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Overview of Delay in Packet-Switched Networks

Recall that a packet starts in a host (the source), passes through a series of routers, and ends its journey in another host (the destination). As a packet travels from one node (host or router) to the subsequent node (host or router) along this path, the packet suffers from several types of delays at each node along the path. The most important of these delays are the nodal processing delay, queuing delay, transmission delay, and propagation delay; together, these delays accumulate to give a total nodal delay. The performance of many Internet applications - such as search, Web browsing, e-mail, maps, instant messaging, and voice-over-IP - are greatly affected by network delays. In order to acquire a deep understanding of packet switching and computer networks, we must understand the nature and importance of these delays.

Types of Delay

Let's explore these delays in the context of Figure 1.16. As part of its end-to-end route between source and destination, a packet is sent from the upstream node through router A to router B. Our goal is to characterize the nodal delay at router A. Note that router A has an outbound link leading to router B. This link is preceded by a queue (also known as a buffer). When the packet arrives at router A from the upstream node, router A examines the packet’s header to determine the appropriate outbound link for the packet and then directs the packet to this link. In this example, the outbound link for the packet is the one that leads to router B. A packet can be transmitted on a link only if there is no other packet currently being transmitted on the link and if there are no other packets preceding it in the queue; if the link is currently busy or if there are other packets already queued for the link, the newly arriving packet will then join the queue.

Processing Delay

The time required to examine the packet's header and determine where to direct the packet is part of the processing delay. The processing delay can also include other factors, such as the time needed to check for bit-level errors in the packet that occurred in transmitting the packet’s bits from the upstream node to router A. Processing delays in high-speed routers are typically on the order of microseconds or less. After this nodal processing, the router directs the packet to the queue that precedes the link to router B.

Queuing Delay

At the queue, the packet experiences a queuing delay as it waits to be transmitted onto the link. The length of the queuing delay of a specific packet will depend on the number of earlier-arriving packets that are queued and waiting for transmission onto the link. If the queue is empty and no other packet is currently being transmitted, then our packet's queuing delay will be zero. On the other hand, if the traffic is heavy and many other packets are also waiting to be transmitted, the queuing delay will be long. We will see shortly that the number of packets that an arriving packet might expect to find is a function of the intensity and nature of the traffic arriving at the queue. Queuing delays can be on the order of microseconds to milliseconds in practice.

Transmission Delay

Assuming that packets are transmitted in a first-come-first-served manner, as is common in packet-switched networks, our packet can be transmitted only after all the packets that have arrived before it have been transmitted. Denote the length of the packet by L bits, and denote the transmission rate of the link from router A to router B by R bits/sec. For example, for a 10 Mbps Ethernet link, the rate is R = 10 Mbps; for a 100 Mbps Ethernet link, the rate is R = 100 Mbps. The transmission delay is L/R. This is the amount of time required to push (that is, transmit) all of the packet's bits into the link. Transmission delays are typically on the order of microseconds to milliseconds in practice.

Propagation Delay

Once a bit is pushed into the link, it needs to propagate to router B. The time required to propagate from the beginning of the link to router B is the propagation delay. The bit propagates at the propagation speed of the link. The propagation speed depends on the physical medium of the link (that is, fiber optics, twisted-pair copper wire, and so on) and is in the range of

2 108 meters/sec to 3 108 meters/sec

which is equal to, or a little less than, the speed of light. The propagation delay is the distance between two routers divided by the propagation speed. That is, the propagation delay is d/s, where d is the distance between router A and router B and s is the propagation speed of the link. Once the last bit of the packet propagates to node B, it and all the preceding bits of the packet are stored in router B. The whole process then continues with router B now performing the forwarding. In wide-area networks, propagation delays are on the order of milliseconds.

About the Authors

Jim Kurose is a Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is currently on leave from the University of Massachusetts, serving as an Assistant Director at the US National Science Foundation, where he leads the Directorate of Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

Dr. Kurose has received a number of recognitions for his educational activities including Outstanding Teacher Awards from the National Technological University (eight times), the University of Massachusetts, and the Northeast Association of Graduate Schools. He received the IEEE Taylor Booth Education Medal and was recognized for his leadership of Massachusetts' Commonwealth Information Technology Initiative. He has won several conference best paper awards and received the IEEE Infocom Achievement Award and the ACM Sigcomm Test of Time Award.

Dr. Kurose is a former Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Transactions on Communications and of IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking. He has served as Technical Program co-Chair for IEEE Infocom, ACM SIGCOMM, ACM Internet Measurement Conference, and ACM SIGMETRICS. He is a Fellow of the IEEE and the ACM. His research interests include network protocols and architecture, network measurement, multimedia communication, and modeling and performance evaluation. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Columbia University.

Keith Ross is the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at NYU Shanghai and the Leonard J. Shustek Chair Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at NYU. Previously he was at University of Pennsylvania (13 years), Eurecom Institute (5 years) and Polytechnic University (10 years). He received a B.S.E.E from Tufts University, a M.S.E.E. from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Computer and Control Engineering from The University of Michigan. Keith Ross is also the co-founder and original CEO of Wimba, which develops online multimedia applications for e-learning and was acquired by Blackboard in 2010.

Professor Ross's research interests are in privacy, social networks, peer-to-peer networking, Internet measurement, content distribution networks, and stochastic modeling. He is an ACM Fellow, an IEEE Fellow, recipient of the Infocom 2009 Best Paper Award, and recipient of 2011 and 2008 Best Paper Awards for Multimedia Communications (awarded by IEEE Communications Society). He has served on numerous journal editorial boards and conference program committees, including IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking, ACM SIGCOMM, ACM CoNext, and ACM Internet Measurement Conference. He also has served as an advisor to the Federal Trade Commission on P2P file sharing.

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