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Archive for the ‘Of Interest’ Category

Misc. items that are still of interest to the general networking research community

Independent Measurement of Broadband Provisioning Quality by SamKnows: A Step Towards Providers’ Accountability?

Posted by David Mayer on January 2, 2009

Some time ago on this blog we wrote about the lack of accountability in home broadband provisioning. We noted how difficult it is for a typical broadband customer to give evidence about poor service. One of the solutions to generate legally sound evidence we mentioned was to deploy hardware monitors attached to customer modems. This is exactly what SamKnows Limited have done, although the reasons behind their project are probably different. The project was partly backed up by Ofcom.

A report describing the project has been published by Sam Crawford here.  In this article, we briefly characterise the measurement scheme, pick out some interesting results and finally comment whether this scheme could be used to gather evidence about quality of broadband provisioning for individual users.

One of the objectives of Sam’s report is to enlighten the public about the myth that speed is by far the most important property of a broadband service. The results show that speed is only one of many properties which affect the quality of the service and that other properties can have larger effect on the quality as perceived by the user.

We at PaperPicker look at this project as an example of how Internet providers could be made accountable. A typical user can never find out, leave alone quantify, what is wrong with their connection. An ISP can always blame user’s equipment for the fault and it is extremely difficult for users to show evidence of poor service. A measurement scheme such as this is a real-world example of generating statistically and legally sound evidence.

What was done and how

At the heart of the scheme lie hardware monitoring units, installed at homes of volunteers and equipped with measurement routines. The monitoring units were deployed all over UK with the help of Ofcom. Over the course of 6 weeks in 2008 these units were generating multiple types of traffic, recording measurements and sending the results to SamKnows servers. The test included 223 devices and covered 12 UK-based Internet service providers (ISP).

What makes this project unique is the fact that the collected measurements are both independent of ISPs and statistically sound. The measurements are independent of ISPs because they do not require any cooperation from ISPs. Statistical confidence comes from the number of units deployed and the number of measurements carried out.

However, since SamKnows do not quite disclose the reasons for doing this project nor they specify how it is financed, one can have doubts over the independence. On the other hand, the project is backed up by Ofcom, the UK telecom regulator.

So how does it work?

A monitoring unit (Linksys WRT54GL with embedded Linux) is connected between user’s modem or router and user’s computers as shown in the figure below. The unit generates traffic only when the user’s equipment does not. A pre-programmed set of tests runs according to a given schedule and results are collected at SamKnows servers.




Metrics and results

Sam’s report presents and analyses a number of different measurements, but we will comment on a few selected ones in the following table.

Metric Result Comment
Latency Provider-average of about 40ms. did particular badly; at peak hours latency goes up by 180% compared to quiet hours, while the cross-provider average increases in peak hours by only 25%.
Loss Very small across providers (under 0.6%).  –
Response time of DNS queries Very good across providers (average of 46ms) with the exception of Be Unlimited which occasionally exceeded 4-times the average response time. The report shows how DNS query times affect web browsing even when latency is low.
DNS failures Very low with a failure rate average of 0.81%, apart from Be Unlimited at 2.82%. – 
Perception quality of VoIP Most providers achieved a score close to the theoretical maximum, with the exception of Virgin Media, despite its very small latency. Measurements show how jitter (the variance of delay) lowers the perception quality of VoIP. Virgin Media has excellent latency results but suffers low VoIP quality due to high jitter.
Speed as a percentage of implied line speed Most providers achieve 75%, but from a more detailed graph we see that both ADSL and Cable Virgin drop significantly in speed during peak hours. Implied line speed is defined as the maximum throughput achieved across all speed tests within a two day period.


Another interesting finding is the evidence of ISP performing traffic shaping for traffic at ports other than 80. This is because ISPs are trying to cap peer-to-peer protocols traffic and those use non-80 ports.
A small objection against the time averaging of results: Take the 75% line speed result. As such it may not reflect user’s satisfaction very well. For example, if for most of the day the speed is high but most users are not using the connection (they are not at home), and then evening brings a significant drop when many users are at home, the result may be 75% just because the speed ishigh for large part of the day.

So for example exhibits a 50% drop in implied line speed at peak hours. For a user who connects only in the evening (after work), this 50% drop would certainly translate into a larger drop in satisfaction than the three quarters suggested by the 75% time-averaged drop.

Would this scheme suffice to provide evidence of poor quality?

Although this measurement scheme was probably not developed with the aim of gathering evidence against ISPs, one could imagine it could be used in such way. Of course, only large-scale metrics could be reported, such as averages across large number of locations, metrics of commoly accessed DNS servers and such. A more granular evidence would require several monitoring devices per location (e.g., a street) and this might be financially unfeasible. Another issue would be the fact that the monitoring devices measure only when users are idle, while many faults occur when many users are using the service. And so while this is the first independent and statistically solid measurement scheme there is, its use as a monitor of quality for geographically clustered or individual users is limited.

