A video streaming format, however, is the “container” that holds the video’s data. 

You can think of the streaming format as a box and the streaming protocol as a truck that carries that box.

How to Choose a Video Streaming Protocol

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Before we discuss how to choose a video streaming protocol, video streaming protocols are not something that you can handpick since they are built into the different streaming tools that you use. However, you can and should choose streaming tools based on the protocols that they use.

With that said, here are a few things to consider when choosing a video streaming protocol.

Functionality

Although video streaming protocols share the commonality of transporting video signals over the internet, some have slightly different use cases. 

Most video streaming protocols are designed for live streaming at scale, but some are just for peer-to-peer streaming, which is commonly known as video calling.

Compatibility

Compatibility is a huge part of choosing a streaming protocol. Your encoder, video hosting platform, and other tools need to use the same video streaming protocols that are compatible with one another.

Since live streaming technology is constantly evolving, it is important to double-check that each part of your live streaming setup is compatible any time you upgrade any of the moving parts.

For example, a new encoder might come out with state-of-the-art technology. It may feature an up-and-coming protocol with cutting-edge capabilities. This sounds great in theory, but if it doesn’t work with the rest of your setup, it’s not going to benefit you.

Latency

If you’re not familiar, latency is the amount of time between when a live stream is recorded and when it is delivered to the viewers’ video players. In most live streaming use cases, lower latency is preferred since it relays the video to viewers in as close to real-time as possible.

As you compare video streaming protocols, make sure to choose one that supports the latency that you wish to achieve.

Security 

Security should be a top priority any time that data is transferred, especially over the internet. As the internet has grown and the need for greater security has arisen, many newer streaming protocols are designed with advanced security features. That’s why some streaming protocols are more secure than others.

Some protocols, such as RTMPS and SRT, are designed specifically for secure streaming, but we will get into these in our video streaming protocol comparison.

Video Streaming Protocol Comparison

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There are many streaming protocols that are used in the online video industry. Many streaming setups use a combination of new and old protocols that lean into the strengths of each.

Optimizing your streaming setup requires a basic understanding of the different protocols that are used for streaming. 

We’ve rounded up a list of the most popular streaming protocols to give you a better understanding of the functionality, history, and specs of each.

RTMP

Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) is a video streaming protocol that was once the most popular protocol for video security. 

It was the default protocol for delivering video to Adobe’s Flash player. Since Flash player is dead, RTMP has pivoted to another role in live streaming. It is now commonly used to carry content from an encoder or source to a video CMS. That is called RTMP ingest. 

There are multiple variations of RTMP, including RTMP proper, RTMPS, RTMPE, RTMPT, and RTMFP. Each of these variations uses the same framework as RTMP but has slight differences to make them more suitable for specific use cases.

Here are some quick facts on RTMP: 

    • Functionality: Media ingest for live streaming at scale
    • Compatibility: Currently only widely compatible for ingest
    • Latency: 5 seconds 
    • Security: Secure when using RTMPS

HLS

HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) is a streaming protocol that was created by Apple to work with the HTML5 video player after the demise of the Flash player. HLS is commonly used for delivery. It can also be used for ingest, but since a lot of encoders are still RTMP-compatible, HLS ingest isn’t always the top option.

HLS supports 4K streaming, and this is one of the main reasons why this video streaming protocol has become such an important technology in the streaming industry.

Here are some quick facts about HLS: 

    • Functionality: Delivery and ingest for streaming at scale
    • Compatibility: Highly compatible for delivery and somewhat compatible for ingest
    • Latency: 2 to 3 seconds (previously 15 to 30)
    • Security: HLS is secure thanks to encryption

SRT

Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) is a relatively new streaming protocol from Haivision that is known for its ultra-compatibility, real-time latency, and ultra-security. 

This streaming protocol is open source and has been developed by an alliance of streaming media companies. 

It is thought to be the streaming protocol of the future as it is equipped to be compatible with most streaming setups. The only roadblock to the growth of this protocol is the industry’s slowness in catching up to its rapid development. 

Here are some quick facts about SRT: 

    • Functionality: Streaming at scale
    • Compatibility: Universally compatible 
    • Latency: Less than 1 second
    • Security: Very secure

MPEG-DASH

Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (MPEG-DASH) is a video streaming protocol that is known for enabling adaptive bitrate streaming. This protocol was developed around the same time as HLS, and it is relevant for many use cases.

MPEG-DASH is an open standard that was developed by several prominent media companies. This makes it highly compatible with different tools. The compatibility paired with adaptive bitrate streaming makes this a powerful protocol for many streaming setups.

Here are some quick facts about MPEG-DASH: 

    • Functionality: Live streaming at scale
    • Compatibility: Widely compatible
    • Latency: 2.5 to 5 seconds
    • Security: Secure streaming through encryption

WebRTC

Although WebRTC is not technically a video streaming protocol, it deserves a spot on this list. WebRTC is a cutting-edge video project that is used for nearly instantaneous delivery. Its properties and functionality make it comparable to the leading video streaming protocols.

One notable drawback of WebRTC is that since it is primarily designed for video conferencing, it isn’t currently well-suited for streaming at scale.

Here are some quick facts about WebRTC: 

    • Functionality: Peer-to-peer streaming
    • Compatibility: Wide browser compatibility 
    • Latency: Ultra-low latency
    • Security: Encrypted for secure streaming

Stream on Maestro

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Looking for a powerful platform to host, manage, and deliver your online video content? Our platform uses RTMP for ingest and HLS for delivery.

This unbeatable streaming protocol duo is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of Maestro. The platform includes a variety of video monetization tools, analytics, audience ownership, and more.

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