What Is Packet Loss? How to Fix High Packet Loss With the Best Network Tools

When it comes to monitoring network performance, knowing how to stop packet loss of all kinds—internet, Wi-Fi, or ping—is crucial. In this post, you’ll learn the ins and outs of high packet loss and how to handle it within your system.

I’ve also compiled a list of five of the most effective software programs for eliminating packet loss. While any one of these solutions can help get the job done, I’ll discuss why I personally recommend Network Performance Monitor or VoIP & Network Quality Manager from SolarWinds, and the important reasons why you’d use one solution over the other.

What Is Packet Loss?
What Causes Packet Loss?
How to Reduce Packet Loss
Best Tools to Reduce Packet Loss
How to Fix Packet Loss

What Is Packet Loss?

Before we get into packet loss, let’s unpack what packets are. Packets, or network packets, are small units of data carried over a network. Everything you do on the internet, from sending emails to downloading gifs, is made up of packets. Packets are sent to their destinations along the most sensible path to maintain network efficiency. By doing this, the network can more evenly distribute its load across many pieces of equipment, which enhances performance.

What does packet loss mean? Oftentimes, packets don’t successfully make it through the network to their destination. Internet packet loss, sometimes called latency, occurs when packets get lost in transit during their voyage. Wi-Fi packet loss is likely to occur in private, wireless networks because when things are sent through the air, it’s easy for them to get lost or dropped. This becomes even more likely on long-distance internet connections because the packets have farther to go and, by extension, more room for error.

Unsuccessful packets slow down network speeds, cause bottlenecks, and throw off your network throughput and bandwidth. Packet loss can also be expensive. If you don’t do all you can to cut down on packet loss in your system, you’ll have to spend a lot of money on extra IT infrastructure and more bandwidth to accommodate the lag.

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What Causes Packet Loss?

There are many causes of packet loss, most of them unintentional. The number one cause of packet loss is network congestion.

1. Network Congestion

Think of packets traveling across your network like cars going down a highway. At certain points in the day, like during rush hour or after lunch when all the employees in a large company are going back to their desks, there are too many cars on the road. Things get even worse when a four-lane highway narrows into a two-lane road, and a lot of cars are looking to merge at the exact same time. Inevitably some cars can’t merge and don’t reach their destinations on time.

Highway traffic is a fact of life and so is packet loss. Networks aren‘t indestructible or infallible, and they have space limitations.

When network traffic hits maximum capacity, packets will have to wait to be delivered. Unfortunately, packets are the first things to get left behind when a network is trying to catch up with traffic and the connection can only handle so much. Luckily, most software today will circle back for those discarded packets by automatically resending the data or slowing down transfer speeds to give each packet a chance to make it through.

2. Problems With Network Hardware

Glitchy, old, or otherwise outdated hardware can significantly weaken your network. Firewalls, routers, and network switches all take up a considerable amount of power. If your company grows but your hardware capabilities don’t expand with it, you could be in for packet loss or even total connectivity loss.

3. Software Bugs

Unchecked bugs in your system can disrupt network performance and prevent it from sufficiently carrying packets. Sometimes rebooting your hardware will solve this, but since bugs are often introduced during hardware updates, the whole thing will need to be patched.

4. Overloaded Devices

Simply put, this means your system is running at a higher capacity than it was designed to handle. In fact, packets on overutilized devices sometimes make it to their destinations, but by then the network is too weak to process the packets and send them back out. Many devices have buffers in place to put packets in holding patterns until they can be sent out. However, these buffers can get filled up quickly and excess packets are still dropped.

5. Security Threats

We also cannot ignore the possibility of someone deliberately tampering with your network and causing packet loss. Packet drop attacks have become popular with cybercriminals in recent years. Essentially, a hacker gets into your router and tells it to drop packets. If you notice a sudden drop in packet success or a significant slowdown in network speed, you could be in the midst of an attack.

There’s also something called a denial-of-service attack (DoS) where legitimate users cannot access their emails, files, or online accounts because of a cybersecurity threat. Hackers execute a denial-of-service attack by flooding the network with too much traffic for the network to handle, and it crashes. The attackers then take advantage of this vulnerability. If your system is already under attack, there’s not much you can do for packet loss, but if you act quickly enough, you can use an access list (ACL) to block the IP address of the hacker.

When it comes to network maintenance and cybersecurity efforts, I think it’s best to internalize Murphy’s Law—“anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” I like to tack on “so you should be prepared” to the end. Invest in a SIEM solution, create a disaster recovery plan, update your firewall and, as always, keep yourself up to date on the latest antivirus software.

Such attacks are rare—there are more common causes out there for packet issues. If you’re experiencing packet loss, it’s probably just your network.

6. Inadequate Infrastructure for Handling Packet Loss

Sometimes packet loss isn’t entirely the network’s fault. Many IT administrators cobble together a networking monitoring system out of different tools. Since most of the tools have limited functionality because they were engineered for a specific purpose, the network isn’t fully protected. Without a comprehensive, seamless network monitoring solution, opportunities to stop or prevent packet loss fall through the cracks.

