What Is Throughput in Networking? Bandwidth Explained

If you know throughput and bandwidth levels for your network, you have valuable information for assessing network performance. Throughput tells you how much data was transferred from a source at any given time and bandwidth tells you how much data could theoretically be transferred from a source at any given time. Knowing how both throughput and bandwidth are performing is crucial for administrators hoping to get a clear picture of their network’s performance. As always, there’s software available to potentially make this process easier and quicker.

Below, I’ll touch on some other helpful tools if you’re interested in throughput visibility. Pretty much all of the products I mention have free trials available, so you can give them a try if you want to put my recommendations to the test. I also provide a comprehensive review of one of the leading network throughput solutions on the market—Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack—and I explain why this duo of tools is my “best software” pick for 2019.

So, what are throughput and bandwidth? What’s the difference between them and why do they matter? The short answer is speed. Speed is one of the most important things used to measure network performance, and we use throughput and bandwidth to measure it. How fast packets or units of data travel from source to destination or sender to recipient determines how much information can be sent within a given timeframe. Slow network speed equals slow network speed within applications, which equals laggy applications. Throughput and bandwidth can be used to measure an application’s speed—and administrators need this information to make improvements to their networks.

    1. What is Throughput in Networking?
    2. How to Optimize Throughput
    3. What is Bandwidth in Networking?
    4. How to Optimize Bandwidth
    5. Bandwidth vs. Throughput
    6. Best Tools for Monitoring Bandwidth and Throughput
    7. Throughput and Bandwidth Explained—Final Thoughts

What Is Throughput in Networking?

So, how do we define throughput? Again, network throughput refers to how much data can be transferred from source to destination within a given timeframe. Throughput measures how many packets arrive at their destinations successfully. For the most part, throughput capacity is measured in bits per second, but it can also be measured in data per second. 

Packet arrival is key to high-performance service within a network. When people use programs or software, they want their requests to be heard and responded to in a timely fashion. Packets lost in transit lead to poor or slow network performance, and low throughput indicates problems like packet loss. Using throughput to measure network speed is good for troubleshooting because it can root out the exact cause of a slow network and alert administrators to problems specifically in regard to packet loss.

Packet loss, latency, and jitter are all related to slow throughput speed. Latency is the amount of time it takes for a packet to make it from source to destination, and jitter refers to the difference in packet delay. Minimizing all these factors is critical to increasing throughput speed and data performance.

How to Optimize Throughput

By far the most important thing to do when optimizing throughput is to minimize network latency. Latency slows down throughput which, in turn, lowers throughput and delivers poor network performance to users. Generally speaking, you want to minimize lag by monitoring endpoint usage and addressing network bottlenecks.

The most common cause of latency is having too many people trying to use a network at the same time. Latency gets even worse if multiple people are downloading simultaneously. If you’re an IT manager, looking at endpoint usage can tell you which employees are causing latency with non-work-related applications. Even if you’re not an administrator and looking at this from a productivity standpoint, it’s also helpful to know what apps are gumming up the works. Either way, information leads to action.

Network bottlenecks are the IT equivalent of traffic jams. Traffic gets congested for various reasons throughout the day and slows the performance of the network. For example, network performance is typically slow after lunch in large companies because people are returning to their workstations. You can address bottlenecks in many different ways, starting with upgrading routers to keep up with traffic. You can also reduce the number of nodes your network uses, as this will shorten the distance packets have to travel, potentially reducing congestion.

Here are some other tips for reducing latency:

  1. Use a wired connection – Wireless connections can get “lost” because they’re sent through the air. When this happens, servers have to send the information all over again, causing a delay. You can strengthen your wireless signal, but latency is still bound to happen because all wireless signals have this problem to varying degrees. Using an Ethernet cable is a cheap and easy way to improve your connection. Updating to a fiber-optic network is also an option.
  2. Reboot your network – Haven’t turned off your network hardware in a while? It may be causing lag. Unplug the router and modem, wait a few moments, and reboot.
  3. Close applications using up a lot of bandwidth – All network connections have limited bandwidth, and if you’re using more than your fair share, latency will increase. Ease up on those bandwidth-intensive applications.
  4. Disable your firewalls – This may sound like a crazy suggestion at first, but let me explain… Firewalls filter all incoming and outgoing network traffic, and a corrupted firewall can slow your network down. The same will happen if you’re running multiple firewall programs at the same time because they’re both putting tremendous strain on your network. Disabling the firewall can help you figure out if this is a significant factor in your current slowdown.
  5. Go around faulty network hardware – Sometimes lag is caused by faulty hardware. You can try working without certain equipment to see how it affects network speed. Process of elimination will reveal what network hardware, if any, is responsible for latency.
  6. Call in reinforcements – After you’ve run a speed test and checked for packet loss, it may be time to contact your internet service provider. The problem could be on their end.

Keeping tabs on your network throughput isn’t just about troubleshooting slowdowns. Effective throughput monitoring, with or without tools, can help identify potential issues, compare real-world performance to a service-level agreement (SLA), revitalize network design and planning, and create a baseline for analysis.

