Everything You Need to Know About Packet Loss (and How to Avoid It)Jun 15, 2021
TL;DR As data travels from one place to another, some packets can get delayed, damaged, or even lost. This is known as packet loss. It’s quite common, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it! Estimated read time: 6 minutes Packet loss, latency, jitter, lag—if you’re noticing poor internet performance, you’re likely experiencing one or more of these. Latency and lag are related to speed, but what is packet loss, and how is it affecting users’ quality of experience (QoE)? Even more importantly, what can you do about it? What Is Packet Loss? Everything we do online is transmitted in packets. Think of it like packing for your vacation – you’ll pack what you need for the trip in several pieces of luggage, such as a checked-in suitcase, carry-on bag, or backpack. To make all the data fit and quickly move from A to B, the network reduces packet size and encrypts the packets before they start their journey. To continue with the luggage analogy, this is similar to how you’d use vac-packs or packing cubes or even shove rolled-up clothes inside your shoes to squeeze in as much as possible before tightly locking your suitcase. Sadly, it’s a fact of life that sometimes, when you travel, your checked luggage misses its connection, gets scuffed or soaked by rain on the tarmac, or straight up disappears between points A and B. The same goes for packets travelling along the digital superhighway. As data travels from one place to another, some packets can get delayed, damaged, or even lost. That’s packet loss. TCP vs. UDP The network protocols we use to transfer data across the internet create packets, but their effects on packet loss differ depending on which protocol is used. Transmission control protocol (TCP) simulates a connection, and if a packet doesn’t arrive at its destination in perfect condition, the protocol will retransmit it. This makes TCP the more reliable option, as data delivery is guaranteed. However, it’s not known for its speed. User datagram protocol (UDP), on the other hand, is much faster since there is no error recovery built into the protocal. This makes it better for real-time applications, but it’s less reliable as it cannot retransmit packets. What Causes Packet Loss? Several factors can cause packet loss, from overburdened networks to malicious activity. Here are some of the biggest causes. Network Congestion If it’s a high usage time, there are too many devices on a network, or bandwidth isn’t sufficient, networks often slow down data transfer to catch up. In situations like these—just like an airport in the peak of summer travel—the likelihood of losing your packets/bags goes up. Hardware Issues Packet loss can also result from faulty hardware, like modems, routers, or cables. Imagine the zipper on your luggage broke mid-trip. Something’s going to fall out along the way, isn’t it? Software Issues Similarly, out-of-date or malfunctioning software can also create packet loss. We’ve all heard the horror stories of people’s luggage going AWOL thanks to an airline system glitch tagging a bag for the wrong destination. Well, the same thing can happen to data packets. Network Attacks Nefarious actors can also play a role in packet loss. Just like an opportunistic thief might steal a case off the carousel, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and other malicious activity can interfere with network speed and create packet loss. Data Transmission Errors Sadly, sometimes “stuff” just happens, like a baggage handler accidentally leaving your suitcase on the cart while loading the plane. You can’t predict it, but it can happen. This is also the case with data packets. They come across many internet exchange points (IXPs) as they travel through the system, each providing a potential opportunity for damage or loss. Is Packet Loss Normal? Kind of, yeah. It’s anticipated, at least. According to a quality of service (QoS) tutorial by Cisco, packet loss on voice over IP (VoIP) traffic should be kept below 1%. This is considered acceptable since losing 1% of all packets involved in a session initiation protocol (SIP) VoIP call wouldn’t cause any issues with the service. But that doesn’t mean you should have to accept packet loss, especially when it comes to real-time applications. In these situations, packet loss of anything over 2% will cause issues for users, leading to jittery conversations on VoIP or missed shots when playing online multiplayer games like Call of Duty or Overwatch. This can frustrate end-users and, in the latter case, potentially cause unwanted player churn. How Can You Avoid or Prevent Packet Loss? This all depends on the cause of your packet loss. In many cases, you may need to try a few different things to figure out what’s causing the issue for you. However, always start by making cybersecurity a priority, as this will enable you to cross network attacks off your possible problem list. In the case of network congestion, it’s essential to start by monitoring network speeds and usage. From here, you can then begin to shift data transfer to less busy times of the day. Routing optimization will also help to prevent congestion, as will an increase in bandwidth. Similarly, for software problems, begin by monitoring the network use of your different software programs and restart or reset any software that seems to be causing an issue. It’s also crucial to regularly update your software to ensure you have the most up-to-date versions and make sure your error detection software is functioning as it should. When it comes to hardware issues, start by inspecting your hardware—including all cables—for damage, old age, and poor connections and upgrade anything you need to. It’s also important to ensure you’re using the correct category of cables and have the appropriate insulation and shielding to protect against interference. Lastly, be sure that all your hardware is compatible and you’re using the most suitable settings. Sadly, errors in data transmission can be hard to prepare for, as you don’t always know the cause. However, a few things can lower these risks, such as the network monitoring we mentioned earlier, which will help you detect pack loss and eliminate variables faster. It’s also worth regularly checking your QoS settings, ensuring any devices (particularly those on Bluetooth) are shut off to reduce potential interference, and use a wired connection wherever possible. This is more stable than the wireless option, making it less likely that packets will be damaged or lost during transmission. How Subspace Can Help Reduce Packet Loss Subspace’s parallel transport network is designed and optimized for real-time applications. This purpose-built, software-optimized network uses precision measurement to select the most dependable, highest quality, and fastest path for packets, which are tracked throughout their network journey. This ensures a more reliable and continually high-performance network. In addition, it also has always-on, real-time DDoS protection of a quality higher than you’d find on the public internet. With the network securely protected from attack, the risk of packet loss is further decreased. You can enter the Subspace network with PacketAccelerator, which is a Global IP-level proxy that reduces packet loss by alleviating network congestion. Packet loss may be expected, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it, especially when it interferes with the user experience. See how Subspace can help you reduce packet loss using Subspace PacketAccelerator on a network built for all real-time applications.