Learn why live-streaming platform Zapping built its own low-latency technology and CDN to stream Latin American content using NETINT Streaming Video Servers helping to accelerate Zapping’s rapid expansion in the region. “Zapping is the Netflix of the live streaming here in Chile, in Latin America. We developed all our technology; the encoders, our low-latency, and the apps in each platform. We developed our own CDN…” Nacho Opazo, Zapping Co-founder and CTO.
FIGURE 1. Nacho Opazo, Zapping Co-founder and CTO on a rare vacation away from the office,
Zapping is a live-streaming platform in Latin America that started in Chile and has since expanded into Brazil, Peru, and Costa Rica. Ignacio (Nacho) Opazo, the co-founder and CTO, has been the driving force behind the company’s technological innovations.
The verb zapping refers to the ability to switch content streams with minimal delay. Give him a minute and Nacho will gladly demonstrate there superior low latency in the hyper-responsive mobile app he designed and developed. He’s also responsible for Zapping’s content delivery network (CDN), custom low-latency technology, and user interfaces on smart TVs.
Zapping streams free channels available via terrestrial broadcast, as well as content from HBO, Paramount, Fox, TNT Sports, Globo, and many others. Though this includes a broad range of content types, from local news to daytime and primetime TV to premium movies, what really moves the needle in South America is sports, specifically soccer. It’s a competitive marketplace; in addition to terrestrial TV, other market entrants include DirectTV, Entel, and MovieStar, a long with free-to-air content in some markets.
Soccer coverage is a key driver for subscriptions and presented multiple challenges to Zapping, including latency, video quality, and bandwidth consumption. With aggressive expansion plans, Zapping also needed to focus on capital management and optimizing operating costs.
FIGURE 2. Innovative, feature-rich players and broad compatibility are key to Zapping’s outstanding customer experience.
The Challenges of Soccer Broadcasting
Latency is a critical issue for soccer coverage, and challenging because Zapping competes with services operating in different countries. As Nacho described, “Here in Chile, the soccer matches are premium. So you need to hire a cable operator, and you can hear your neighbor screaming if they have a cable operator with lower latency. Latency is one of the key questions we get asked about in social media. In Brazil, it is more complicated because some soccer matches are free to air. So, our latency has to be lower than free-to-air in Brazil. One potential solution here was to install a server with a low latency transcoder in the CDN of each soccer broadcaster to ensure that Zapping’s streams originate from as close to the original signal as possible.”
Zapping competed with these same services regarding quality, which is a key determinant of quality of experience (QoE). Soccer is incredibly fast-moving and presents a murderer’s row of compression challenges, from midfield shots of tiny players advancing and defending to finely detailed shots of undulating crowds and waving flags to close-ups of fouled players rolling in the grass. Zapping needed a transcoder to preserve detail and color accuracy without breaking the bandwidth bank.
Like latency, Zapping’s bandwidth problems vary by country. In all countries, soccer’s popularity stresses the internet in general. “Video files are huge, and when you have a soccer match, thousands of people come to your servers and saturate the region’s internet.”
Beyond general capacity, some countries have suboptimal infrastructures for high-bandwidth soccer matches, like low-speed inter-trunk connections. “In the beginning, we saw low bandwidth connections – like 10 Gbps trunks between ISPs, and we saturated that trunk with our service.” Problems like these convinced Zapping to create their own CDN to ensure high-speed delivery.
In Chile, Zapping found a different problem. “Here in Chile, we have a really good internet. We have a connection of one gigabyte to the users, one gigabyte per second, and fiber optic. But 80% of our viewers watch on Smart TVs that they don’t upgrade that often, and these devices don’t have good Wi-Fi connections. So, Wi-Fi is the problem in Chili.” While Zapping’s CDN was a huge help in avoiding bandwidth bottlenecks, the best general-purpose solution was to implement HEVC.
To summarize these requirements, Zapping needed a transcoding system affordable enough to install and operate in data centers around South America that delivered high-quality H.264 and HEVC output with exceptionally low latency.
From CPU to GPU to ASIC
Nacho considered all options to find the right transcoding system. “I started encoding with CPUs using Quick Sync from Intel. but my problem was getting more density for the rack unit. Intel enabled five sockets per a 1RU rack unit, which was really low. Though the video quality was good, the amount of power that you needed, and the amount of heat that you produced was really, really high.”
