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The Need for Speed

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
February, 2014 Issue
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Michael E. Duffy
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More and more people have broadband connections to the Internet. A recent Pew Research Center report says seven out of 10 Americans connect to the Internet at home using something other than dial-up. And yet, we still complain it's slow.
 
If that’s your experience, you should start by getting a sense of just how fast your connection is. I recommend using www.speedtest.net, which gives you the following information: ping time, download speed and upload speed. Right now,it’s reporting I have a 19 millisecond ping time, a download speed of 16.23 million bits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 5.86 Mbps via my Internet service provider (ISP), Comcast.
 
In case you’re wondering, “ping time” is a measure of the time it takes to send a very simple message between your computer and another. This is influenced by distance, the types of connections between your computer and the other computer and how many routers or other devices touch the message en route. If you’re on a cable connection like me, it also depends on whether other cable subscribers on your cable segment are online and how many “channels” are allocated to carrying Internet data. And, finally, test results depend on how responsive the other computer is, so any result has some dependency on the test server used.
 
For example, if I choose a test server in Cairo, Egypt, my ping time rises dramatically to 236 milliseconds, more than 10 times slower, and my download speed drops to 3.84 Mbps, reflecting the fact that there are more “hops” along the route from Sebastopol to Cairo, and that not all of those connections are running at high speed (or they’re overloaded with traffic, causing delays).
 
Speedtest.net defaults to the test server closest to you, but you can choose from any of the 2,790 active servers that provide the testing service. The quality of each server isn’t described, other than running “a modern Web server” and having a connection of at least 100 Mbps to “the Internet backbone.” This “backbone” consists of the networks of the very biggest ISPs, who don’t pay an upstream provider for Internet access. To reach the parts of the Internet that aren’t part of their own network, these ISPs freely exchange traffic to reach the rest of the Internet. The backbone passes traffic at a rate of 100 gigabits per second (Gbps), more than 6,000 times faster than my connection at home, and has multiple paths all running at that speed. It’s an amazing bit of technology that most people have no inkling exists.
 
I have the “Performance Internet” offering from Comcast ($52.95 per month as part of a bundle that includes my TV and phone service), which means I should expect up to 20 Mbps of download speed and 4 Mbps of upload speed. Of course, as the fine print states, “Actual speeds vary and are not guaranteed.” Speeds do vary quite a bit—I’ve seen more than 20 Mbps on more than one occasion—and generally I’m pleased with the response time of my connection.
 
Speedtest.net has a sister site, www.netindex.com, which basically summarizes the data obtained from all the speed tests people run. If you go to that site, you’ll see the average download speed for households (as opposed to businesses) is 16.41 Mbps, so my connection speed appears to be about average. You can drill down in a variety of ways.
 
Of course, that’s just getting data from one place to another. Using your browser to visit websites involves another possible source of slowdowns: the domain name system (DNS). DNS takes a name like www.northbaybiz.com and translates it into the numerical address used to communicate between your computer and the server hosting the NorthBay biz website (which, at present, is 69.12.221.124). That translation service is provided by a DNS server, usually one provided by your ISP. The problem is that not all DNS servers—also called name servers—are created equal.
 
Now, my original reason to write this column was to recommend that you switch your name servers from whatever your ISP provides to those provided by Google, since Google is actively seeking ways to make the Internet faster, and providing fast, free, public name servers is one way of doing that. Google also doesn’t mess with the results when a domain doesn’t exist (to try this yourself, type www.fakeexampledomain.com, and see what happens). Some ISPs will return a page of their own choosing, such as an advertisement, when this occurs.
 
But it turns out that someone actually wrote a little program to test the performance of the DNS servers that are available to you from your ISP and public sources. It’s called “namebench” and you can download it via this link: http://tinyurl.com/38dv87g—there’s a link in the sidebar titled “UsingNameBench” with more details about using the program.
 
Running namebench takes five to 10 minutes, but doesn’t require any special technical skills. It runs a number of performance tests on each name server, which is why it takes some time to run. In my case, it winnowed a list of almost 5,000 DNS servers to provide me with 11 choices. Its top recommendation is 50 percent faster than my current DNS server and the very one I was planning to recommend to you: Google (which was also one of the 11 choices namebench provided).
 
The place where technical skills can come in handy is actually making the change to your computer. If you run a router in your home or business to support multiple computers connecting to the Internet and/or to provide wireless connectivity, you can tell the router to provide the name servers recommended by namebench automatically to every computer that connects to your network. Usually, this is done by accessing the router setup via your browser. In the case of setting up an individual computer, your operating system (Windows, OSX) provides a way to do this. The details are beyond the limited space of this column, but you can find instructions for your operating system or router at https://store.opendns.com/setup.
 
I hope this helps speed your Internet activities in 2014 and beyond!
 
(Help shape the content of Tech Talk. Drop me a line at mduffy@northbaybiz.com with your suggestions and questions about technology. Thanks!)

 

      

 

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