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Understanding Application Performance on the Network | Part 4
By: Gary Kaiser
Jul. 13, 2014 01:00 PM
We know that losing packets is not a good thing; retransmissions cause delays. We also know that TCP ensures reliable data delivery, masking the impact of packet loss. So why are some applications seemingly unaffected by the same packet loss rate that seems to cripple others? From a performance analysis perspective, how do you understand the relevance of packet loss and avoid chasing red herrings?
In Part II, we examined two closely related constraints - bandwidth and congestion. In Part III, we discussed TCP slow-start and introduced the Congestion Window (CWD). In Part IV, we'll focus on packet loss, continuing the concepts from these two previous entries.
The Retransmission Timer
In small flows (a common characteristic of chatty operations - like web pages), the retransmission timer is the method used to detect packet loss. Consider a request or reply message of just 1000 bytes, sent in a single packet; if this packet is dropped, there will of course be no acknowledgement; the receiver has no idea the packet was sent. If the packet is dropped early in the life of a TCP connection - perhaps one of the SYN packets during the TCP 3-way handshake, or an initial GET request or a 304 Not Modified response - the dropped packet will be retransmitted only after 3 seconds have elapsed.
Triple Duplicate ACK
As an example, consider a server sending a large file to a client; the sending node is ramping up through slow-start. As the CWD reaches 24, earlier packet loss is detected via a triple duplicate ACK; the lost data is retransmitted, and the CWD is reduced to 12. Slow-start resumes from this point in its congestion avoidance mode.
While arguments abound about the inefficiency of existing congestion avoidance approaches, especially on high-speed networks, you can expect to see this behavior in today's networks.
Transaction Trace Illustration
Error Table entry showing a 3-second retransmission delay caused by a retransmission timeout (RTO)
For larger flows, you can illustrate the effect of dropped packets on the sender's Congestion Window by using the Time Plot view. For Series 1, graph the sender's Frames in Transit; this is essentially the CWD. For Series 2, graph the Cumulative Error Count in both directions. As errors (retransmitted packets or out-of-sequence packets) occur, the CWD will be reduced by about 50%.
Time Plot view showing the impact of packet loss (blue plot) on the Congestion Window (brown plot)
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