Cloudinary Blog

How to Implement Smooth Video Buffering for a Better Viewing Experience

How to Improve Live Streaming using Smooth Video Buffering

This article was originally posted on Scotch.io

In the early days of the web, the only thing that mattered was getting that content out to users no matter how long it took or what resources it consumed. As a matter of fact, users seemed to understand and were ready to wait till whenever there browser's loading spinner stops and the contents displayed.

Today, though, users’ patience has run out. They are no longer willing to wait because they know we – the engineers – can afford to give them a better experience.

While web content comes in different forms, today we will focus on video. Video optimization and delivery of a good viewing experience to users doesn’t come easy. Yes, flash is gone and HTML5 is here to stay; but don’t expect that you can just drop the video tag in your HTML and you’re done.

Let’s take a look at a common approach to delivering videos, popularly known as buffering.

What Video Buffering Is and Why Use It

Most videos on the web do something that looks like a pre-fetch. You may notice the progress bar showing another indicator that is greater than or equal to the current play time. This is what Youtube's streaming looks like:

YouTube

The light gray portion of the progress bar indicates the buffered content.

YouTube dynamically adjusts the quality of that portion depending on the bandwidth and CPU capacity it detects. For example, if the bandwidth is poor, YouTube will pre-fetch the low-quality version of the above video. On the other hand, if the bandwidth is great, it would pre-fetch the high-quality version for rendering.

Put this together and users have a great experience whether or not their connectivity is superb or poor.

Note
The key thing to keep in mind is not the fact that the video is pre-fetched, but rather that the pre-fetching is achieved with an intelligent strategy.

We also use this strategy at Scotch School to deliver video training courses:

Scotch School

Now that we have a basic understanding of what buffering is, let’s see how we can employ an intelligent strategy that entails buffering based on the bandwidth or CPU capacity conditions.

Meet Cloudinary's Adaptive Bitrate Streaming (HLS & MPEG)

Cloudinary offers a game-changing concept known as adaptive bitrate streaming (ABS), which is a video delivery technique that adjusts the quality of a video stream in real time according to detected bandwidth and CPU capacity. This approach enables videos to start quicker, with fewer buffering interruptions and at the best possible quality for the current device and network connection, to maximize user experience.

Videos provisioned using ABS are provided in versions known as representations, each with different quality and bitrates. Each video file must be accompanied by an index file that specifies predefined segments of the video. Additionally, there is a master playlist that points to the available representations with additional information about each one.

HLS

You can use this Cloudinary feature to deliver a better viewing experience for your users at no cost.

To deliver videos using adaptive streaming, Cloudinary generates multiple copies of your video prepared at different resolutions, qualities and data rates. The copies of the videos are then automatically generated and delivered from a single original video, transcoded to either or both of the following protocols:

Now that we’ve explained the concept, let’s write some code to put the pieces of these puzzles together.

Uploading Videos to Cloudinary

Cloudinary comes fully loaded with interesting features to make managing your media files an awesome experience. These features range from being a CDN for your media files (which means you can upload and store files to Cloudinary server) to manipulating your media files (as we discussed above).

Let’s take a look at how we can upload images from our Node servers to Cloudinary. Cloudinary offers a Node SDK that facilitates image uploads so you do not have to memorize the API URLs for doing this.

Note
SDKs for PHP, Python, Ruby and .Net are also available with the same API methods.

Install the SDK by running:

$ npm install cloudinary --save

Import cloudinary to your code base:

var cloudinary = require('cloudinary');

Configure the SDK with your credentials (you can get one here):

cloudinary.config({ 
  cloud_name: '[CLOUD_NAME]', 
  api_key: '[API_KEY]', 
  api_secret: '[API_SECRET]' 
});

... then use the following few lines to upload to Cloudinary:

cloudinary.uploader.upload('dog.mp4', function(result) {
  // Upload handler
  console.log('result: ', result);
}, {
  public_id: 'my_dog',
  resource_type: 'video'
});

We can request the video from Cloudinary using the public URL we specified:

cloudinary.video('my_dog');

The output of the above will be:

<video poster='https://res.cloudinary.com/scotch.io/video/upload/my_dog.jpg'>
    <source src='https://res.cloudinary.com/scotch.io/video/upload/my_dog.webm' type='video/webm'>
    <source src='https://res.cloudinary.com/scotch.io/video/upload/my_dog.mp4' type='video/mp4'>
    <source src='https://res.cloudinary.com/scotch.io/video/upload/my_dog.ogv' type='video/ogg'>
</video>

This is mind blowing! Cloudinary generates the HTML for the various formats suitable for any given browser so we do not have to worry about that. Awesome, right?