The report certainly fulfills its premise by showing that connection speed has only a limited effect on user’s perception of quality and that the Internet experience is affected by many other factors which providers are in control of. Could this report serve as a hint to regulators that ISPs should enrich their contracts by other properties than mere speed?

Posted in accountability, congestion, Of Interest, QoS | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Network Congestion Control, M. Welzl, Wiley 2005. (A Book Review)

Posted by David Mayer on August 31, 2007

Network Congestion Control: Managing Internet Traffic — Michael Welzl (Wiley Series on Communications Networking & Distributed Systems 2005).

The control of Internet congestion is a field entangling numerous research, engineering and economic topics, each of which, on itself, offers only a limited perspective on the problem. Some books on this topic treat it as a part of a broader field of network communications, others provide a narrow formal mathematical exposition. Michael Welzl’s book is an exception. It exposes congestion control in several facets, always succinctly explaining the principles and anticipating reader’s questions. Aimed mainly at starting PhD students and interested networking people outside the research community, it avoids formal mathematics and builds up the material through common sense. But it is far from trivial: the author provides a profound overview of the principles, problems and solutions and manages to cover a vast number of diverse topics, focusing on underlying principles, practicality, drawbacks. The author co-chairs the Internet Congestion Control Research Group and works at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

Essential introduction into the problematics is developed in chapter 2, in which the less informed reader becomes familiar with the basic concepts such as control feedback, stability, queue management, scalability, incentives, fairness. Present technology is the topic of chapter 3, 70% of which takes a fairly detailed description of TCP. The exposition is incremental and problem-motivated. The rest of this chapter briefly describes SCTP, RED and ATM’s Available Bit Service.

The main value of the book I see in its latter part. Chapter 4 is an excellent exposition of very recent experimental enhancements to congestion control. Most of this chapter is dedicated to TCP enhancements and active queue management enhancements. About 10 recent queue management techniques are presented, including such specialities as RED with Preferential Dropping and Stochastic Fair BLUE. A view from the Internet provider’s side is briefly treated in chapter 5. The topics here share one property: they operate on a much larger timescale than those of other chapters. They include Traffic Engineering, MPLS and QoS architectures. Although the level of detail here is much lower than in other chapters, the chapter puts the others into a perspective. The last chapter makes for an exciting read: it presents a mixture of open problems waiting for the hungry PhD mind. It also contains the author’s personal view on the subject. It could be characterised as common-sense reflections of a well-informed pragmatic.

Two appendices conclude the book. Appendix A shows some practical teaching techniques, Appendix B introduces the workings of the IETF.

As great as the book seems, I spotted a few over-simplifications:
Section 2.17.3 describes the concept of proportional fairness. The author states here that the maximization of total utility maximises financial gain. I think this is quite misleading because the term financial gain remains undefined and it is not clear from the text where the revenue comes from. Even if the reader knew it is here meant to come from congestion prices, this would be still problematic. It is true that revenue is maximised if prices charged equal to the congestion prices corresponding to the utility maximisation, but congestion prices are typically not meant to generate revenue as they serve as a control mechanism.
Further the author states that the maximisation of utility functions can be seen as an “optimisation (linear programming)”. But only the constraints are linear and the objective function is non-linear, concave, hence the optimization problem is nonlinear.
In section 5.1 the author explains long-range dependence of Internet traffic. It is here stated that Poisson process’s distribution flattens out as the timescale grows. Surely it is meant that the autocorrelation function flattens out. (As opposed to that of self-similar Internet traffic.) [Update: See comments below by the book’s author. ]

A word of warning for PhD students
This book is a very good one but I think one should be cautious about using some of the open problems as a basis of one’s PhD. The problems border with engineering rather than research and in some colleges solving these problems cannot satisfy PhD requirements by definition. Ideally, solutions to these problems will come about as a byproduct of a more fundamental framework called the thesis. Perhaps these problems can motivate and trigger a PhD topic, but they should not constitute it.

Any alternative books out there?
A book treating congestion control in detail is The Mathematics of Internet Congestion Control by R. Srikant, 2004, Birkhäuser, but be aware: the exposition is quite straightforward and very formal. Another adept is High Performance TCP/IP Networking by M. Hassan and R. Jain, 2003, Prentice Hall, which is limited to TCP and focuses on performance evaluation.

In summary, the material in this unique book is excellently exposed, a good balance between depth and clarity is kept throughout and the book should be keenly received by its audience.

Posted in Book review, congestion, Of Interest, QoS, research | 2 Comments »