Top 5 things to know about latency
October 20, 2020
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Latency can interrupt your productivity and generally slow down your workday. Tom Merritt lists five things you should know about latency.

Latency, lag, jitter–it messes with your productivity, slows down your trading, and causes all kinds of problems. But, what is it? Will more bandwidth fix it? Here are five things to know about latency.

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  1. Latency is the time it takes for information to get from one point to another. It’s most often measured as a roundtrip. If I make a request for a website, the request travels to a server, the server delivers the webpage, and that data shows up in my browser. That roundtrip time is the latency.
  2. Latency is related to speed, but it isn’t your speed. Neither is bandwidth. Throughput is your speed–it’s the amount of data that can be transferred over a given period of time. Though your actual throughput is affected by latency and by your bandwidth.
  3. An analogy for you: If a packet of data is a car on a highway, latency is how fast the car can go. Bandwidth is how many lanes are on the road. If the car can only go 55 mph, it doesn’t matter if there are six, 10, or 30 lanes, the car (aka your data) will only arrive as fast as 55 mph can get it there.
  4. Latency causes jitter. Jitter is the variability over time of latency–if you have a connection that swings from 100 milliseconds to 600 then to 486 then to 700 then back to 100 milliseconds. Any streaming data is sensitive to jitter. It’s also why your video call may suddenly drop out and then come back just fine.
  5. Lots of things affect latency. The distance from the server, the number of routers it has to pass through to get to you, any packet management ISPs and transit providers use, and congestion. If a lot of folks are clogging up the roads, that 100 mph sports car of data is going to get held up.

Latency isn’t entirely under your control. You can make sure you’re not adding it on your end, but your providers are part of the equation too. It’s not as simple as more bandwidth. Services like 5G are valuable–maybe not so much because of speed, but because of the promise of lower latency.

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Image: iStockphoto/SergeyVasutin

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