What is HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)? Everything You Need to Know

Nov 29, 2022


Imagine you’re trying to watch your favorite show on Netflix.

But instead of streaming the video seamlessly, you get nothing but a blank screen. Or you get some kind of error message and the video just won’t play.

You wonder if it’s a glitch from Netflix, so you check with them. But they confirmed it’s not you, it’s them. They fixed the issue in no time and you were able to watch the show right from where you stopped.

Now imagine the same situation, but instead of Netflix, you’re trying to watch a live stream of the Super Bowl. The stakes are much higher since you can’t just pause the game and come back later. Super Bowl needs a solution that will ensure you don’t miss a single play.

This is where HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) comes in. It’s a streaming protocol designed to deliver audio and video over the internet in a reliable, high-quality way.

In this article, we’ll explain what HTTP Live Streaming is and how it works. We’ll also give you some tips on how to use HLS to ensure a smooth streaming experience, troubleshoot any issues you may encounter, and more.

What is HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)?

HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) is an adaptive bitrate streaming protocol that provides a high-quality streaming experience across a wide range of devices.

HLS uses HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) transactions to deliver media data, making it an ideal protocol for use with content delivery networks (CDNs). In simple English, this means HLS splits your content into small segments that are downloaded from a server as viewers need them.

This results in a better streaming experience for the viewer, as they can start watching the content almost immediately, and the quality of the stream is automatically adjusted based on the viewer’s internet connection.

But that’s just one of the major benefits you get from HLS; we’ll share more below — especially the benefits it has over other streaming protocols.

Why use HLS over other streaming protocols?

Here are seven reasons to use HLS over other streaming protocols.

1. All major browsers and mobile devices support HLS

Most web browsers support HLS, including desktop Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge.

It’s also compatible with all major mobile devices, including Android and iOS. This widespread support makes HLS the go-to streaming protocol for most scenarios. So, if you’re looking to reach the largest possible audience, HLS is the streaming protocol you should opt for.

2. HLS offers the best video quality and reliability

HLS offers superior live video quality and reliability over other streaming protocols.

And this is because the protocol allows for adaptive streaming of the video content. This means that the player can automatically adjust to changing network conditions, switching between different bitrates and resolution settings to maintain the best possible video quality.

For instance, if the player finds that the network connection is not strong enough to stream videos in high quality, it will automatically switch to a lower bitrate. This ensures that the viewer does not experience any buffering issues or lag in the video.

Additionally, HLS also offers built-in error correction mechanisms that make the streaming process more reliable. This helps ensure that the video stream is never interrupted or cut off due to poor network connections or other issues.

Overall, these features make the HLS streaming protocol well-suited for applications where reliability and quality are essential. From live sports broadcasts to on-demand video (VOD) streaming , HLS is the go-to protocol for delivering high-quality video content uninterrupted.

3. HLS is the most widely adopted streaming protocol in the world

HLS has replaced traditional streaming protocols like RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol) and has become the de facto standard for all types of live and on-demand streaming.

And because so many people use it, it’s easy to find hardware and software that supports HLS.

It’s also pretty easy to get help if you run into trouble; since it’s so widely used, a lot of the technical issues have already been solved and documented.

There are so many forums, tutorials, and resources available that can help you troubleshoot any issues that arise. So, if you want to get started streaming quickly and easily, then HLS is definitely the way to go.

4. HLS is royalty-free and thus easy to deploy and scale

Like many other streaming protocols, HLS is royalty-free and open-source.

This means there are no fees associated with using and deploying HLS, making it a cost-effective option for streaming audio and video content.

And while this isn’t really a “benefit it has over others” point, it does make it easy to deploy and scale without having to worry about additional costs. Overall, HLS is an easy and cost-effective way to stream audio and video content.

5. HLS offers low latency

The amount of time it takes for a video stream to be transmitted from the source to the viewer’s device is known as latency.

HLS stands out from other streaming protocols because of its low latency compared to other protocols. According to Roger Pantos, HLS tech lead at Apple , it takes only 1-2 seconds for a video to be buffered and ready for playback for the viewer, which is significantly less time than other protocols.

This low latency makes HLS an ideal choice, especially for live streaming events, where real-time video playback is critical.

6. Apple supports HLS development with comprehensive documentation and tools

Apple provides comprehensive documentation and tools, including sample projects, that allow developers to quickly build HLS video streams.

There’s a support document on things like:

  • enabling low-latency HLS
  • setting up audio for live streaming
  • measuring and optimizing HLS performance
  • working with timed metadata
  • dynamic packaging and encryption
  • authoring specifications for live streaming

With these resources, you can quickly learn about the technology and get up to speed with building HLS video streams.

There’s also an online community of developers that can help with questions and advice on setting up your HLS streams.

