5 Mistakes to Avoid When Developing WebRTC Applications

There are things you don’t want to do when you are NIH’ing your way to a stellar WebRTC application.

Here’s a true, sad story. This month, the unimaginable happened. Rain (!) dropped from the sky here in Israel. The end of it was that 6 apartments in my building are suffering from moisture due to a leakage from a balcony of the penthouse. Being a new building, we’re at the mercies of the contractor to fix it.

Nothing in the construction market moves fast in Israel – or without threats, so we had to start sending official sounding letters to the constructor about the leak. I took charge, and immediately said we need to lawyer up and have a professional assist us in writing a letter from us to the constructor. Others were in the opinion we can do it on our own, as we need a lawyer only if he is signed directly on the document.

And then it hit me. I wanted to lawyer up is because I see many smart people failing with WebRTC. They are making rookie mistakes, and I didn’t want to make rookie mistakes when it comes to the moisture problems in my apartment.

Why are we Failing with WebRTC?

I am not sure that smart people fail a lot more around WebRTC technology than they are with other technologies, but it certainly feels that way.

A famous Mark Twain quote goes like this:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Many of the rookie mistakes people do about WebRTC stems from this. WebRTC is this kind of new. It is simply a lot of old ideas meshed into a new and curious combination. So we know it. And we assume we know how to handle ourselves around it.

Entrepreneurs? Skype is 14 years old. It shouldn’t be that hard to build something like Skype today.

VoIP developers? SIP we know. WebRTC is just SIP without the signaling. So we force SIP onto it and we’re done.

Web developers? WebRTC is part of HTML5. A few lines of JS code and we’re practically ready to go live.

Video developers? We can just take the WebRTC video feeds and put them on a CDN. Can’t we?

The result?

  1. Smart people decide they know enough to go it alone. And end up making some interesting mistakes
  2. People put their faith in one of the above personas… only to fail

My biggest gripe recently is people who decide in 2018 that peerJS is what they need for their WebRTC application. A project with 402 lines of code, last updated in 2015 (!). You can’t use such code with WebRTC. Code older than a year is stale or dead already. WebRTC is still too new and too dynamic.

That said, it isn’t as if you have a choice anymore. Flash is dying, and there’s no other serious alternative to WebRTC. If you’re thinking of adopting WebRTC, then here are five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: Failing to Configure STUN/TURN

You wouldn’t believe how often developers fail to configure NAT traversal servers. Just yesterday I had someone ask me over the chat widget of my website how can he run his application by hosting his signaling and web servers on HostGator without any STUN/TURN servers. It just doesn’t work.

The simple answer is that you can’t – barring some esoteric use cases, you will definitely need STUN servers. And for most use cases, TURN servers will also be mandatory if you want sessions to connect.

In the past month, I found myself explaining quite a lot about NAT traversal:

  • You must use STUN and TURN servers
  • Don’t rely on free STUN servers, and definitely don’t use “free” TURN servers
  • Don’t force all sessions via TURN unless you absolutely know what you’re doing
  • TURN has no added security in using it
  • You don’t need more than 1 STUN server and 3 TURN servers (UDP, TCP and TLS) in your servers configuration in WebRTC
  • Use temporary/ephemeral passwords in your TURN configuration
  • STUN doesn’t affect media quality
  • coturn or restund are great options for STUN/TURN servers

There’s more, but this should get you started.

Mistake #2: Selecting the WRONG Signaling Framework

PeerJS anyone? PeerJS feels like a tourist trap:

With 1,693 stars and 499 forks, PeerJS is one of the most popular WebRTC projects on github. What can go wrong?

Maybe the fact that it is older than the internet?

A WebRTC project that had its last commit 3 years ago can’t be used today.

Same goes for using Muaz Khan’s code snippets and expecting them to be commercial grade, stable, highly scalable products. They’re not. They’re just very useful code snippets.

Planning to use some open source project? Make sure that:

  • Make sure it was updated recently (=the last couple of months)
  • Make sure it is popular enough
  • Make sure you can understand the framework’s code and can maintain it on your own if needed
  • Try to check if there’s someone behind it that can help you in times of trouble

Don’t take the selection process here lightly. Not when it comes to a signaling server and not when it comes to a media server.

Mistake #3: Not Using Media Servers When You Should

I know what you’re thinking. WebRTC is peer to peer so there’s no need for servers. Some think that even signaling and web servers aren’t needed – I hope they can explain how participants are going to find each other.

To some, this peer to peer concept also means that you can run these ridiculously large scale sessions with no servers that carry on media.

Here are two such “architectures” I come across:

Mesh. It’s great. Don’t assume you can get it to run properly this year or the next. Move on.

Live broadcasting by forwarding content. It can be done, but most probably not the way you expect it to grow to a million users with no infrastructure and zero latency.

For many of the use cases out there, you will need a media server to process and route the media for you. Now that you are aware of it, go search for an open source media server. Or a commercial one.

Mistake #4: Thinking Short-Term

You get an outsourcing vendor. Write him a nice requirements doc. Pay him. Get something implemented. And you’re done.

Not really.

WebRTC is still at its infancy. The spec is changing. Browser implementations are changing. It is all in flux all the time. If you’re going to use WebRTC, either:

  1. Use some WebRTC API platform (here are a few), and you’ll be able to invest a bit less on an ongoing basis. There will be maintenance work, but not much
  2. Develop on your own or by outsourcing. In this case, you will need to continue investing in the project for at least the next 3 years or more

WebRTC code rots faster than most other HTML5 code. It will eventually change, but we’re not there yet.

It is also the reason I started with a few colleagues testRTC a few years ago. To help with the lifecycle of WebRTC applications, especially in the area of testing and monitoring.

Mistake #5: Failing to Understand WebRTC

They say assumption is the mother of all mistakes. Google seems to agree with it. Almost.

WebRTC isn’t trivial. It sits somewhere between VoIP and the web. It is new, and the information out there on the Internet about it is scattered and somewhat dynamic (which means lots of it isn’t accurate).

If you plan on using WebRTC, make sure you first understand it and its intricacies. Understand the servers that are needed to deploy a WebRTC application. Understand the signaling mechanisms that are built into WebRTC. Understand how media is processes and sent over the network. understand the rich ecosystem of solutions that can be used with WebRTC to build a production ready system.

Lots of things to learn here. Don’t assume you know WebRTC just because you know web development or because you know VoIP or video processing.

If you are looking to seriously learn WebRTC, why not enroll to my Advanced WebRTC Architecture course?

What about my apartment? We’ve lawyered up, and now I have someone review and fix all the official sounding letters we’re sending out. Hopefully, it will get us faster to a resolution.

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