Microsoft Azure Review
A journey with Windows Azure Media Services–Smooth Streaming, HLS


Back in January Scott Gu announced the official release of Windows Azure Media Services. It is amazing platform that was out in the wild (as a CTP, or Community Technology Preview) for less then an year. Before it was RTW, I created a small project to demo out its functionality. The source code is public on GitHub and the live site is public on Azure Web Sites. I actually linked my GitHub repo with the Website on Azure so that every time I push to the Master branch, I got a new deployment on the WebSite. Pretty neat!

At its current state Windows Azure Media Services  does support the VOD (or Video On Demand) scenario only. Meaning that you can upload your content (also known as ingest), convert it into various formats, and deliver to audience on demand. What you cannot currently do is publish Live Streaming – i.e. from your Web Cam, or from your Studio.

This blog post will provide no direct code samples. Rather then code samples, my aim is to outline the valid workflows for achieving different goals. For code samples you can take a look at the official getting started guide, my code with web project, or the MediaServicesCommandLineTools project on GitHub, which I also contribute to.

With the current proposition from Azure Media Services you can encode your media assets into ISO-MP4 / H.264 (AVC) video with AAC-LC Audio, Smooth Streaming format to deliver greatest experience to your users, or even to Apple HTTP Live Streaming format (or just HLS). Everything from the comfort of your chair at home or in the office. Without the big overspend in expensive hardware. Getting the results however may be tricky sometime, and the platform does not help you with very detailed error messages (which I hope will change in the very near future).

You can achieve different tasks (goals) in different ways sometime. Windows Azure Media Services currently works with 4 Media Processors:

  • Windows Azure Media Encryptor
  • Windows Azure Media Encoder
  • Windows Azure Media Packager
  • Storage Decryption

When you want to complete some task you always provide a task preset and a media processor which will complete the given task. It is really important to pay attention to this detail, because giving a task preset to the wrong processor will end up in error and task failure.

So, how to get (create/encode to) a Smooth Streaming Content?

Given we have an MP4 video source - H.264 (AVC) Video Codec + AAC-LC Audio Codec. The best will be if we have multiple MP4 files representing same content but with different bitrates. Now we can use the Windows Azure Media Packager and the MP4 To Smooth Streams task preset.

If we don’t have MP4 source, but we have any other supported import format (unfortunately MOV is not a supported format), we can use Windows Azure Media Encoder to transcode our media into either an MP4 (H.264) single file, or directly into Smooth Streaming Source. Here is a full list of a short-named task presets that can be used with Windows Azure Media Encoder. To directly create a Smooth Streaming asset, we can use any of the VC1 Smooth Streaming XXX task presets, or any of the H264 Smooth Streaming XXX task presets. That will generate a Smooth Streaming asset encoded with either VC-1 Video profile, or H.264(AVC) Video Codec.

OK, how about Apple HTTP Live Streaming (or HLS)?

Well, Apple HLS is similar to Smooth Streaming. However, there is a small detail, it only supports H.264 Video codec! The most standard way of creating Apple HLS asset is by using Windows Azure Media Packager and the XML task preset for “Convert Smooth Streams to Apple HTTP Live Streams”. Please take a note on the media processor – it is the Windows Azure Media Packager. This also will accept an input asset to be valid Smooth Streaming Asset encoded with H.264 (AVC) video codec! Do not forget that you could have created Smooth Streams with VC-1 Video Profile codec, which are totally valid and running Smooth Streams, but they will fail to convert to Apple HTTP Live Streams.

Hm, can’t we get all-in-one?

I mean, can’t I have a single media asset and deliver either Apple HTTP Live Streams or Smooth Streams, depending on my client? Sure we can. However this is CPU intensive process. It is called “dynamic packaging”. The source must be a multi-bitrate MP4 asset. This one consists of multiple MP4 files of same content with different bitrates. And it requires an on-demand streaming reserved units from Media Services. You can read more about dynamic packaging here.

Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.

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