People (including in my family) ask how to diagnose bufferbloat.
Bufferbloat’s existence is pretty easy to figure out; identifying which hop is the current culprit is harder. For the moment, let’s concentrate on the edge of the network.
The ICSI Netalyzr project is the easiest way for most to identify problems: you should run it routinely on any network you visit. as it will tell you of lots of problems, not just bufferbloat. For example, I often take the Amtrak Acela express, which has WiFi service (of sorts). It’s DNS server did not randomize its ports properly, leaving you vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks (so it would be unwise to do anything that requires security); this has since been fixed, as today’s report shows (look at the “network buffer measurements”). This same report shows very bad buffering, in both directions, of about 6 seconds up, and 1.5 seconds downstream. Other runs today show much worse performance, including an inability to determine the buffering entirely (netalyzr cannot always determine the buffering in the face of cross traffic or other problems; it conservatively only reports buffering if it makes sense).
Netalyzer Uplink buffer test results
As you’d expect, performance is terrible (you can see what even “moderate” bufferbloat does in my demo video on a fast cable connection). The train buffering is similar to what my brother has on his DSL connection at home; but as the link is busy with other users, the performance is continually terrible, rather than intermittently terrible. 6 seconds is commonplace; but the lower right hand netalyzr data is cut off since ICSI does not want their test to run for too long.
In this particular case, with only a bit more investigation, we can guess most of the problems are in the train<->ISP hop, because my machine reports high bandwidth on its WiFi interface (130Mbps 802.11n), with the uplink speeds a small fraction of that, so the bottleneck to the public internet is usually in that link, rather than the WiFi hop (remember, it’s just *before* the lowest bandwidth hop that the buffers fill in either direction). In your home (or elsewhere on this train), you’d have to worry about the WiFi hop as well unless you are plugged directly into the router. But further investigation shows additional problems.
If netalyzr isn’t your cup of tea, you may be able to observe what is happening with “ping”, while you (or others) load your network.
By “ping”ing the local router on the train and also somewhere else, you can glean additional information. As usual, a dead giveaway for bufferbloat is high and variable RTT’s with little packet loss (but sometimes packets are terribly delayed and out of order; packets stuck in buffers for even 10’s of seconds are not unusual). Local pings vary much more that you might like, sometimes as much as several hundred milliseconds, but occassionally even multiple seconds on occasion. Here, I hypothesize bloat in the router on the train, just as I saw inside my house when I first understood that bufferbloat was a generic problem with many causes. Performance is terrible at times due to the train’s connection; but also a fraction of the time due to serving local content with bloat in the router.
Home router bloat
Specifically, if the router has lots of buffering (as most modern routers do; often 256-1250 packets), and is using a default FIFO queuing discipline, it is easy for a router to fill these buffers with packets all destined for the same machine that is operating at a fraction of the speed that WiFi might go. Ironically, modern home routers tend to have much larger buffering than old routers, due to changes in upstream operating systems optimized toward bandwidth, whose systems were not tested for latency.
Even if “correct” buffering were present (actually an oxymoron), the bandwidth can drop from the 130 Mbps I see to the local router all the way down to 1Mbps, the minimum speed WiFi will operate at, so your buffering can be very much too high even at the best of times. Moving your laptop/pad/device a few centimeters can make a big difference in bandwidth. But since we have no AQM algorithm to control the amount of buffering, recent routers have been tuned (to the extent they’ve been tuned at all) to operate at maximum bandwidth, even though this means the buffering available can easily be 100 times too much when running slowly (which all turns into delay). One might also hope that a router would prevent starvation to other connections in such circumstances, but as these routers are typically running with a FIFO queuing disciple, they won’t. A local (low RTT) flow can get a much higher fraction of bandwidth than a long distance flow.
To do justice to the situation, it is also possible that the local latency variation is partially caused by device driver problems in the router: Dave Taht’s experience has been that 802.11n WiFi device drives often buffer many more packets than they should (beyond that required for good performance when aggregating packets for 802.11n), and he, Andrew McGregor, and Felix Fietkau spent a lot of time last fall reworking one of those Linux device drivers. Since wireless on the train supports 802.11n, we know implies that these device drivers are in play; fixing these problems for the CeroWrt project was a prerequisite for later work on queuing and AQM algorithms.