Students have been noticing problems with Lawrence’s internet for quite a while now, especially when trying to load sites like YouTube, or play online games like League of Legends.
The quality of the connection can be terrible, often seeming to hang or disconnect for minutes at a time. Complaints seem to have gone unanswered, especially for gamers on campus. As one disgruntled senior put it, Lawrence has “internet service on this campus that many students agree is utterly unacceptable for an institution of this caliber.”
So what is causing the problem? Many students are quick to blame the local bandwidth shaping hardware or Lawrence’s Internet Service Provider (ISP), Time Warner Cable. Steve Armstrong, director of technology services, and Terry Schmitt, senior network engineer, aren’t so hasty to point fingers. I met with both men early Tuesday morning, to try to understand the problems with the network.
The main issue in the past has been a lack of bandwidth, but Lawrence’s internet pipe has doubled in capacity twice in the last three years, from 100Mbps to 200MBps, and again to 400Mbps. (Mbps, or megabits per second, is a measure of internet throughput. A megabit is equal to one million bits.) Looking at the bandwidth charts for the last week, Armstrong points out that the campus has quite a ways to go before hitting that cap. On an average night, the entire campus only uses about 260Mbps, well below the maximum.
“A lot of problems went away when we got to that 400,” said Armstrong, “Now what we’re left with is really more quality of service issues.”
And it’s those Quality of Service (QoS) issues that are now plaguing campus. The only problem: nobody knows why they’re happening.
Internet service is delivered via tiny “packets” of information, and there’s a long and intricate path that a single packet takes to get to a computer on campus: From the Internet, through Time Warner, the firewall, bandwidth shaper, core network switches, and finally out to each user.
Why the lack of QoS? Not even Armstrong knows: “It could be coming from anywhere along this path.”
One of the main problems is a high number of these internet packets are being discarded by the bandwidth shaper and firewall. Discarding packets is typical—packets that don’t have a valid destination or are unsolicited are supposed to be thrown away. But what’s abnormal is the number of these packets that are hammering on Lawrence’s network.
According to the bandwidth shaper, we’re getting a much higher number than the average system, usually indicative of a misconfiguration or a denial of service attack.
Lawrence is also receiving some packets out of order at the firewall, indicative of a misconfiguration or error upstream. These packets, however, are a type that should not influence gaming. For those who speak the language: only TCP packets are being affected, not UDP packets usually used for gaming.
Additionally, Armstrong and Schmitt have been working closely with the firewall’s vendor, and so far they have not been able to replicate the error, ruling out the firewall as the source of the problems.
Fortunately, Lawrence isn’t fighting these issues alone. The vendors for the bandwidth shaper hardware are helping out.
They’re loaning a hardware tool to Lawrence to inspect packets that are discarded, in an effort to figure out the reason for the deluge. Schmitt, in charge of working with the new tool, is grateful: “They’re going above and beyond […] we’re hoping to have [the tool] up and going today.”
Armstrong knows that the problem won’t be easy, saying, “we won’t really know [the cause], probably for at least a week.”
The Future of Lawrence’s Internet:
The main issue right now is figuring out the cause for the dropped packets, but Armstrong and Schmitt also have plans to improve the overall internet at Lawrence.
Upgrades are planned for this summer, and although seniors will just have to put up with two more months of slow YouTube, returning students can rest assured that the problem will most likely be resolved by the time they return in the fall.
As mentioned above, one major upgrade will be the improvement of most of the on-campus internet to 1000Mbps speeds. Some dorms—notably Kohler and the first floor of Plantz, are hindered by old wiring which restricts connections to 10Mbps.
That said, this is not the cause for any of the lag—even at maximum load, students only use a fraction of that capacity. The upgrade is more future-proofing than anything else.
Additionally, ITS is considering raising campus bandwidth to a 1000Mbps, over twice our current bandwidth, provided the cost is right. Doing this would also allow the bandwidth shaper to be much more liberal with its distribution of bandwidth, potentially resolving some issues. The firewall will also be upgraded sometime in the next few weeks, which may resolve some of the issues.
“It’s definitely our top priority to figure out these quality of service issues,” said Armstrong.
What students can do:
If you feel that you have bad internet access in your room, the best solution is to try using wired internet. ITS can help provide hardware and instruction on how to do this. Make sure that you’re not running your own wireless access point, as it will interfere with Lawrence’s and cause slower service for everyone.
Students next year should see a massive increase to wireless capability as the access points will be upgraded so that they have 1000Mbps connections to Lawrence’s core servers.
Meanwhile, students can report internet disruptions at http://omnomzom.com/lagtracker, a tool created by the author of this article which has been helpful to ITS—they look at the time that lag was reported and investigate network activity for that computer at that time. Said Armstrong, “The only way we can fix this is if people tell us about the problem.”
Another potential fix is available online at http://ow.ly/jTSPJ for YouTube and Twitch.tv streaming on Time Warner. I’ve tried it, however, and haven’t noticed any improvement for YouTube. So, as people say on the internet, YMMV.