The Complete Guide to Live Streaming

What it is, how it works, and why you need it.

live streaming internet traffic 2020

Live video streaming is skyrocketing in popularity. It will account for approximately 13 percent of all internet traffic by 2022, representing a fifteen-fold growth from 2017.


While streaming technologies have evolved drastically over the years, the basic definitions still apply. In a nutshell, live streaming involves broadcasting video and audio content across the internet to allow for near-simultaneous capture and playback.


But between capturing a live video feed and broadcasting it, quite a bit occurs. The data must be encoded, packaged, and often transcoded for delivery to virtually any screen on the planet.


In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the end-to-end workflow. Download the PDF or explore our interactive table of contents below.

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1. Capture

2. Encode

3. Package

4. Transcode

5. Deliver

6. Playback

Video on Demand vs. Live Streaming


Video streaming can take the form of both live and recorded content. With live streaming, the content plays as it’s being captured. Examples of this range from video chats and interactive games to endoscopy cameras and streaming drones.


Video on demand (VOD), on the other hand, describes prerecorded content that internet-connected users can stream by request. Some top players in this space include Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Sling. YouTube’s David After Dentist and Netflix’s Stranger Things are both examples of VOD content.


For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on live video. Let’s start by summarizing the live streaming workflow and then take a closer look at the individual steps.

Live-Streaming Workflow


Live video streaming starts with compressing a massive video file for delivery. Content distributors use an encoder to digitally convert the raw video with a codec. These two-part compression tools shrink gigabytes of data into megabytes. The encoder itself might be built into the camera, but it can also be a rack-mountable appliance like ClearCaster, a computer software like OBS Studio, or a mobile app like GoCoder.


Once the video stream is compressed, the encoder packages it for delivery across the internet. This involves putting the components of the stream into a file format. These container formats travel according to a protocol, or standardized delivery method. Common protocols include RTMP, HLS, and MPEG-DASH.


The packaged stream is then transported to a media server located either on premises or in the cloud. This is where the magic happens. As the media server ingests the stream, it can transcode the data into a more common codec, transize the video into a higher resolution, transrate the file into a lower bitrate, or transmux it into a more scalable format.


This conversion process is critical when streaming to a variety of devices. Without transcoding the original stream, reaching viewers across an array of devices wouldn’t be possible. A streaming server software or cloud streaming service can be employed to accomplish this and more.


The single stream that first entered the media server will likely depart as multiple renditions that accommodate varying bandwidths and devices for large-scale viewing. But distance is also an issue.


The farther viewers are from the media server, the longer it will take to distribute the stream. That’s where a content delivery network (CDN) comes in handy. CDNs use a large network of servers placed strategically around the globe to distribute content quickly.


If done right, the live stream will find its way from the CDN to viewers across the world — in a matter of just seconds. The live stream will play back with minimal buffering and in the highest quality possible for spectators across a range of devices and internet speeds.


It all starts with employing the right tools along the way. Read on to get the skinny.