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What Is Bandwidth in Networking?

The network bandwidth definition can be confusing, but basically, network bandwidth is defined as the maximum transfer throughput capacity of a network. It’s a measure of how much data can be sent and received at a time. Bandwidth is measured in bits, megabits, or gigabits per second.

It’s important to know bandwidth doesn’t actually increase the speed of a network, it just appears to make the network faster. You can increase a network’s bandwidth all you want, but all you’ll end up doing is increasing the amount of data that can be sent at one time, not increasing the transmission speed of said data. Bandwidth doesn’t change the speed at which packets are traveling. It’s similarly important to remember high bandwidth doesn’t necessarily equal high network performance. Substantial bandwidth won’t matter if data throughput is still being dragged down by latency, jitter, or packet loss.

Having said this, bandwidth is still important for network speed. Internet speed, for instance, is allocated bandwidth or the amount of data capable of being sent to you per second. For instance, 5 Mbps means you can receive up to five megabits of data per second.

Bandwidth is like a freeway with a strictly enforced speed limit. The cars (data) on the freeway all have to travel at the same speed, so the only way to get more cars on the road, or more data from the internet, is to make the freeway wider. Let’s say 1 Mbps is the equivalent of a single-lane freeway. Let’s also say you want to download a 5 Mb image. If you had a connection with a bandwidth of 1 Mbps (one lane) it would take you about five seconds to download that image.

Now, if you were operating with a 5 Mbps bandwidth connection (five lanes), the same process would take you one second. Here’s the key—your internet connection isn’t any faster from one megabit to the next. What’s different is your data is being transmitted to you at a faster rate because more data can travel down the freeway at the same time. This efficiency makes your internet perceptually faster, not technically faster.

Why is network bandwidth important to administrators, then, if it doesn’t actually increase the speed of their network in any quantifiable way? One of the most important things monitoring bandwidth does is provide information. Administrators need a way to monitor bandwidth, so they can know whether or not they have adequate bandwidth to fit the needs of their applications. Once they have this information and can identify any bandwidth bottlenecks in the system, they can take appropriate steps to rectify the situation—which, in turn, directly increases speed. Monitoring bandwidth availability ensures you would have enough theoretical bandwidth if you ever found yourself in need of it. Using a network monitoring tool allows you to see the actual amount of bandwidth available to your devices and applications within the network.

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How to Optimize Bandwidth

Just like throughput, poorly optimized bandwidth can dramatically slow down your network and give users a less-than-stellar experience on an app. Let’s look at some ways you can make sure your bandwidth is doing its best work.

  1. Are you using QoS settings? QoS or quality of service settings help networks support essential applications. With these settings, you can command traffic policies to prioritize certain types of traffic, so the most important applications don’t have to compete for bandwidth when they need it.
  2. Are you using cloud-based applications? Running applications in the cloud is an easy way to improve network performance. By outsourcing some of your traffic to public and private cloud networks, you can relieve some of the pressure on your own network. This also reduces your monitoring burdens and heightens the performance of your more regularly-used applications.
  3. Have you eliminated all non-essential traffic? No employee should be denied the odd YouTube video every now and then, but you’d be surprised at how much non-essential traffic goes on in even the most productive work environments. Block certain traffic during business hours to make sure your precious bandwidth is only being used for essential operations.
  4. Are you conducting backups and updates at the right time? Backups and network updates take up a massive amount of bandwidth and often require the shutdown of some network functions. Running these operations can really cut into network performance and increase latency. It may sound obvious, but you have to strategically schedule your maintenance. Backups and updates should be done outside of normal working hours to ensure the network is free for use when employees really need it.

Bandwidth vs. Throughput

Bandwidth vs. Throughput

The difference between bandwidth and throughput isn’t necessarily simple. They tell you two different things about the data in your network, but they’re closely related. You can think of bandwidth as a tube and data throughput as sand. If you have a large tube, you can pour more sand through it at a faster rate. Conversely, if you try to put a lot of sand through a small tube, it will go very slowly.

In short, throughput and bandwidth are two different processes with two different goals both contributing to the speed of a network. Data throughput meaning is a practical measure of actual packet delivery while bandwidth is a theoretical measure of packet delivery. Throughput is often a more important indicator of network performance than bandwidth because it will tell you if your network is literally slow or just hypothetically slow.

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Best Tools for Monitoring Bandwidth and Throughput

I’ve identified a few key products capable of performing somewhat different functions around monitoring and managing bandwidth and throughput on your networks. Check out this list of top bandwidth tools to better understand which ones might be most helpful for your admin efforts.

Network Performance Monitor

Network Performance Monitor (NPM) from SolarWinds is a tried-and-true, multi-vendor network monitoring system specially designed for scalability. NPM offers a wide range of tools for monitoring and analyzing network performance, advanced alerting, reporting, and problem diagnosis.

