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Is Your Traffic Being Shaped? 14 May 2002 Edition
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"Traffic shaping" is something that has been around for a long time but has only recently had any real impact on your average Net user.

But now, the effects of traffic shaping are now being clearly felt by a growing number of Net users, and some of them are not happy.

So what is traffic shaping and why are so many ISPs doing it?

Bandwidth, especially international bandwidth, costs money. If an ISP is able to squeeze more out of the bandwidth they've got then they can support a greater number of customers for a given investment in the expensive data circuits that connect them to the rest of the Net.

Coming Up This Week
In response to reader demand, I'll be publishing and archiving an updated version of my guide to website promotion and online marketing. If you've got a website that needs more traffic, or if you're trying to sell products or services online then this is the type of information that you can pay big money for elsewhere. Don't miss it.

The situation is a bit like that facing many large cities where the amount of traffic continues to grow but the council wishes to avoid investing in expensive new roading.

The alternative to increasing the number of lanes on main highways is to try and "manage" the traffic flows more efficiently. One of the most obvious examples of this are the bus-only lanes that exist on many motorway systems (that's freeway systems for Aardvark's US readers).

Because a single bus often carries as many people as 30 or 40 cars, the flow of people into or out of a city at peak times can be significantly improved by setting aside a special lane just for them. This is an example of "shaping" the flow of traffic.

Another good example are the passing lanes we see on the main highways -- these allow slow and fast vehicles to use the same road without too much interference.

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    The situation many ISPs find themselves facing is very similar.

    As customer numbers grow, the data circuits that connect the ISPs computers to the rest of the Net become increasingly congested, especially at peak times such as early evenings.

    The simplest, and most expensive solution is to simply buy some more bandwidth. Understandably however, many ISPs consider this an option of last resort -- preferring instead to try and "shape" the traffic flows so as to try and ease the congestion.

    The first time many Net users noticed the effects of traffic shaping was when Telecom/Xtra decided to restrict data flows on the ports used for P2P file-trading networks. By doing this they effectively freed up more bandwidth for others who were simply surfing the web.

    Another method (which I've bitched about before) of reducing congestion on an ISP's data circuits is to operate a caching proxy server for web traffic -- however, when configured correctly, this has a far less obvious effect on a user's online experience.

    I know that the tech staff and management of many NZ ISPs read Aardvark so I'd like them to contact me with details of what (if any) shaping they're performing on their traffic or if they're buying "pre-shaped" traffic from their upstream provider.

    Let me point out that, just like bus lanes, traffic shaping isn't necessarily a bad thing -- after all, an ISP that manages their traffic efficiently is likely to be faster (overall) than one who doesn't. However, it would be nice to know who's shaping and who's not.

    Remember -- those who remain silent shall speak a thousand words :-)

    The most disheartening thing about this whole situation is the way that the promises which accompanied the commissioning of the Southern Cross cable have turned to dust.

    This new cable was supposed to provide us with massive international bandwidth so that we could at last enjoy streaming video, faster websurfing, etc, etc. The reality is that, due to the very high costs, few ISPs can afford to actually purchase all the bandwidth they'd like and are increasingly forced to resort to agressive caching and traffic shaping to survive.

    That Xtra appears to be the leader in these tactics just reinforces the widespread belief that, in the face of a somewhat depressed telcommunications marketplace, Telecom are overly focused on cost-cutting, to the detriment of performance.

    Hard To Believe -- But...
    Last week I offered the chance for some lucky company to sponsor this publication.

    And what a deal I was offering...

    For the equivalent of a $15 CPM (cost per thousand impressions), the sponsor would get to reach a very targeted, mainly Kiwi (but with some Australian, US and European readers thrown in for good measure) audience of IT/Net professionals and hard-core users through an exclusive placement on this page.

    Is that too expensive? I don't think so, just compare it to the $90 CPM that IDG charges for front-page banners or the $110 they charge for "sykscraper" placements.

    Unfortunately, despite my very well priced offer, you don't see a sponsor on this page.

    Maybe if I promise not to write any more bad things about Telecom... Nah! :-)

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