7. Unparalleled security features, including DRM protection and protected content playback”

The security level of the HLS protocol is unparalleled, with Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection for your content and secure playback features.

DRM protection ensures that unauthorized use of your content is not possible, and prevents any attempts to copy or distribute the video without your permission.

And if any third party does gain unauthorized access to the content, it will be difficult for them to watch or redistribute it because HLS protocol ensures that all the data and media are encrypted — if you take the steps to encrypt, of course (and you should).

Author’s note: If you’re hosting or streaming out your videos via JWP , you get security features like studio-approved DRM, geo-blocking, HLS token signing, and more — tools that add the level of protection you need to your content with minimal fuss. Learn more about JWP video security features here .

This level of security makes HLS an excellent choice for businesses and organizations wanting to protect their valuable media assets. It also makes it an ideal streaming technology for services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video that rely on HLS to ensure their audiences are securely streaming video content.

Overall, the security benefits of HLS make it an excellent choice for businesses looking to protect valuable media assets.

How does HLS work?

Here’s a step-by-step overview of how HLS works:

  • First, the web server will divide the media file into multiple short segments.
  • The server then creates a manifest file, which is also known as an M3U8 file. This is a playlist file or list of the short segments, along with metadata about each segment.
  • The manifest or m3u8 file is then sent to the client, either over HTTP or HTTPS, so the end user can access it.
  • When the client wants to watch a video, it will request the manifest from the server.
  • The server will then send the client the list of video segments.
  • The client will begin streaming the first segment and then continue playing each segment in order.
  • The manifest will update as new segments become available, and the server can also add additional information such as subtitles or bitrates.
  • The client will keep playing the video until it reaches the end of the list.
  • If the user pauses or seeks forward/backward in the video, the client will request the appropriate segments from the server.
  • Finally, when the user finishes watching the video, they can send an end-of-stream message to the server.

This lets the server know that the user is no longer viewing the video and can free up resources.

How to set up an HLS stream

How you’d set up an HLS stream may not always be exactly the same for every occasion because of the different streaming applications out there.

But here are some general steps for setting up an HLS stream:

  1. Choose the correct encoding software for your needs: There are quite many encoding software programs available for streaming, but choose the one that supports HLS streaming — like OBS, Wirecast, or Tricaster. Also consider the other features you’d need in these tools, like streaming to multiple platforms at once, etc., and make sure they support your specific needs.
  2. Configure the encoding software for streaming: You’ll need to set up your streaming profile with the correct bitrate, resolution, and encoding settings. This is important because it will ensure a smooth streaming experience, so read all the documentation you need before you begin and while you are setting up.
  3. Connect the encoder to your streaming destination: You’ll need to link up the encoder with your streaming destination, and that’s usually a video streaming platform like JWP, YouTube Live, or any other platform that supports HLS.
  4. Start the stream: Obviously, once you’re ready to go, you can start your stream and begin streaming content in the HLS format.

Keep in mind that there are other steps you might need to take depending on how you want to configure your stream and the requirements of your streaming service.

For example, you might need to configure digital rights management or use a secure server if you want to stream copyrighted content. But these are just a few of the considerations you’ll need to make when setting up an HLS stream.

7 tips for optimizing your HLS stream

Here are seven important tips to help you optimize your HLS stream:

1. Use different bitrates for each device

You should set up separate bitrate profiles for different types of devices.

This will allow you to provide the best quality stream possible for viewers on mobile, desktop, and other streaming devices. This will also help you save on bandwidth costs — since lower bitrate streams will be sent out to mobile devices or devices with slower connections.

Here are some of the common bitrate formats you can use:

Transcoding your videos also helps here; you can transcode them into different formats and bitrates.

2. Choose an appropriate segment size

As we mentioned before, HLS streams are broken up into small chunks, and the size of these chunks can have a big impact on how your stream is delivered to viewers.

But it’s important you choose an appropriate segment size — one that’s not too small (which can cause buffering) and not too large (which can make it difficult to switch between bitrates, causing buffering as well).

What’s a good segment size for your stream? It often depends on the video length, use case, and trade-offs you’re willing to make — and you’re going to have a few of those as you set up your stream.

But generally speaking, a segment size of between two and ten seconds is usually recommended.

3. Use AES-128 encryption

If you’re streaming copyrighted content, then it’s important that you use an encryption scheme like AES-128 or a similar encryption protocol to protect your stream from piracy.

This will help you add an extra layer of protection to your stream, and it’s an important part of streaming securely.

But to make this work, you need to make sure your video streaming platform can decrypt the stream and play it back for your viewers.

4. Use reliable hosting

You’ll need a server that can reliably deliver your videos and other media content, so make sure you choose a good hosting provider for your HLS stream.