Network Performance Monitor 1

NPM’s LUCID (logical, useable, customizable, interactive, drill-down) user interface works like a dream. When you open it, you get a complete summary of all network activity, device status, and alerts, so you can see how your system is doing at a glance. It’s fully customizable, too, so you can switch web resources, maps, and views around. When you turn it on, you only see what you want, when you want it.

This software is also excellent for troubleshooting. Is it the app or network that’s slow? What’s up with this constant flood of alerts? How do I keep up with a constantly changing network? NPM makes answering these questions easy. The NetPath, PerfStack, and intelligent map features are huge helpers here. Technical note—It requires Windows Server 2016 or later.

NetFlow Traffic Analyzer

SolarWinds® NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (NTA) boosts your NetFlow monitoring capabilities by giving you a clear view of your bandwidth availability and what devices are taking up too much of it. Once you know what applications are using up a disproportionate amount of bandwidth in your network, you can fix the problem fast.

NetFlow Traffic Analyzer 1 

The NTA summary screen gives you a complete overview of flow traffic with graphs showing all applications and the busiest endpoints. Toggle through application activity, bandwidth usage, NetFlow sources, and other tabs to pinpoint exactly where the bottleneck is occurring. The interactive graphs show how much bandwidth is being sucked up by email, web browsing, VoIP, FTP, media streaming, and the like. Simply click on an application and you can nail down its bandwidth usage. Application alerts notify you if there’s any unusual activity, so you can be proactive when it comes to network issues.

Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack

SolarWinds Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack (BAP) really provides you with everything you need to measure the throughput of your network for a better price. With this system, you get both Network Performance Monitor and NetFlow Traffic Analyzer in one convenient bundle, so you’ll have all of your bases covered and get the best of both programs. NPM and NTA can both be managed from the same Orion® Platform, making them easy to use side by side.

Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack

Broadly speaking, you can use the tools together to detect, diagnose, and resolve all kinds of network performance issues. This network throughput monitor solution uses SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) monitoring to give you the most comprehensive view of your entire system. The tools can also combine NetFlow, J-Flow, sFlow, NetStream, and IPFIX data built into most routers to identify what’s eating up all your bandwidth and slowing down your network.

One of the cooler features in the Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack is its ability to function as a network throughput test capable of being mixed with both pre- and post-QoS policy maps, so you can see if your QoS policy improves network performance over time. This is critical for any business relying on cloud-based applications, VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), e-commerce, or anything else that needs bandwidth priority.

SolarWinds BAP also gives you the opportunity to use its network traffic monitor to deeply analyze network performance. All SolarWinds software is designed to be flexible, so users can pick and choose which components are necessary to enhance their particular network—but using all these tools together is really your best bet.

Free Flow Tool Bundle

If you’re not ready to take the plunge with the Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack, I’d suggest starting with the free Flow Tool Bundle, also from SolarWinds. The Flow Tool Bundle distributes flow data to multiple destinations for analysis, simulates network flow data to test configurations with NetFlow Generator, and configures NetFlow v5 on Cisco devices. You can also configure random samplings of flow data packets to reduce the load on the monitored system and collector. The best part, it’s free!

Flow Tool Bundle

Paessler PRTG Network Monitor

Another helpful throughput and bandwidth monitoring tool is the Paessler PRTG Network Monitor. It’s got a good blend of visibility, scalability, and ease of use. PRTG is a powerhouse of a tool, combining auto-discovery, network monitoring, NetFlow analysis, cloud monitoring, VMware monitoring, and database monitoring in one system.

Paessler PRTG Network Monitor

Of special note here is the auto discovery feature. With auto discovery, PRTG Network Monitor scans your network’s segments by pinging specific IP ranges. This way PRTG will automatically recognize all of your connected devices and systems in the future and create custom sensors for them. This saves a lot of time when it comes to configuration, so another plus for this system is its quick and easy setup.

In terms of packet loss, this software has a number of functions to help you rein it in. Packet Sniffer Sensor, Cisco IP SLA Sensor, and QoS One Way Sensor all let you see how well packets are traveling within your network. For example, the Packet Sniffer Sensor allows you to view past and present data in terms of dials and pie charts. In addition, a comprehensive alert system lets you know when warnings or unusual metrics have been detected in your network.

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Throughput and Bandwidth Explained—Final Thoughts

Throughput and bandwidth are two different but closely related concepts. To summarize, throughput is an actual measure of how much data is successfully transferred from source to destination, and bandwidth is a theoretical measure of how much data could be transferred from source to destination. Throughput measures speed while bandwidth is only indirectly related to speed. Bandwidth makes your internet connection perceptually faster, but not technically faster.

Monitoring both throughput and bandwidth together will give the most complete account of your network performance. Combining the two allows you to check up on network resources to make sure they’re being used as efficiently as possible, and it also prepares you for dealing with issues like latency and packet loss from the start. Speaking of combining the two, I suggest trying out Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack as a comprehensive solution to track insights into your bandwidth and throughput performance.

Recommended Reading

If you want to learn more about network monitoring and get an in-depth breakdown of best practices, check out this Ultimate Guide to Network Monitoring.