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How to Reduce Packet Loss

Wondering how to reduce packet loss? Before we get into options for a packet loss fix, it’s worth it to say there’s no way to completely stop packet loss. Zero percent packet loss is unachievable because the things causing it, like network issues, too many users, or an overloaded system, are bound to pop up. Any solutions recommended here or elsewhere are ways to help fix the problem after the fact, not prevent them from occurring.

But there are some tried-and-true methods you can try on your own to fix high packet loss.

  1. Check your connections: First, get rid of the obvious options. Make sure your cables and ports are plugged incorrectly.
  2. Restart your system: If you haven’t turned off your system routers or hardware in a while, now is the time. This might give your network the jumpstart it needs to fix any tiny glitches or bugs.
  3. Try cable connections instead of Wi-Fi: Since everything is connected by Wi-Fi nowadays, packets are more likely to get lost. Using an Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi can help move things along. A fiber-optic connection is even better.
  4. Remove anything capable of causing static: Cut off surrounding cameras, devices using Bluetooth, wireless speakers, and headphones. You also might want to temporarily shut down your firewall since it uses a lot of bandwidth, and you shouldn’t be running more than one firewall program at a time.
  5. Update your software: It’s time to stop putting off your software updates. An up-to-date operating system is less likely to have bugs, which inevitably leads to fewer opportunities for packet loss.
  6. Replace out-of-date hardware: The same concept applies to your network infrastructure. Take some time to make sure your hardware is in good shape.
  7. Use QoS settings: Quality of Service (QoS) settings help you manage packet loss by triaging your network resources accordingly. This is especially important if your network transmits resource-intensive data like streamed content, online games, video calls, or VoIP. QoS settings will devote more network traffic to the places that need it.

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Best Tools to Reduce Packet Loss

Five top products to minimize packet loss

Software can’t totally fix high packet loss. The key to preventing or lessening the impact of packet loss is network visibility. A problem you can see is a problem you can solve. The tools listed below, in addition to boasting features specific to packet loss, can be used to give you a more comprehensive view of your network. The most important steps for handling packet loss are pinpointing exactly what’s causing the latency and then doing your best to maintain a healthy network. Both tasks are accomplished with networking monitoring best practices.

1. Network Performance Monitor

SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (NPM) is one of the best all-inclusive, comprehensive network monitoring tools you can buy. It’s at the top of so many of my lists because its approach to network visibility is unmatched. A whole array of network visualization tools, including intelligent Orion® Maps, geographic maps, and SolarWinds Network Atlas, give you useful, in-depth ways to see what’s going on in your network.

Network Performance Monitor (NPM)

NPM is an excellent choice for admins who have to keep watch over a large systems environment—the hop-by-hop packet path maps are especially useful, as you can quickly see if the problem lies inside or outside the network, and the tool provides the info you need to start addressing the issue quickly. This software is great for the highly specific troubleshooting required when you’re wondering how to get rid of packet loss.

Its proprietary NetPath network path analysis feature will be able to tell you where an application or the network itself is responsible for your packet loss. This function highlights the problem links in red, making troubleshooting easy. Also, NetPath displays each router and switch in the network route as a node. If you hover over the node, it pulls up the latency and packet loss statistics.

Along the same lines, the LUCID (logical, usable, customizable, interactive, drill-down) user interface in NPM gives you a complete summary of all network activity, device status, and alerts, so you can see how your system is doing without having to toggle between different screens. Bonus: NPM is fully customizable. Being able to see everything is great, but at the same time, nobody wants to be bombarded with that much information all the time. It’s easy to play around with the configurations in NPM so you only see what you want when you want to see it.

The auto-discovery function in Network Performance Monitor also deserves a special mention. After you set it up for the first time, it recurs automatically, so any changes made to the network will show up in the tool. It also compiles a list of all the network devices in your environment and creates a network map. Finally, NPM offers SNMP monitoring features and picks up SNMP warning messages, so you can see which routers and network switches are nearing capacity. Now you can combat packet loss before it even happens.

2. VoIP & Network Quality Manager

SolarWinds VoIP & Network Quality Manager (VNQM) is specially designed to focus on the network conditions necessary for successful VoIP delivery. By pulling call data from Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Avaya Aura Communication Manager, you can easily identify what’s causing latency, jitter, and call noise.

VNQM

Voice over IP (VoIP) is tricky for IT departments to negotiate because it’s hard to deliver reliable, quality telephone service using a network with a bunch of applications already competing for bandwidth. QoS settings can help by diverting bandwidth to the applications that need it most, which helps, but you need a way to troubleshoot voice calls and have visibility into their performance metrics. Since packet loss can be even more of a problem in networks using voice systems, if you’re juggling this issue, you may want to invest in a more specialized tool like VNQM over a broader packet loss monitoring solution like SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor.