And talking about hosting providers, check out our platform JWP ; it has all the features you need to host and stream HLS content with ease, like a reliable CDN, dynamic streaming, secure server hosting, DRM features, and more.

5. Test your stream

It’s important to test your stream on a variety of devices and networks before you start streaming.

This will help catch any problems before they become major issues for your viewers. For example, you can try watching your stream on mobile devices at different locations — so you can be sure your stream will run smoothly no matter where your viewers are.

6. Use SSL encryption

To protect your stream from malicious attacks, you should use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption. And you can do this by enabling HTTPS in your streaming server.

This will also help to ensure your content doesn’t get blocked by any content filters, browsers (like Google Chrome or Safari), or firewalls — as they might not allow unencrypted traffic for fear that it could contain viruses or other malicious code.

7. Monitor your stream

HLS streaming isn’t a set-and-forget process. You should keep an eye on your stream to make sure it’s working properly and responding to viewers’ devices.

For instance, you can know when you’re having issues with buffering or poor video quality and then try optimizing your stream for better playback.

By following these tips, you should be able to get the most out of your HLS streaming experience. Additionally, make sure to take the time to properly set up the encoding software and streaming destination for the best possible results.

5 troubleshooting tips for HLS streaming

Here are five common issues viewers may experience with their HLS streams — and simple solutions that can help.

1. Video lagging

If your video is lagging, there are a couple of reasons this could be happening. And the fault could either be from your end or the viewer’s.

On your side, you can make sure that the server is not overloaded and that there are no network connection issues with your internet service provider (ISP).

Also, your server could be overloaded when there are too many viewers accessing the stream, or when you’re using an insufficient server. The solution here is usually to upgrade your server or scale back on viewers by streaming to fewer locations.

On the viewer’s end, their internet connection could be too slow for the stream. What you can do from your end to resolve this is to transcode the stream into different bitrates so that the viewer can choose a lower one to reduce lag. Or they might not even have to choose a lower bitrate. If their connection is slow, your media player could automatically select one for them.

( Author’s note: JWP provides a transcoding feature you can use to create multiple bitrates for HLS streams, where viewers won’t have to manually select a bitrate. Learn more about it here .)

2. Poor audio quality

If your audio sounds like it’s being played through a tin can, it could be because your audio bitrate is low — or there’s a connectivity issue between the server and the viewer.

One way to resolve this is to bump up the audio bitrate to a higher quality.

Additionally, you may need to adjust the settings for the streaming solution if it’s not configured correctly; for example, if you’ve set it to automatically compress the audio, you might need to make some changes to allow for higher quality audio.

3. Connection problems

If you notice your viewers are having connection issues, try increasing the buffer length of your stream. This will allow more time for data to be stored before it’s sent over the network, which should help to reduce any connection problems.

Another solution to try is lowering the maximum bitrate of your stream; this will reduce the amount of data being sent over the network. Lastly, transcode your stream into different bitrates so that viewers can choose a lower one if they’re having connection problems.

4. Audio and video out of sync

If the audio and video are out of sync, this might be happening because there’s a delay in the stream. If you’re seeing this issue, try lowering the maximum bitrate of your stream to reduce any latency issues.

Or you could try increasing the buffer length of your stream; this will give more time for data to be sent over the network, which should help to reduce any latency issues. Lastly, you may need to adjust the settings for your streaming solution if it’s not configured correctly.

5. Video not playing

If your video isn’t playing, there could be a few potential issues. Firstly, it could be because the player isn’t compatible with the format of your stream. If so, you might need to use a different media player that supports HLS.

It could also be because of several other issues:

  • The server could be down
  • The internet connection is too slow for the stream
  • The maximum bitrate of your stream is too high

The key is to investigate each potential issue and resolve it accordingly. If the server is down, you’ll need to contact your hosting provider. If the internet connection is too slow, you’ll need to transcode the stream into different bitrates. And if the maximum bitrate is too high, you’ll need to reduce it.

Hopefully, going through this list has given you an idea of the potential causes and solutions for common streaming issues. Remember: troubleshooting is often a process of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you find the solution that works best for your situation.

HLS is a great media streaming protocol

In the end, whether you choose to use HLS or other streaming protocols — like RTMP, RTSP, or MPEG-DASH — comes down to your particular needs and system constraints.

HLS is a great streaming protocol that can provide high-quality streams to a wide range of devices and platforms with low latency. With the right setup, you can get streaming up and running quickly, making it an ideal choice for large-scale streaming projects.

However, the quality and latency of HLS streams can vary depending on factors such as video resolution, bit rate, and encoding or codec settings. But overall, HLS offers an efficient and reliable streaming solution that is suitable for most projects.

Ultimately, the choice is yours. Just weigh the pros and cons of each protocol before deciding which one is right for your streaming needs.

Good luck and happy streaming!