Transformation with Streaming Profiles and Formats

Cloudinary uses transformations to manipulate media files. Such manipulations include:

Transformations are provided as configuration options and applied either once during upload (eager) or each time a user needs the media to be delivered (per request).

Cloudinary also provides a collection of predefined streaming profiles, where each profile defines a set of representations according to suggested best practices.

For example, the 4K profile creates eight different representations in 16:9 aspect ratio, from extremely high quality to audio only. Alternatively, the SD profile creates only three representations, all in 4:3 aspect ratio. Other commonly used profiles include the HD and Full HD profiles.

We are going to apply the streaming profile as an eager transformation to our upload logic:

cloudinary.uploader.upload('dog.mp4', 
        function(result) {console.log(result); }, 
        { resource_type: "video", 
        eager: [
            { streaming_profile: "full_hd", format: "m3u8" }],                                   
        eager_async: true,
        eager_notification_url: "http://scotch.io/upload_completed",
        public_id: "my_dog"});
  • We initiate a usual upload process with the SDK specifying the URL of the image we want to send to our Cloudinary server
  • An eager transformation is initiated. This transformation is an array that takes a streaming profile configuration. The dog.mp4 video is encoded into HLS format using a Full HD streaming profile.
  • This process could take a while so we ensure that the eager transformation is asynchronous by setting eager_async to true

Embedding Videos

You can deliver/embed your eagerly transformed videos using the .m3u8 (HLS) or .mpd (MPEG-DASH) file format (extension) and include the streaming_profile. You can as well provide other non-adaptive streaming-related transformation options.

For example:

cloudinary.video("my_dog.m3u8", {streaming_profile: "hd"});

Final Note

Personally, I have avoided the responsibility of implementing such a responsive video feature in a website because of being held responsible for customer frustrations. Cloudinary made this so simple, and using the solutions was free for the amount of resources I needed.

Using the adaptive streaming strategy is a proven technique that enables you to deliver an optimal, smooth viewing experience. This feature is just a small part of what Cloudinary offers for video and image management. To learn more, look the documentation or get started here.

Recent Blog Posts

An Eye-Opening Talk: Building Apps for the Next Billion Users in Africa

William (iChuloo) Imoh, who hails from Lagos, Nigeria, recently embarked on a U.S. speaking tour, February 20-March 12, during which he powwowed with technical and product teams and communities at such renowned enterprises as Netlify, Pluralsight, Lucidchart, Twilio, and more in Salt Lake City, Dallas, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. On March 5, he gave an enlightening talk, entitled International Developers and Development: Building for the Next Billion Users at Cloudinary in Santa Clara, California. Below is a synopsis. For details, see the related slides.

Read more
The Debut of the Cloudinary Customer Advisory Board

Focus on customers has always been Cloudinary’s mantra. Because we owe them our success, we are constantly reaching out to our customers, not just for feedback on our offerings, but also for their vision, wish list, and buy-in of what Cloudinary can do to meet their needs and make them succeed. About six months ago, it occurred to us that it would be beneficial if we could meet regularly with those who are behind innovation at our key customers—executives, product gurus, developers, content managers—to swap strategies, product roadmaps, best practices, and such. In particular, we’d like to solicit actionable feedback as a foundation for our plans of product enhancements.

Read more
Media Management With the Cloudinary-Netlify CMS Integration

Static sites and the JAMstack are quickly becoming a standard for developing safe and performant websites with an optimal workflow for developers. Netlify CMS (not to be confused with the company that created it, Netlify) is an open source content management solution that works especially with static site generators such as Gatsby, Hugo, etc... enabling content storage in your Git repository along with your code for easier versioning, multichannel publishing, and direct content updates in Git.

Read more
Vitaly Friedman's Insights on Media Conferences

Vitaly Friedman is a die-hard devotee of beautiful content. Born in Minsk, Belarus, he studied Computer Science and Mathematics in Germany, unearthing in himself a passion for typography, writing, and design in the interim. After a six-year stint as a freelance designer and developer, he co-founded Smashing Magazine, a leading online publication on web design and development. You can follow SmashingMag on Twitter @SmashingMag.

Read more