Have you ever sent an exciting and important package off in the mail – but it never got to its destination? ‘Packets’ of data travelling through networks, and those systems and people on the other end eagerly relying on their arrival, also encounter a similarly disappointing phenomenon all too often. In the data tech world, we call it network packet loss.
When it occurs with a package in the mail, it obviously ruins some plans. Perhaps it was parts for your broken computer, or running shoes to get your new fitness regime underway. Again, it’s a similar story when packet loss occurs – but the impact can be even greater. We’re talking network or service speed disruptions or in many cases even a catastrophic loss of connectivity, especially when that packet was an important link in the real-time chain of video, audio or gaming processing.
So even though network packet loss is to be expected from time to time, what causes this phenomenon to be really disruptive?
Just like when a busy road gets clogged up at peak hour, the same happens within data networks that can only handle a certain capacity. It’s normal for packets – just like cars – to have to patiently wait in the queue, but within a network, the packets can be disregarded or lost altogether when the congestion gets out of hand. Mercifully, modern applications are getting better and better at reuniting these disoriented packets with their destinations, often by controlling the transfer speeds to manageable levels.
Similarly, if that package in the mail has not been addressed correctly, the mail service may struggle to know what to do with it. In the world of software, we call this a ‘bug’, and it occurs most commonly when programs or updates have not been rigorously tested. A simple reboot can sometimes fix the problem, but a software patch is a better long-term solution.
But sometimes, the data or software itself isn’t the problem – it’s the real-life hardware that is causing the glitch. We’re talking about things like network switches, routers but also firewalls that either go wrong over time or become outdated. If the network packet loss becomes worse over time or crops up a long time after the network hardware last got some attention, new or updated hardware can often solve the issue by coping better with the demands put upon them.
While the network packet loss causes listed above aren’t too scary for those in the know, security breaches are a different matter. For instance, more and more deliberate breaches known as ‘panic drop attacks’ have been occurring in recent years, in which a hacker instructs your router to lose those packets on purpose. If your packet loss is very obvious or sudden, these sorts of attacks can be the cause, so it’s always wise to ensure your firewall, security software and disaster recovery plan are all up to date.
But sometimes, there is nothing wrong with the network itself – it’s just that the actual connection isn’t reliable. We’re not necessarily talking about a loose wire, but the fact that a wire isn’t being used at all! Wireless networks can suffer from radio frequency interference and weak signals, but packet loss in these instances can be tracked and then minimised with tools like WIFI analysers and heat maps.
The final word: Don’t lose your packets!
Just as lost mail can be extremely frustrating, packet loss can really disrupt your network activities. But while a lost pair of running shoes and some network glitches are inevitable in the man-made world, it is possible to minimise packet loss through a process of prevention, detection and troubleshooting.