A short review on Kurento in simple language for business people and those who're not into all that techy stuff.
Imagine that a programmer approached you and said that he needs a media server for development, and he recommends that you use Kurento. How do you know whether it's the best choice? There's a lot of information but digesting it might be difficult as it's all deeply technical.
We'll try our best to provide you with enough information to make a decision whether or not you should use Kurento in your video app. We'll tell you why the media server is important, about the license, architecture, main functions that you can develop with Kurento, those being modules. We'll finish with the summary of when it's best to use a low-level media server, such as Kurento, and when it's best to use an out-of-the-box solution.
WebRTC and why we need a media server
Kurento is an open-source WebRTC media streaming server with many built-in video conferencing modules released under the Apache license. WebRTC is a standardized, low latency, real-time, browser-to-browser transmission method without the need for third-party plugins or extensions. WebRTC is a fully client-side technology, so why would we need a media server?
The main reason is the load on the client with a large number of participants. The number of connections between participants grows exponentially, at the same time video quality worsens and the load on traffic and system resources grows. WebRTC can be used as normal P2P communication between 2-6 (in our experience), but if there are more participants, it makes more sense to use a media server. In addition, there are difficulties if we need to save a video recording to a separate file or somehow process it on the fly because all the work lies on the client.
A short history of Kurento
Kurento was developed in 2010 in Madrid as a separate open-source project. The main language that Kurento uses is C++, which helps to optimize the resources of the system.
The media server has more than 2800 stars on GitHub and a few hundred forks, which are separate branches of the project supported by the community.
At the moment Kurento development team joined Twilio and there are minor versions of Kurento itself with some minor patches, and new versions are still being released.
Apache, the license of Kurento
Kurento is released under the Apache license. It gives the developers absolute freedom when working with a code. You just have to mention what changes you apply and who the first author is.
Products with software under the Apache license can be used in commercial products. You can use Kurento in your products for free and get income from those products. No need to pay any loyalty.
You can find the full text about Apache here.
Kurento architecture: MCU and SFU
There are two main types of media server architectures: MCU and SFU. We will give an overview in this article. If you're interested in more details, check out this article.
MCU (Multipoint Conferencing Unit) is a collage-like video architecture. We have multiple streams of users which make up one big seamless picture with each item's location unchanged. The MCU takes an outgoing video stream from each participant, then the media server stitches all the streams into one with a fixed layout. Thus, despite the fact that there are many participants in the conference, each client receives only one stream as input. This allows to save CPU resources and traffic consumption on the client-side, but increases the load on the server itself and limits the possibilities of video chat layout customization. With MCU we can't tell exactly which participant is on the video. Mixing streams requires a lot of processing power, increasing the cost of maintaining the server. This type of architecture is mostly suitable for meetings with a large number of participants (> 40). MCU is also a good solution if you need to get video streams on weak devices e.g. on the phone thanks to processing on the server.
SFU (Selective Forwarding Unit) is a popular architecture in modern WebRTC solutions that allows the video conference client to receive only the video streams it needs at the moment. SFU is more like a mosaic where you have to assemble the elements yourself, but the order of assembly is up to you. In SFU each participant also sends his stream to the server, but the other stream comes separately. This architecture better distributes the load between server and client and gives full control over the implementation of the video chat interface. Unlike MCU, a server with SFU doesn't have to decode and transcode incoming streams. This helps to significantly reduce the load on the server CPU. SFU is well suited for broadcasting (one-to-many or one-person streaming) due to its ability to dynamically scale the system depending on the number of streams. At the same time, this type of server requires more outgoing server bandwidth because it has to do more streams to clients.
Let's compare these 2 types using the 4-people video conference as an example.
On the client:
On the server:
There are also systems that use hybrid architectures to achieve the best result depending on the current number of users and the needs of a particular client. For example, if the client is a weak mobile device, it can receive a single stream from the media server as in the MCU. Browser users, on the other hand, will receive streams separately, where it is possible to implement a unique way of meshing elements as in SFU. Another case would be interaction with SIP devices (mostly IP telephony) where only the MCU is supported. Some hybrids may change from SFU to MCU on the fly when the number of participants reaches a certain threshold. There is the XDN (Experience Delivery Network) architecture from red5pro, which uses cloud technologies to solve WebRTC scaling problems. It has clusters that consist of different types of nodes. There are the source, relay, and edge nodes. Within this topology, any source node receives incoming streams and exchanges data with several edge nodes to support thousands of participants. For larger cases, source nodes can pass the flow to relay nodes, which pass the flow to multiple edge nodes to scale the cluster even more.
Kurento allows both types, using SFU by default. MCU architecture can be achieved using the Compositor element. You can mix SFU and MCU to obtain a hybrid type. Kurento uses SFU by default.
