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What is HTTP Streaming?
HTTP streaming is one of the most widely used streaming protocols. It has been developed by Apple and released in 2009. HTTP streaming is a push-style based streaming protocol that allows for a web server to continuously send data to a client over the HTTP connection.
Although, for the majority of video professionals, HTTP streaming is associated with live streaming (hence the protocol is also often referred to as HTTP live streaming,) it can be used to deliver both, live, real-time broadcasts and on-demand streaming.
How HTTP Live Streaming Works
When delivering media content, HTTP streaming breaks down the file into smaller, downloadable files and delivers them to the user via an HTTP protocol. The user’s device, on the other hand, loads those videos as they arrive and plays them as the required media stream.
Think of it this way, the original file is stored somewhere on a server (in the case of an on-demand channel) or created on the go (in a case of live streaming.) We refer to this as the streaming server.
When streaming, that file is cup up into segments, typically each only a seconds long. Apart from segmenting the file, the HTTP live streaming protocol creates an index file that lists all those segments in the right order.
When a user requests access to the stream, those small, few seconds-long segments are then pushed to their device over the Internet. Typically, companies broadcasting with HTTP live stream would use a content delivery network to ensure that segments take as little to load as possible.
The user’s device receives those segments, and using the index file, puts them in order and plays in a media player of the person’s choice.
In short, HTTP streaming is the simplest method to deliver live and on-demand content to users.
Why Use the HTTP Streaming Protocol
Well, for one, because it allows delivering the content to users in real-time without forcing them to download a large file beforehand.
Because of that, HTTP live streaming can also be used to broadcast live events as they happen. The process is exactly the same as the one we described above, however, in this case, the original file is created live from streaming sources.
Another benefit of this streaming protocol is that thanks to the adaptive bitrate streaming, the protocol can adjust video quality during the stream to compensate for any potential network conditions.
As a side note, that is precisely why, at times, you might notice the video quality of YouTube videos dropping. This is the result of the protocol dynamically adapting for a lower bitrate your network supports at the moment.