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A Guide to Network Latency: Understanding and Minimizing Delays


We’ve all fallen victim to the consequences of high network latency. A delay in real-time data transmission, poor digital experiences, and lags in video conferencing are all symptoms of high network latency. 

Understanding network latency is the first step to solving latency-related issues. This blog will delve into the significance of network latency, the causes of it, and how to lower network latency. 

What is Network Latency?

In essence, network latency is the time delay that occurs as a data packet travels from its source to its destination. 

Think of network latency like traffic during rush hour and your data like cars on the highway. Network latency is like the distance between your car and the one in front of you – another packet of data traveling across the network to a destination. You have to wait for the cars in front of you to proceed to your destination. Similar to a busy highway at rush hour, high network latency means it will take longer for your data to reach its destination. 

Why is Network Latency Important?

Today, many of the digital applications we use every day depend on minimal network latency to operate smoothly. For applications like real-time analytics, and video conferencing and streaming, milliseconds of delay can make all the difference. Network latency influences the responsiveness of your applications, user experience, and communication quality.

How to Measure Latency

The most common metric for measuring network latency is the Round Trip Time (RTT), measured in milliseconds (ms). This is the average amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel from the source to its destination and back again, which reflects the overall latency of the path. The car analogy fits well here. If you’re traveling through rush hour traffic, your RTT will be higher than if you were to travel the same road in the dead of night. 

RTT measurements are often the baseline for evaluating latency, especially for applications where bi-directional communication is essential. By measuring RTT, you have a general indication of how quickly data is traveling between the two points.

Understanding Latency vs. Bandwidth vs. Throughput

People often lump together latency, bandwidth, and throughput. However, it’s important to understand the differences:

We measure latency in milliseconds and it is the delay in data transfer. A low-latency network ensures that data packets move quickly between points.

Bandwidth is the capacity of your network, measured in bits per second (bps). Higher bandwidth networks enable the transfer of larger amounts of data at once. High bandwidth is not always synonymous with network speed. This is because a high-bandwidth network with latency issues arising from other causes can still be slow.

Throughput measures the actual transfer rate in the network, accounting for the data transfer delay. This is what you get when you factor in the latency and bandwidth.

Low Latency Applications and Their Use Cases

High-Frequency Trading

The finance industry, particularly high-frequency trading, is one where low latency can make or break business outcomes. Lower latency networks accelerate the execution of orders, reduce price arbitrage windows, and optimize trading strategies that rely on speed and instant data processing.

Real-Time Applications in Healthcare

Telemedicine and remote patient monitoring and diagnostic solutions rely on low-latency networks to provide the real-time health data healthcare professionals need to improve patient outcomes. This timely data transfer ensures that healthcare professionals can make prompt life-saving decisions. 

IoT in Manufacturing

The Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing manufacturing, with machines that communicate with each other to optimize production. Low latency is critical here, ensuring that devices coordinate in real time without a hitch.

Media and Entertainment Streaming

With live streaming and online gaming, reduced latency translates to a more enjoyable and uninterrupted user experience. It means smoother video playback and more responsive interaction in online games.

Identifying the Culprits of High Network Latency

In our digital world, a few milliseconds of latency can make a huge difference. But what can organizations do to reduce network latency? One way to address the symptoms is by driving to the cause. 

Here are some of the most common causes of high network latency: 

  1. Inferior transmission medium: The physical medium through which data is transmitted can vastly affect latency. For example, fiber optic cables transmit data much faster than traditional copper wires. Ensure your organization is partnering with a modern fiber provider to minimize network latency. 
  2. Hardware issues: Routers, switches, and other network devices can introduce latency due to processing bottlenecks or outdated hardware that isn’t capable of handling today’s data volumes. Take inventory of the networking hardware your organization uses and phase in more modern and efficient hardware where necessary. 
  3. Data packet distance and hops: Every network device a data packet moves through – or each “hop” in networking terms – can introduce delay. By minimizing the number of hops, you can reduce latency. Optimizing your network topology to reduce the number of intermediate nodes data has to travel through is one way to reduce latency. 
  4. High data transmission volumes: When your network is busy and handling large volumes of data, there’s a higher likelihood of delays and increased transmission times. In this case, upgrading to higher bandwidth Internet connections is one way to help accommodate high traffic volumes. 
  5. Poor server performance: If the server you’re connecting to experiences latency, it will affect the total round trip time, as it’s one of the stops on the data’s round trip. Ensure your servers can handle your workloads efficiently to reduce latency. 