Description of the main modules and functionality
What are modules: main principles of Kurento design
Kurento includes several basic modules tailored to work not only with WebRTC, but also with video recording, computer vision, and AR filters. The media server would be a good choice if you want to work directly with regular WebRTC without using additional wrappers. It can be useful if you want to integrate your video chat with a native Android and iOS app. Kurento does not include a signaling mechanism, you can choose what works best for you depending on your project requirements, be it WebSockets or something else. Since Kurento is an open-source project, this significantly reduces the cost of using a media server.
Unlike the off-the-shelf paid media servers, Kurento is a rather low-level solution that allows you to customize the interaction of modules in the pipeline. Also, unlike, for example, Jitsi, which is a boxed solution and has a ready-made interface, with Kurento it’s much easier to choose and implement the interface you want. And of course, you can write your own module extending the standard media server functionality. The basis of the Kurento architecture design is modularity, where each media element is a program block that performs a certain task and can interact with other elements. In Kurento jargon, the developers call this Media Pipeline and Media Elements. Media Elements are simply modules that connect to each other within the Pipeline. Note, however, that the topology of the Pipeline is chosen by the developers, it does not necessarily have to be a linear sequence of elements.
Let's talk about the main modules now.
WebRTC video conference
The basis of Kurento for video conferencing is the WebRtcEndpoint. Using it, we can transfer WebRTC streams and interconnect them in a single pipeline. In a video conference, the pipelines can usually be thought of as one room that is isolated from other similar rooms. In this case, WebRtcEndpoint is the user who wants to broadcast their own video or watch someone else's.
Recording video and audio
The media server uses RecorderEndpoint to record. We can connect the WebRTC stream to the recorder, and the recorder will record the result to the file system. After connecting and starting the video just call the Kurento API method “record” of the recorder. We can specify restrictions when recording: for example, we can record only audio or only video.
Playing third-party media
Kurento has a built-in PlayerEndpoint module that allows you to play third-party audio and video files as well as RTMP and RTSP streams. This means that you can add a stream from the IP camera and broadcast it to other participants of the video conference. You can use the player to play music for users, which is good for music platforms, online training, or even text-to-speech. Thanks to the flexibility of the pipeline, it’s possible to play media not only to all participants but also to a specific user depending on your needs. You can do this simply by creating a new PlayerEndpoint and connecting it to the desired WebRtcEndpoint using the connect method. Once you need to play a media file, just call the player's play method.
Computer vision and filters
The media server allows you to use many filters. For example, ZBarFilter is used to recognize QR codes, FaceOverlayFilter can recognize a face in a video stream and highlight it in real-time. And with GStreamerFilter, you can create your own custom filter. Also, Kurento has several experimental modules, including filters which are installed separately. There is kms-crowddetector that can detect a crowd, and there is a kms-platedetector that can detect a vehicle's license plate number.
No support for multi-streaming with different resolutions
There is no support for Simulcast (sending multiple copies of the same stream in different quality) and SVC (sending a stream in low quality with the ability to add additional layers to improve quality if needed).
There’s a solution. You can create several streams and request videos with different resolutions. Switch between video streams depending on packet losses. However, this solution is far from ideal as it puts a huge load on the server. So let’s be honest: there’s no solution that’d be good per se.
Codec support in Kurento
In order to stream over a network, computers use codecs. Codecs are programs that can perform data or signal encoding. They allow you to compress video or audio to an acceptable size for network streaming and playback.
Kurento Media Server supports codecs like H.264, VP8/9 for video, and OPUS for audio. They allow you to achieve a high degree of compression of the video stream while maintaining high quality. These codecs are the current WebRTC standards. There is no support for AV1 and H.265. These are the latest standards that allow you to reduce the bitrate for the same quality as their older counterparts. The media server itself compresses the received video stream to a quality that matches the bandwidth to the client at that moment, and if necessary, transcodes the stream into the codec the client needs.
API, documentation, Typescript support
Based on Kurento, there is the OpenVidu framework, which is designed for simpler development if you don’t need anything other than simple video conferencing. No need to use a server to communicate with the framework, just connect the client library. The library has many wrappers for all popular frontend frameworks as well as for Android and iOS. OpenVidu is a free solution, but there is a paid version that provides additional features for monitoring and scaling the WebRTC platform. And there are also future plans for Simulcast and SVC and automatic switching to P2P sessions for 1-1 cases.
The number of participants in a video conference
Kurento developers have their own benchmark to determine the maximum number of sessions on one machine. Although it’s originally intended for OpenVidu, it’s also suitable for Kurento. Below you can see a table for the different machines on AWS.
For example, a single AWS c5.large instance with two CPU cores and 4 GB of RAM can handle 4 group-type meetings with 7 participants. In each such meeting, users show and watch each other's streams (many-to-many).
Summary: when is Kurento suitable?
- for a video conferencing platform
- for integration with AR,
- for video recording
- for playing media files for conference participants
- for working with pure RTP, for example, for live streaming.
Kurento is a low-level media server. If you use Kurento, development might take a bit more time than out-of-the-box solutions. That's if you don't specialize in Kurento.
However, Kurento allows you to implement any functionality you want. It often happens with ready-made solutions that the customer asks to create something else, but that functionality isn't supported.
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