Nacho next tried NVIDIA GPUs, starting with the P2000 and moving to T4. Configured with an 80-core Intel CPU and two T4s, the NVIDIA-powered system could produce about 50 complete ladders per 1RU rack unit, an improvement, but still insufficient.
Then, Nacho learned about NETINT’s first-generation T408 technology. “I was looking to get more density with my servers and found a NETINT article that claimed that you could output 122 channels per rack unit.” Nacho ordered a unit and started testing. “I found that the power draw was really low, as was the latency, and the quality of both H.264 and HEVC is really good.”
Looking ahead, Nacho foresees the need for even more density. “Right now we’re trying the [second generation] NETINT Quadra processor. I need to get more dense. Brazil is a really big country. We need more power and more density in the rack.”
Nacho was sold on the hardware performance but had to integrate the NETINT transcoders into his encoding stack, which was a non-issue. “We control the encoders with FFmpeg, and converting over to the NETINT transcoders was really seamless for us. Really, really easy.”
Just as Nacho finalized his testing, NETINT started offering a server package that included ten T408s in a Supermicro server with all software pre-installed. These proved perfectly suited to Zapping’s technology and expansion plans.
According to Nacho, “The servers are really, really good. For us, buying the server is better because it’s ready to use. As we deploy our platform in Latin America, we send a server to each country. It’s as simple as sliding it into a rack, installing our software, and we’re ready to go. It’s really, really easy for us.”
Delivering Better Soccer Matches
FIGURE 3. Nacho will deploy the Quadra Video Server for the greatest density, lowest cost and latency, and highest quality H.264 and HEVC.
Armed with NETINT servers, Nacho proceeded to attack each of the challenges discussed above. “For the latency, we talk with the channel distributor and put a NETINT server inside the CDN of each broadcaster. And we can skip the satellite uplink and save one or two seconds of latency.”
Nacho originally implemented his own low-latency protocols but now is experimenting with low-latency HLS. “With LL HLS, we can get six seconds ahead from free to air. Let’s talk in about three months and see what that looks like.”
Nacho also implemented a “turbo mode” that toggles the viewer in and out of Zapping’s low-latency mode. Viewers prioritizing low latency can enable turbo mode at the risk of slightly lower quality and a greater likelihood of buffering issues. Viewers who prioritize video quality and minimal buffering over ultra-low latency can disable turbo mode. As Nacho explained, “If you have a bad connection, like bad Wi-Fi, you can turn off the low latency and watch the match in a 30-second buffer like the normal buffer of HLS.”
Nacho also aggressively converted to HEVC output. “For us, HEVC is really, really important. We get a 40% lower bit rate than H.264 with the same quality image. That’s full HD quality at 6 Mbps per second, which is really good compared to competitors using H.264 at 5 Mbps in full HD. And the user knows we’re delivering HEVC. We have that in our UX. The user can turn HEVC on and off and really see the difference. So it’s really, really important.”
Regarding the HEVC switch, Nacho explained, “If we know that your TV or device is HEVC compatible, we play HEVC by default. But there are so many setup boxes, and some signal their codec compatibilities incorrectly. If we’re not sure, we turn off the HEVC by default, and the user can try it, and if it works, great; if not, they play H.264.”
After much experimentation, Nacho extended HEVC’s low-bitrate quality to other broadcasts as well. ‘For CNN or talk shows, we are trying a 600 kilobyte per second HEVC, and it looks really, really good, even on a big screen.”
The Live Streaming Netflix of Latin America
One of Zapping’s unique strengths is that it considers itself a technology company, along with being a content company. This aggressive approach has enabled Zapping to achieve significant success in Chile and to expand into Latin America.
As Nacho describes, “Zapping is the Netflix of the live streaming here in Chile, in Latin America. We developed all our technology; the encoders, our low-latency, and the apps in each platform. We developed our own CDN; I think it’s bigger than Akamai and Fastly here in Chile. We are taking the same steps as Netflix. That you make your platform, you make the UI, you make the encoding process and then you must deliver.”
Nacho is clear about how NETINT’s products have contributed to his success. “NETINT servers are an affordable, functional, and high-performant element of our success, providing unparalleled density along with excellent low-latency and H.264 and HEVC quality, all at extremely low power consumption. NETINT has helped accelerate our expansion while increasing our profitability.”
Innovative technologists like Nacho and Zapping choose and rely on equally innovative tools and building blocks to deliver critical functions and components of their services. We’re proud that Nacho has chosen NETINT servers as the technology of choice for expanding operations in Latin America, and look forward to a long and successful collaboration.