In today's digital era, where “Content is King," online video streaming has become an integral part of our lives. In fact, an average viewer spends 17 hours a week consuming video content. So whether it's watching movies, live events, or educational content, your users expect seamless and high-quality video experiences. You need infrastructure that can handle the delivery of video content on a global scale and with concurrent users. This is where a Video CDN – a specialized form of a CDN (Content Delivery Network) – is useful.
A Video CDN is a distributed system of servers strategically placed worldwide to reduce the load on your main (or origin) server. They cache, store, and deliver video content, reducing the effective distance between the actual source and the viewer. As a result, buffering and latency issues are minimized, leading to smoother and uninterrupted video playback.
But that’s only a simplified explanation. In this blog post, we will explore Video CDNs in detail, see how they work, and why you should use one for your online video streaming needs. Whether you are a content creator, an e-commerce platform, a video-on-demand service, or a video-based educational platform, understanding the inner workings of a Video CDN is essential to delivering high-quality video experiences that captivate and engage your audience.
So, let's dive in!
What is a Video Content Delivery Network?
While a regular CDN is designed to handle various types of content, a Video CDN takes the concept a step further by optimizing specifically for video content, whether live streams or VODs. Unlike static web pages or images, serving videos needs low latency, as short a buffering time as possible, and uninterrupted playback. To meet these demands, video CDNs incorporate specialized features and optimizations tailored to the unique requirements of streaming video.
Comparing Regular CDNs and Video CDNs
|Regular CDNs||Video CDNs|
|Caching Strategy||Regular CDNs cache items that have longer cache lifetimes and don’t really change much. So a simple file-level cache is enough.||Video CDNs can cache discrete video files, but most often, they need to cache dynamic video content at a granular level. So segments/chunks of each video file are cached.|
|Storage and Hardware||Regular CDNs are designed to handle increased web traffic by replicating content across multiple edge servers, and their storage needs are optimized for fast retrieval of discrete, static content.||Video CDNs need to store and deliver live video streams as well as discrete video files, and also process this video content before delivery. For this reason, they require both additional bandwidth/storage and far more compute resources (to handle concurrent video processing tasks) than regular CDNs.|
|Content-specific optimization||Regular CDNs can use optimization strategies that are suitable for the static content they handle – such as minification to remove whitespace and comments from HTML/CSS/JS, and compressing them using Gzip, Brotli, etc.||Video CDNs being purpose-built for video, support Video transcoding, adaptive bitrate streaming, and may also provide video-specific analytics like viewer engagement, playback quality, and audience demographics rather than just traffic metrics.|
In summary, a video content delivery network is a specialized type of CDN that focuses on efficiently delivering streaming video content to viewers worldwide. By leveraging caching, advanced algorithms, and optimizations specific to video streaming, video CDNs enable content providers to deliver high-quality videos with reduced latency, minimal buffering, and an overall enhanced streaming experience for their audience.
Why Use a Video CDN?
When it comes to online video streaming, leveraging a Video CDN offers numerous advantages that enhance the overall streaming experience for both content providers and viewers.
What are these benefits?
- Minimized Latency: A Video CDN reduces latency by employing edge servers strategically positioned closer to viewers. The Video CDN ensures faster content delivery, reducing lag and a more seamless streaming experience by minimizing the distance between the content and the end users.
- Reduced Buffering Time: With a Video CDN, buffering time is significantly decreased. By leveraging caching mechanisms and intelligent content delivery, the Video CDN pre-fetches and stores video segments closer to viewers. This enables smooth playback, eliminates buffering interruptions, and allows viewers to enjoy uninterrupted streaming.
- Reduced Network Congestion: A Video CDN employs load balancing and distributed infrastructure, which helps alleviate network congestion. The Video CDN ensures efficient content delivery, even during peak demand periods by intelligently distributing traffic across multiple servers and utilizing edge computing. This reduces the strain on the network, resulting in a smoother streaming experience for all viewers.
- Provides Encoding and Transcoding: Video CDNs include built-in encoding and transcoding capabilities, allowing content providers to optimize their videos for different devices and network conditions. By automatically converting videos into various formats and bitrates, the Video CDN ensures compatibility with a wide range of devices and network speeds and enabling content providers to save time and resources by offloading the encoding and transcoding tasks to the Video CDN.
- Reduces Bandwidth Costs: A Video CDN optimizes bandwidth usage by implementing adaptive bitrate streaming. It dynamically adjusts the quality of the video stream based on the viewer's available bandwidth, ensuring an uninterrupted playback experience while minimizing bandwidth consumption. This can lead to cost savings for content providers, especially when delivering content to a global audience.
- Added Security: Video CDNs can provide secure delivery through features like DDoS mitigation, SSL/TLS encryption, access control, and content protection (DRM).
How Does a Video CDN Work?
To understand how a Video CDN operates, let's break down the video streaming process into various steps, encompassing the "processing" required for videos to be ready for delivery and the actual "delivery" to viewers.
