FFmpeg – the swiss army knife of Internet Streaming – part I


PART I – Introduction (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART II – Parameters and recipes (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART III – Encoding in H.264 (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART IV – FFmpeg for streaming (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART V – Advanced usage (revised, 19-oct-2012)
PART VI – Filtering (new, 19-oct-2012)


(because of the success of this series I have decided to revise the content of the articles, update the syntax of command lines to recent api changes and extend the series with a fifth part, good reading!)

First part – Intro

This is the start post of a small series dedicated to FFmpeg. I have already talked about it 6 years ago when this tool was still young (Why I love FFmpeg: post1 and post2) but in these 6 years it has evolved widely and now it is a really useful “swiss army knife” for Internet streaming. I could define FFmpeg also as one of the pilllars of Internet Video. Sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Google video and the entire trend of UGC would not exist without FFmpeg. It is an exceptionally flexible tool that can be very useful for who works in the streaming business and most of all it is open source, free and well supported.

A brief history of FFmpeg

From wikipedia:
is a free software / open source project that produces libraries and programs for handling multimedia data. The most notable parts of FFmpeg are libavcodec, an audio/video codec library used by several other projects, libavformat, an audio/video container mux and demux library, and the ffmpeg command line program for transcoding multimedia files. FFmpeg is published under the GNU Lesser General Public License 2.1+ or GNU General Public License 2+ (depending on which options are enabled). The project was started by Fabrice Bellard, and has been maintained by Michael Niedermayer since 2004.”

So FFmpeg is the command line program that using libavcodec, libavformat and several other open source programs (notably x264 for H.264 encoding) offers exceptional transcoding capabilities especially for server side batch transcoding, but also for live encoding and audio/video files manipulation (muxing, demuxing, slicing, splitting and so on).

Me and FFmpeg

I started to study video encoding optimization during University and in the last decade I have used several open source and commercial encoders and designed my own original approaches and optimizations to encoding (take a look at best articles page for some experiments). But video encoding  and streaming became a business for me only after the release of FMS and Flash Player 6 in the late 2002. In the next years I developed several real time communication programs for my clients and a couple products. One of these was the “BlackBox” (2005), an HW/SW appliance that acquired multiple video sources using a Flash front-end and a FMS back-end. The system not only acquired video but provided also video editing features.

And here started my FFmpeg discovery. I needed a tool, possibly free, to manipulate FLV (cut, join, resize, re-encode, etc…) to provide the primitive operations of video editing. Being a .net developer I created my own tools (especially for splitting and joining) but then I found FFmpeg to be the best solution to do the most complex parts of the work. So my confidence with FFmpeg dates back to 2005. Around the same year Youtube started to use it as a free and fast way to encode (almost) any video format in input to a common output format (Sorenson’s Spark) for playback in Flash… you know the rest of the story.

Services like Youtube could not afford massive video transcoding using commercial solutions, so a tool like FFmpeg has been of fundamental importance for the sostenibility of their business model. This is why I defined FFmpeg as one of the pillars of Internet Video.

What is it possible to do with FFmpeg ?

The most obvious functionality is the decoding and encoding of audio and video files (transcoding). FFmpeg accepts an exceptional number of formats in input and is capable to decode, process (resize, change fps, filter, deinterlace, and so on) and finally encode to several output formats. But it can do a lot of other useful tasks like extract the elementary AV streams from a container, mux elementary streams in a new container, cut portions from a video, extract track informations.

These are features that FFmpeg has from many years while only more recently has been added the support for RTMP protocol (librtmp)

I think that, for an Internet Streaming professional, this has become one of the most important feature of FFmpeg. Before, if you wanted to acquire streams or push streams to a server in live mode you needed to use the RTP/RTSP protocol, but it is too complex and the implementation not really stable. On the other hand, RTMP is a simple yet powerful protocol and most important of all, it is supported by FMS and Wowza which are the most used streaming server in the last 5 years.

For example with librtmp it is possible to:

1. Connect to FMS, subscribe a live or vod stream and record it to file system.
2. Connect to FMS, subscribe a stream, transcode and publish a new version to a different or the same FMS.
3. Publish a local video file to FMS to simulate live streaming (with or without transcoding).
4. Acquire a live feed on the local PC, transcode and publish to FMS.

The series

After this conceptual introduction I invite you to enter in to details reading the other chapters of this series. This project has gained attentions and I have decided to transform it from a simple series of blog posts to a permanent knowledge base around FFmpeg and how to use it for simple and complex tasks in the video streaming business.

Concluding I like to underline that with a smart usage of FFmpeg and RTMP it’s possible to create infine combinations and overcome current limitations of Flash Video platform.
For example, one of the most interesting consequence of the point 3 is that using this tool and Wowza Media Server or FMS 4.5 which offer HLS compatibility, it is possible to transcode on-the-fly a stream generated by Flash Player (sorenson + asao or speex) to HLS for  consumption on iOS devices…not bad… continue reading to know more and follow the discussion on my twitter account too (@sonnati).


PART I – Introduction (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART II – Parameters and recipes (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART III – Encoding in H.264 (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART IV – FFmpeg for streaming (revised 02-jul-2012)
PART V – Advanced usage (revised, 19-oct-2012)
PART VI – Filtering (new, 19-oct-2012)


9 thoughts on “FFmpeg – the swiss army knife of Internet Streaming – part I

  1. I love ffmpeg. From the moment I began using Plex (which adopts ffmpeg), I appreciated the capabilities of transcoding audio/video files toward clients with “reduced” capabilities (like when streaming a 1080p Bluray ISO to an iPad or AppleTV). Looking forward to your series of articles.

  2. Hi, I have a question: what about converting Windows Media live stream in h264 ones for rebroadcasting?

  3. Good blog you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to find high quality writing like yours these days.

    I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  4. I was excited to discover this great site. I need to to thank you for your time
    due to this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every part of it and I have you bookmarked to see new
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