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Machines Like Us

Internet research to level the playing field

Wednesday, 01 August 2012

The Internet as we know it today has been optimised to transmit large amounts of data or “greedy streams”—the type of transmission involved in downloading large files or watching online TV.

“Up to now, Internet research has primarily focused on speeding up transmission by increasing bandwidth so that more data can be transferred at a given time,” explains Andreas Petlund of Simula Research Laboratory in Oslo.

The most common Internet protocol for transmitting data, TCP, works by apportioning available bandwidth among the users present at any given time. The downside is that this can cause latency, or delay, in data transmissions.

For time-dependant applications such as Internet telephony and online gaming, time lags as short as a few hundred milliseconds can create big problems.

Aiming to reduce latency

“In real-time gaming against other players online, data is transmitted only when an action such as moving around or shooting at someone is performed. The same principle applies for stock market programs when placing orders or requesting share prices, for example, via the trading systems in use by Oslo Børs, the Norwegian Stock Exchange. In such cases it is essential to avoid any delay,” says Dr Petlund.

Applications like these often generate what are called thin data streams. With thin streams only small amounts of data are transmitted at a time and there can be extended periods between data packages. (See Facts about data packages and network latency below)

According to Andreas Petlund, thin streams cannot compete with greedy traffic for bandwidth. Thin streams almost invariably come up short against greedy traffic and users are left to cope with the resulting lag.

As part of a new research project funded under the Research Council of Norway’s large-scale programme on Core Competence and Value Creation in ICT (VERDIKT), researchers are working to reduce latency as much as possible.

“We want a more balanced Internet where thin streams don’t always lose out. This can be achieved by adding speed to the mix, instead of only thinking about maximising throughput,” says Dr Petlund.

New approaches

Network researchers are now planning to use simulation and modelling to learn more about the network behaviour of thin data streams. According to Dr Petlund, neither this nor the behaviour of data streams in competition with other traffic has ever been studied in depth.