Processing – Encoding, Packaging, and Transcoding
Before videos can be streamed to viewers, they will undergo a series of steps – concurrently with the recording – to compress, optimize, and convert them to more suitable formats, striking a balance between file size and visual fidelity so they can be played back on a wide range of devices and network speeds.
- Encoding: The first step in video streaming is video encoding, where the RAW source video being streamed is taken, compressed, and optimized into a standard digital format more suitable for streaming over the internet. Video from camera/capture devices can’t often be played back on most user devices, and so encoding involves compressing and converting the video using codecs like H.264, HEVC (H.265), and VP9 to a more suitable format, preserving an acceptable level of quality.
- Transcoding: Transcoding is the process of creating multiple versions of the already encoded video, each at different resolutions, bitrates, or formats. Video transcoding is done to tailor videos for certain devices and network configurations. (For example: creating a 480p version of a video already encoded at 1080p because a target device isn’t powerful enough to handle full HD streaming.)
- Packaging: Once the video is encoded/transcoded, it is divided into small segments known as "chunks." These chunks typically span a (fixed) few seconds of video content. Packaging enables Adaptive Bitrate Streaming (ABR), creating manifests such as MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) or HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) to organize and structure these video chunks for streaming.
Delivery – A Distributed Architecture
The delivery process using a Video CDN (Content Delivery Network) involves hooking it up to the origin server, allowing it access to the encoded live stream (or VOD) along with its ABR manifests. Then, it distributes video content to users via a network of servers strategically placed globally.
- Edge Servers with Segmented Caching: A Video CDN consists of a network of servers that are geographically distributed closer to the end-users – edge servers.
Video CDNs reduce the load on the origin server by caching the encoded/transcoded video in chunks and distributing it across multiple such edge servers. When a request is made client-side for a stream, the CDN uses intelligent routing algorithms to determine the most optimal edge server to handle the user's request (depending on network latency, server load, and proximity to the user).
- Delivery of Cached Segments: Once an edge server is selected, the Video CDN checks if the requested video segments and manifests are available in its cache. If the content is absent, the edge server retrieves the required segments from the origin server, simultaneously caching them for future requests. The edge server then delivers the video content to the requesting client, and subsequent requests for the same stream can serve it from the cache instead of bothering the origin server.
- Adaptive Bitrate Streaming: During playback, an ABR-compatible client-side video player continuously monitors the network conditions, including available bandwidth, latency, and packet loss, and dynamically adjusts its requested bitrate, requesting segments of that specific quality from the CDN, which then delivers it. This seamless switching between different quality levels ensures smooth playback and minimized buffering, and since the client-side video player doesn’t have to request the origin server for these chunks, ABR is even more efficient with a Video CDN in place.
Caching Live Streams vs. Caching Video-on-Demand
A Video CDN incorporates caching and delivery mechanisms to deliver live streams to viewers efficiently, but what about video-on-demand (VOD) scenarios? What's the difference between how Video CDNs cache live streams vs. how they cache VODs?
For a live stream, the Video CDN caches segments in real-time, as they are recorded, encoded/transcoded/packaged, and broadcasted. This is a just-in-time (JIT) caching strategy using time-based Invalidation. To minimize latency and keep the viewing experience as close to ‘live’ as possible, this strategy focuses on caching only the most recent segments of the live video stream, dynamically invalidating and removing older segments that are no longer relevant or recent, rather than caching the stream in its entirety.
On the other hand, a Video on Demand (VOD) stream is streaming a discrete video file that resides in storage on the origin server. It is not a real-time stream. So the Video CDN can afford to employ a much simpler strategy for caching it – all it needs is access to a video file stored on the origin server, and it can cache it in its entirety, conventionally. All client requests for that particular VOD can now be served from the CDN edge servers, reducing the load on the origin server.
This is exactly why you should use a Video CDN in front of cloud storage like AWS S3 which stores your video content — to ensure the lowest costs and the highest uptime.
What to Look for When Choosing a Video CDN?
While there are several options out there, consider the following important factors to ensure your chosen Video CDN aligns with your requirements:
- Coverage and Scalability: Does the Video CDN have a robust network of servers strategically located across various regions to deliver content efficiently to your target audience? Can it handle both spikes and reductions in viewer demand without compromising performance? This is critical for you to be able to accommodate sudden traffic spikes, maintain consistent video quality, and deliver a seamless experience to your viewers – all without breaking the bank.
- Integration with Existing Video Storage: Does the Video CDN seamlessly integrate with your existing video streaming and video storage infrastructure? This integration allows for efficient content management, simplifies the workflow, and ensures smooth adoption of the CDN without the need for significant changes in your existing setup.
- Video Optimization: Look for a Video CDN with advanced video optimization features. This includes adaptive bitrate streaming, transcoding, and video compression techniques. These features optimize video quality and bandwidth consumption, ensuring optimal playback on various devices and network conditions.
- Transparent Pricing: Evaluate the pricing structure of the Video CDN. Seek a provider offering transparent pricing with clear details on the pricing tiers, usage-based charges, and additional costs. Transparent pricing ensures you clearly understand the costs involved, allowing you to make informed decisions based on your budget and specific requirements.