Modern Solutions to Reduce Network Latency

Once you’ve established the cause of your high network latency, it becomes easier to reduce network latency. 

Modern Fiber Optic Cables and Hardware

The physical network infrastructure is critical in managing latency. Modern fiber optic cables offer low-latency transmission and are superior to alternatives like copper and wireless connections. 

You also must consider the reach and diversity your network partner can provide. Providers with extensive networks in multiple locations and diverse routing can offer lower latency and faster transmission speeds compared to more limited providers. 

Seek fiber network providers with direct connections between network endpoints. This minimizes the number of hops your data packets need to traverse. Direct, dedicated fiber links significantly reduce latency. 

Ask about your network provider’s peering arrangements with other networks and Internet exchange points (IXPs). Providers with more peering relationships can offer lower latency by limiting the number of hops. 

Consider a Shift to Private Networking

If all of your applications are running over the public Internet, you’re sharing your provider’s network with a crowd of others. The performance of your online business degrades with heavy network traffic – traffic that’s not in your control. 

You can regain performance control when you introduce private networking elements into the mix: a private connection to your Cloud Service Provider, a private Internet access circuit, or private Ethernet or Wavelength circuits connecting your key data center locations.

Edge and Software-Defined Networking

Edge and software-defined networking solutions bring data processing and network management closer to the “edge” of the network. These solutions also enable you to dynamically optimize network resources. 

Edge computing involves processing data closer to the point of generation or consumption,  instead of in centralized data centers. This means that data doesn’t have to travel back and forth from a centralized data center. Overall, this reduces the distance it needs to travel therefore reducing latency. 

Software-defined networking (SDN) enables dynamic bandwidth and resource allocation based on application requirements and traffic patterns. You may have certain applications that require lower latency than others. SDN technology intelligently routes traffic according to priorities, ensuring fast, seamless processing for your most mission-critical applications. 

Using intelligent software to prioritize critical traffic, edge computing and SDN ensure data for time-sensitive applications takes the express lane to its destination. These tools can also dynamically adjust to optimize latency based on network conditions.

Monitoring and Traffic Management

Continuous monitoring of network traffic can evaluate network performance and identify areas and sources of congestion in your network. Real-time network monitoring tools continuously collect network data around metrics like latency, packet loss, and bandwidth utilization. This enables you to make fast adjustments and improve end-user experience. 

Traffic management tools can also implement Quality of Service (QoS) policies that prioritize traffic for latency-sensitive applications. Techniques such as load balancing and network upgrades can also help to alleviate these network bottlenecks and reduce latency.

Caching and Compression

Caching and compression technologies can reduce the size of data packets and improve load times, reducing latency.

Caching involves storing copies of data on local servers or in a content delivery network (CDN) closer to the user. CDNs cache content on servers distributed globally, so users can access content from the server closest to them. This speeds up delivery and reduces the number of network hops and, therefore, latency.

Compression involves reducing the size of data. This makes the data sent over the network smaller, resulting in lower latency and faster transmission and load times. 

Both of these techniques optimize network performance and improve user experience by lowering latency. 

Enhanced Protocols and Networking Standards

Optimizing network protocols and adopting new standards can reduce round-trip times and ensure high performance. 

  • HTTP/2 protocol is designed to reduce load times with features allowing for faster web content delivery and more efficient use of network resources. 
  • The QUIC transport layer protocol reduces latency by combining TCP and TLS features over UDP to provide faster connections and better network congestion control. 
  • TCP Fast Open allows data to be exchanged during the initial handshake, reducing round trips needed to establish a connection. 
  • IPv6, the latest version of the Internet Protocol (IP) provides a larger address space and better routing efficiency, enables more direct communication between devices, and results in faster data transmission. 

These are just a few examples of protocols that play an important role in optimizing network performance and reducing latency. 

Experience Low Latency Networking with Zayo

To meet the rising demand for low-latency Internet applications, Zayo provides cutting-edge networking solutions, including dark fiber, wavelength services, and network connectivity options designed to minimize delays and maximize performance.

With a deep network footprint spanning across North America and the globe and a suite of professional services, Zayo is at the forefront of providing some of the world’s most innovative organizations with the infrastructure they need to tap into real-time applications and gain a competitive edge. 

As our digital world progresses, the need for low network latency will only grow. It’s the key to delivering instantaneous experiences across a spectrum of industries. By understanding the factors that contribute to network latency and implementing effective solutions to minimize delays, businesses can ensure they stay ahead in our fast-paced, digital-first environment.

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