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The Best Connectivity is Invisible
The more aware you are of your bandwidth, the more you need an upgrade.

By: John Shepler

Buffering videos, garbled VoIP phone calls, slow loading web pages, interminable waits for files to download, jerky video conferencing, hesitation in response from the cloud. They’re all symptoms of connectivity that makes us painfully aware of its presence.

That’s not what you want. You want connectivity to be invisible, like other utilities. Flip a switch and the lights come on. Turn the faucet handle and out comes the water. Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is how it works every time. So, why do we have lower expectations of our bandwidth connections?

Not So Great Expectations
Perhaps its because so many of us who are in a position to do something about it were around to watch the blossoming of the Internet from a backwater mail service for academics to the primary way we do business and communicate. Perhaps it’s because the technology is still evolving. This is especially true in mobile applications and remote locations, where bandwidth is still a precious commodity and limited in both speed and availability.

Otherwise, it is quite possible to achieve that goal of making network operations a background activity for business users. You can then treat your connected devices as appliances. You turn then on and every function works the same way, all the time. Nothing happens to break your stream of consciousness or give the impression that something is “broken.”

What to Know
You need to be aware of the some key performance characteristics of your network. No, not your LAN. I assume that you’ve already optimized your in-house network. The real Achilles heel is those outside connection, the MAN and the WAN.

The first parameter of importance is bandwidth. The idea behind having “big pipes” is that the conduits are always larger than the quantity of bits per second that you are sending through them. When the circuits can’t handle the volume of traffic, they become congested. It’s like too many cars trying to enter a superhighway. At some point it all clogs up and things slow to a crawl.

Networks, including the Internet, are good at preserving the integrity of the traffic but not so good at keeping the flow moving at top speed when congested. Buffers fill up as each node waits its turn. At some point, packets can no longer be accepted until those in process move on. Does this sound like a busy airport during a snowstorm? The analogy is close.

How Much BW is Enough?
What this all means is that you need to order the level of bandwidth consistent with your current and near-term needs. “Of course,” you say. “That’s obvious.”

Well, it is an it isn’t. There are a numerous ways you can get caught without the bandwidth you need. One is application demand that is creeping up. Those T1 lines you ordered a decade ago have been working reliably until recently. The carrier says they still are. What’s happened is that you’ve added employees, moved applications to the cloud and depend on the Internet for more of your communications. The lines are still working fine. They’re just overloaded. You need more bandwidth.

So, you go out and order a high speed satellite link that has 10x your old bandwidth. File transfers seem to be working fine, but you can’t carry on a telephone conversation because you have to pause for a second between talking and listening. Your cloud business applications also seem to run a lot slower than they did when you ran your own data center. How much bandwidth does it take to fix this situation?

The Latency Speed Bump
No amount will be enough. That’s because your problem is latency, not bandwidth. Latency is a time delay between source and destination. In-house the speed of electrons through wires and photons through fiber is so fast that you’ll be hard pressed to detect it. But, when those locations are connected by a radio wave path that goes up over 22,000 miles to a satellite and back down 22,000+ miles, the delay is noticeable, if not downright annoying. A round trip takes something like half a second… even at the speed of light.

Network congestion can contribute to latency, but an uncontested network can still have latency issues depending on path length and any buffering delays introduced by equipment in the path.

Other Sources of Network Congestion
Congestion can also be caused by contention between your needs and those of other companies sharing the MAN or WAN network. You may have installed more than enough bandwidth for your needs, but the network doesn’t have enough for yours plus everyone else’s. This is a classic issue with the Internet and mobile cell towers. Too many users at once can overwhelm the system and force everyone to take turns using the limited resources.

What can you do about that? First, keep your in-house communications on dedicated private lines or through an MPLS network that guarantees performance. Choose symmetric services with the same bandwidth in the upload and download directions unless your are sure your needs are asymmetrical.

For Internet connections, which we all need, you can bypass most of the “information slow lane” problems with a dedicated Internet connection. This gives you the best performance in terms of bandwidth, latency, jitter and packet loss. The actual core of the Internet is really pretty good. It’s the last mile connections, especially those shared with other users on “best effort” services like DSL, Cable and cellular, that get easily overloaded.

How to Choose
Ultimately, it’s a cost vs performance tradeoff. Cable broadband works great for residential and home office users and can work just fine for businesses that don’t have critical requirements. Most medium and larger businesses, however, need to move up to private lines and dedicated Internet connections if they want their connectivity to become invisible to users.

Do you wish your connectivity was more invisible that it is now? Look into high performance MAN and WAN bandwidth options that are available for your business location.

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