What is packet loss and how does it happen?

Packets are the busy little bees that keep the internet alive and moving, and they make up just about everything that you can send and receive online. Packet loss occurs when these packets don't reach their final destination – some of them can get lost in congested networks, diverted by an interrupted signal, or snatched away by cybercriminals.

In addition to being an indication of a network's ailing health, packet loss can lead to plenty of frustrations and costly consequences – ranging from slow load times and buffering videos to expensive investments in lag prevention. So, if you're interested in learning more about what paket loss is and what causes it, keep reading!

What is packet loss?

Despite packets being smaller and easier to transmit, they can still fail to arrive at their intended destination – and this is known as packet loss. Private, wired networks tend not to experience a tremendous amount of packet loss, but long-distance connections aren't so lucky. Because the packets have further to travel, it's easier for them to get lost in transit – and they also end up passing through more routers during transmission. These routers are points of failure, potentially, and further increase the likelihood of packets never making it home.

If you're losing a lot of packets, you'll start to notice your service slowing, bottlenecks, and network disruptions, due to unreliable communications between local and remote devices.

These consequences are unpleasant regardless of who you are and what you're doing online, but folks trying to take part in VoIP calls, online games, or streaming binges will be hit the hardest. These applications use real-time packet processing, and packet loss causes miserable amounts of latency and quality dips.

Packet loss can drastically affect businesses, too. If a business isn't quick to deal with packet loss, it'll need to fork over huge amounts of money, investing in additional IT infrastructures and robust bandwidth, just to deal with the lag!

What actually is a packet?

Packets are bits of data, tiny fragments of a larger whole, that move across a network. The things you see and send on the internet are all made of packets! Every time you receive an email, or download a video or picture, you're dealing with packet transfers.

Packets are necessary in the same way that worker bees are necessary. One little bee can't collect an entire meadow's worth of pollen on its own, and likewise, an image is too big to be sent across the net as one piece of data. So, instead of sending it off as a whole, it's divided up into manageable packets.

It's far less taxing to send data this way, and because packets seek the most direct route to their destination, they further maintain network efficiency. As such, network performance stays nice and balanced – loads are distributed evenly over various devices, and the videos and sites you access won't stutter and lag.

What causes packet loss?

So, now that we're familiar with what packets are and what happens when they get lost – how exactly do they end up losing their way?

🚦Network congestion

Packets have to deal with traffic, too. When a network lacks bandwidth and reaches its maximum capacity, packets have to sit and wait to be delivered. If the network is really struggling to meet demand, it might discard or ignore the pending packets in order to catch up with traffic! Fortunately, we have software today that can slow transfer speeds and resend data to get those packets moving on.

🕹Outdated hardware

Expect slower network speeds if you're working with old, broken hardware! Firewalls, routers, and network switches are all resource-heavy tools that need to be upgraded and well-maintained as a business expands. If you continue to rely on outdated hardware, you'll end up with a network that simply can't handle the additional data packets passing through it.

💻Faulty software

Flawed software can result in packet loss, and these flaws can crop up in a system by themselves, or as the unexpected result of an update. It's important to find and squash any bugs before they can interrupt the network's performance and prevent packets from transmitting smoothly. Rebooting can occasionally solve this software issue outright, but if not, you'll need to examine the system and rely on a patch or update.

🔌Wire troubles

Your Ethernet cables work hard, facilitating a lot of data – but it can be interfered with by electrical signals. If you have cables that are damaged, dirty, or simply not plugged in properly, you can experience packet loss, so keep those cords clean and organized!

🧨Overloaded devices

An overloaded device is one that's expected to run at a higher capacity than was originally intended. These devices sometimes have buffers, where packets are made to wait until they can be delivered. Unfortunately, these buffers have limited space. Any packets that don't nab a spot in the buffer are discarded, and if a device spends too long processing packets, they can arrive at their destination far too late to be useful!

⚠️Malicious attacks

If a cybercriminal can access a router, it can instruct it to drop packets directly. Additionally, any cybercriminal capable of conducting a DDoS attack can prevent successful packet transmission by flooding networks with massive amounts of traffic. The network will crash, users will be unable to access their accounts and files, and the cybercriminal can simply take advantage of the vulnerable network and scoop up data packets for themselves.

How to prevent packet loss

There's no foolproof way of preventing packet loss entirely – there are simply too many variables, and too much happening on a network at any given time. Packets are always going to be at risk. Bandwidth demand, network issues, faulty software; there's always something around the corner that could lead to a loss.

But we can reduce the impact packet loss has on a network when it happens! So, if you're noticing a drop in packets and want to tackle the situation proactively, run through some of the steps below:

  • Check your connections – this one's obvious but important, so make sure all your cables and ports are correctly configured!
  • Switch to a wired connection – an Ethernet connection provides a direct route for your packets, and one that'll be shielded from interference, too! Packets are simply more prone to getting lost when traveling across a wireless connection.
  • Check for interference – eliminate any potential culprits by switching off wireless speakers or headphones, cameras, and even surplus firewalls.
  • Keep up to date – don't fall behind with those updates! Old firmware can be flawed and contain bugs and ample opportunities for packets to get lost.
  • Replace and renew – as well as your software, your hardware should be in tip-top condition, and swapping out devices can clue you in to where packet loss is localized on the network.
  • Invest in some help – if your network is responsible for ferrying important data, you'll want to prioritize your traffic accordingly; like streaming media, VoIP traffic, and online games. Quality of service settings can help divert traffic to the places where it's needed most.

Written by: Hannah Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, Hannah Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, Hannah has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, she can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.

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