Why Choose ImageKit choose ImageKit as a video CDN?
ImageKit is a cloud-based service offering complete video management and optimization capabilities in real-time, with a URL-based API. By leveraging a robust CDN network, ImageKit ensures that your videos are delivered quickly and effectively while still maintaining the best quality and minimizing bandwidth consumption using ImageKit's video optimization features.
In cases where you have an existing video storage infrastructure, either on your own servers, cloud storage, or third-party platforms, ImageKit can easily integrate, making the transition smooth and hassle-free.
Key Video Capabilities of ImageKit
ImageKit offers a wide range of powerful video capabilities that make it an ideal choice for your video streaming needs::
Global Video CDN
ImageKit integrates AWS Cloudfront by default, with strategically located servers across different regions. This ensures your video content's efficient and fast delivery to viewers worldwide. For example, if viewers on different continents access your videos, ImageKit's CDN will serve the content from the nearest server, reducing latency and providing a smooth streaming experience.
Automatic Optimization for Video Delivery
With ImageKit, your videos are automatically optimized for optimal delivery, including automatic quality compression and format conversion for maximum compatibility. All you have to do is turn these options on under video settings in your dashboard.
These optimizations ensure that your videos are delivered at the best possible quality while minimizing bandwidth consumption and in the best format for each user’s device every time.
Real-time Video Transformations
ImageKit enables real-time transformations for your videos via a URL-based API. This allows you to apply dynamic modifications to your videos on-the-fly, such as resizing, cropping, watermarking, or adding overlays. For example, you can dynamically resize a video to fit different screen sizes or add watermarks to protect your content.
These real-time transformations give you the flexibility to customize and enhance your video content without the need for pre-processing. Check out the list of supported URL-based transforms here.
Adaptive Bitrate Streaming
ImageKit’s URL-based API simplifies the generation of an adaptive stream. It supports the two most-used ABR protocols - Apple HLS and MPEG-DASH - and you can request any video be turned into an adaptive stream using the appropriate ImageKit URL structure for each.
ImageKit will handle encoding, segmenting, and manifest file generation automatically for you in the background, with as many ABR renditions as you specify in the URL. You simply embed this URL in your ABR-compatible client-side video player, and ImageKit will act as the server, giving you an ABR-ready stream with all the bells and whistles in seconds. No need to set up and optimize complex pipelines or cloud infrastructure.
Digital Asset Management
ImageKit’s Media Library offers a comprehensive Digital Asset Management (DAM) system that simplifies the organization, management, and delivery of your video assets. With ImageKit's DAM, you can easily upload, store, and organize your video content.
It provides features like metadata management, categorization, and search capabilities, making managing, collaborating, and sharing a large library of videos for your streaming platform effortless.
ImageKit offers everything you need to deliver high-quality videos to your audience, enhance the user experience, and streamline your video workflow.
Other Benefits of ImageKit
When it comes to choosing a Video CDN, it's not just the video-specific capabilities that matter. There are a number of benefits and unique features that ImageKit brings to the table that set it apart from other solutions, making it the ideal choice. Let’s quickly touch on some of them:
Easy Setup and Integration
ImageKit is designed to be user-friendly for both technical and non-technical users. It offers a universal, low-code solution via its URL-based API, and for developers, it is easily integrated into your existing infrastructure, offering official SDKs for both the client and server – React, Vue.js, Angular, PHP, Java, NodeJS, and more.
Bring your existing cloud storage
You have the flexibility to choose your preferred cloud storage provider. Whether you use Azure Blob storage, Cloudinary Backup Bucket, Google Cloud Storage, Firebase storage, Magento/WordPress, or any other popular cloud storage service or web server, you can leverage your existing cloud storage infrastructure without any limitations or vendor lock-in.
You can easily configure and manage your video streaming settings through the user-friendly dashboard and intuitive interface provided by ImageKit. This eliminates the need for writing complex code, making it accessible to non-technical users and reducing the time and effort required to set up and manage your video streaming workflows.
In this blog post, we have explored the world of Video Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and how they revolutionize the way online video streaming is delivered to viewers worldwide. We began by defining a Video CDN as a specialized CDN designed specifically to support video stream delivery and learned how they’re specialized for live streams and VODs alike in the areas of encoding, packaging, transcoding, storage, and delivery.
ImageKit, a prominent video CDN, excels in each of these areas, making it an ideal choice for video streaming needs for anyone looking to deliver high-quality video content to their global audience. By automatically serving video in the most suitable format for each user device, automatically optimizing video quality, allowing on-the-fly transforms, and easy Adaptive Bitrate Streaming with its simple URL-based API, ImageKit ensures you are well-equipped to thrive in the competitive world of online video streaming.
So what are you waiting for? Elevate your video streaming experience and unlock the true potential of your online video content by signing up for ImageKit today. You can start with the free tier plan that offers you 20 GB of bandwidth, 20 GB of media storage, 1000 video processing units, and a lot more for free each month.