Latency refers to the amount of time it takes for data to travel from its source to its destination. When it comes to network latency, it’s more commonly referred to as the length of time it takes for a request to make a round trip from the end-user, to the server, then back to the user.
Also known as “lag” or “ping rate,” network latency is used to describe delays in network communications. Smaller delays equate to low latency, while greater delays are associated with high latency. Network latency is typically measured in milliseconds; ideally, it will be zero milliseconds, or as close to zero as possible.
Network latency can have significant impacts on your internal operations, as well as the overall experience that users have on your site. Data is a valuable tool for your business, and to harness its power, it must move from place to place as quickly and easily as possible. To benefit your employees and customers alike, it’s crucial to identify any signs and causes of latency in your organization so you can take the necessary steps to prevent and reduce it.
Network latency is often confused with other related terms, particularly bandwidth and throughput. Latency, bandwidth, and throughput all work together to assess the quality of communications and data transmission in a network.
While latency refers to the amount of time it takes for data to travel, network bandwidth is the maximum amount of data that is capable of being transmitted within a certain amount of time. Throughput, on the other hand, refers to the amount of data that is transmitted during a given amount of time.
To better understand each of these concepts, it’s helpful to think of network communications as a pipe:
Bandwidth is the width of the pipe. If the pipe is narrow, fewer data can travel through it. If it’s wide, more data can flow through at a single time.
Latency is how fast the data can move through the pipe.
Throughput is the amount of data that can move through the pipe in a given period.
When latency and bandwidth are low, then throughput will also be low. If latency is low and bandwidth is high, then throughput will also be high, as more data can move through the “pipe” at a time. Even when bandwidth is high, high latency can create congestion in the pipe and make network communications less efficient.
Some of the primary causes of network latency include:
The larger the amount of data, the slower it will move. For example, a website with more content will take longer to load -- especially if it’s multimedia content, such as videos or images.
Latency also depends on the physical distance between the device making a request and the server responding to a request. When the end-user and server are far apart, there is greater latency than when they are close together.
Sometimes the physical components and hardware that power a network can contribute to latency. This includes cables and wires, routers, and Wi-Fi access points, as well as the devices used to access a website or server.
When a large number of people are online at the same time, it can cause major delays for internet users. Internet usage tends to peak during certain times of the day (or during the “internet rush hour”). The timing, duration, and nature of the lag depend heavily on geographic location and internet service providers.
There are many solutions you can use to calculate latency. To do so manually on Windows devices, you can open a Command Prompt and type “tracert” followed by a space and the hostname or IP address you’d like to check (such as “trianz.com/”). For Mac OS X users, open Terminal and use the “traceroute” command, followed by a space and hostname. You will be provided with a list of the routers on the path to the URL you typed, accompanied by a time in milliseconds. Simply add up all of the time measurements to determine the latency for that destination.
There are also software solutions you can use to automate latency calculations and tracking. High-quality analytics software will help measure and track latency, among other helpful data. Though many options are available, the tool My traceroute is an especially popular program for measuring latency and troubleshooting other network issues.
However, the quickest and simplest way to identify latency is to pay attention to the speed of your online activities. While these observations could also be indicative of other issues, it’s important to take note whenever you notice something unusual.
Just as with other metrics, it’s important to track latency to make sure you notice any differences. Keep a record of your latency measurements to establish a common baseline. With that information, you’ll know what “good latency” typically looks like.
What constitutes a “good” or “bad” latency measurement depends on what activities your organization plans to do online. More intensive activities, such as streaming or conducting video calls, will require a lower latency than casual web browsing or messaging. However, lower latency is almost always better than high latency, no matter what you, your employees, or your customers are doing online.
Latency can also vary over time, and a higher latency isn’t always something you need to worry about. For instance, if someone is using your site during internet rush-hour, it will likely be slower than at a less popular time of day. Seasonal swings — such as customers making more purchases to prepare for the holidays — can also temporarily increase latency. These indicate normal and natural fluctuations in latency.
High latency is a cause for concern when it is constant. If you experience frequent and consistent high latency, you should investigate some potential underlying causes. Also, if your latency increases suddenly or to an extreme extent, there’s likely a direct cause driving it that you can correct.
Latency is far more than a small annoyance. When left unchecked, it can impact your business’s internal operations and customer experience.
High network latency can negatively affect your organization’s internal operations. Primarily, it can result in reduced productivity and lost time. Your employees may lose time throughout the workday as they wait for pages to load, attachments to download, or messages to send. While a quick moment may not seem like much, when every employee’s task takes longer than expected, that lost time can add up quickly.
Latency is especially troubling for businesses that employ remote workers or organizations that are entirely remote. Whether you’re looking to build a remote team or find solutions to support your employees, it’s crucial to be aware of how latency can affect your business. Simply put, the effects of high latency are intensified for remote organizations, as all aspects of work are conducted online.
All this can lead to the biggest problem associated with high latency — loss of revenue — as each passing millisecond of latency is time that you’re paying for that you can’t get back.
Additionally, network latency affects the experience users have with your organization. If they rely on your digital apps, website, or services to power their businesses, your network must be reliable. Latency can impact how users access and utilize these services, as well as how they get technical support or assistance. If a potential customer is considering your services and your site takes too long to load, they may leave your site altogether without learning about your solutions.
As technology has advanced, people have come to expect fast internet and strong connections. If latency is consistently high, your customers may forgo your services in favor of one of your competitors. Latency may affect their internal operations or cause similar lag issues for their customers. At a certain point, your customers may get negative feedback from their customers or lose revenue, making it financially unfeasible for them to continue using your services.
There are several steps you can take to reduce high latency if it is plaguing your organization. Improving or expanding your network infrastructure is perhaps the most effective way to improve business-wide latency. You may also benefit from finding a new internet service provider who is known for providing high-quality hardware and fast service. Additionally, check to make sure your business applications are working properly so they do not put undue stress on your network.
Remember, you cannot prevent or fix all latency issues. If there is a problem on the user end or a large physical distance, your employees and customers either have to seek out solutions on their end or accept the lag. While you can always strive to offer support, you cannot control or address all the potential causes of latency.
Network latency is a common issue that your business will likely experience at one point or another. By learning how to identify it, you’ll be in a much better position to determine the best way to reduce it in your organization.
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