VNQM communicates with a lot of different systems, which makes for a more comprehensive monitoring experience. However, it’s a good idea to know your way around Cisco and the Orion Platform on general principle. In fact, if you’re already working on Orion servers, you can equip VNQM with Orion Platform High Availability. This protects your system’s environment from OS crashes, network connectivity problems, and availability issues in your database.

The visual metrics in VNQM are my favorite features. The dashboard shows you an overview of the path each voice call takes in the form of a dial-graph, like a speedometer in a car. The visualization module shows the health of each path using color-coded statuses. These features make it easier to visually get a handle on VoIP monitoring across your entire network. Need more information? Read more about how VNQM helps monitor packet loss.

3. PRTG Network Monitor

Paessler PRTG Network Monitor

According to Paessler, you need three sensors to fix high packet loss. PRTG Network Monitor happens to provide them all, allowing you to ping packet loss easily. The Ping Sniffer Sensor measures your network availability, calculates the rate of packet loss for each device within your network, and breaks it down into a percentage—showing you past and present data in terms of dials and pie charts. The Quality of Service (QoS) One Way Sensor lets you keep an eye on network paths, which is a huge step toward reducing packet loss. Finally, the Cisco IP SLA Sensor measures packet loss specifically for Cisco devices, which will come in handy if you’re working with VoIP.

PRTG is also unique because most of its features focus on packet loss prevention. Prevent network overloads by selectively blocking traffic. This tool has a comprehensive alert system to let you know when warnings or unusual metrics have been detected in your network. Use this, combined with the other features, to track traffic or bottlenecking back to the source before it becomes a problem. Also, it’s one of the only two systems on my list to accommodate cloud-based services.

Like SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, PRTG Network Monitor also has an auto-discovery feature. With auto-discovery, PRTG Network Monitor automatically divides your network into segments and categorizes them by pinging specific IP ranges. From this point forward, PRTG will automatically recognize all your connected devices and systems and create custom sensors for them. Auto-discovery is the shortcut to end all shortcuts, in my opinion. This feature saves time when it comes to configuration, so it’s quicker and easier to set up than other software options.

Overall, I like PRTG because it has a winning combination of visibility, scalability, and ease of use. You get everything you need to monitor your network in one piece of equipment—auto-discovery, network monitoring, NetFlow analysis, cloud monitoring, VMware monitoring, and database monitoring. The only cause of packet loss PRTG doesn’t account for is illegal tampering, but since it’s not very common, so it might not be an issue for you.

4. OpManager

ManageEngine OpManager

The tools I’ve mentioned would be useful for businesses of all sizes, from small and medium companies to enterprises, in terms of capabilities and price alike. But ManageEngine OpManager is focused on (and priced for) network management for large, multi-vendor IT enterprise networks. The key for this product is unification. For instance, OpManager wins the Best Dashboard award for its unique balance of inclusivity and individuality. This tool boasts a clean and sophisticated dashboard, offering end-to-end visibility of everything in your network infrastructure—from applications to printers to your entire wireless network. It does especially well in large organizations because the dashboard is customizable from user to user, without sacrificing continuity and shareability across the board. Out-of-the-box capabilities include network health monitoring, VoIP monitoring, Cisco NBAR reporting, network mapping, server monitoring, and more.

Regarding packet loss, OpManager uses SNMP to constantly monitor your network health across all devices. Controller displays send out alerts called “traps” that immediately pop up on the dashboard. Traps can also be configured to send out text alerts or email notifications to the user. There are separate alerts specifically for packet loss to not only tell you when there are instances of packet loss in your system but also what device is responsible for it. If you click on the notification, OpManager will bring you to a new page about the device and visually present performance metrics. With a few clicks, you can detect, isolate, and solve problems with packet loss.

5. Nagios XI

Nagios XI

Like every other network monitoring tool on this list, Nagios XI helps reduce packet loss by cataloging all the devices connected to your network and showing relevant performance metrics on a customizable dashboard. Dashboard options and settings can be viewed directly in your web browser.

Nagios XI is a strong contender worth checking out if you’re looking for help with packet troubleshooting. It records and stores performance data you can use to run different traffic scenarios in your downtime. This adds an entirely new dimension to troubleshooting and packet loss prevention. Knowing what device is causing packet loss and latency is one thing, but using the information to plan ahead dramatically reduces your risk of high packet loss in the future. Automatically generated capacity graphs make proactive planning easy. Custom reports offer specific details on network events. This tool’s alert systems send out notifications with outage details to users beyond the IT staff, keeping everyone informed and working toward problem resolution.

I commend Nagios Core for creating a tool that doesn’t sacrifice power for openness and flexibility. This product is powered by the Nagios Core 4 monitoring engine instead of SNMP, which is meant to allow for greater efficiency. It executes active and passive host checks, monitors network performance, checks service, collects system information, and more. Free plug-ins are available in the plug-in library, so you can get even more from this software.

Nagios XI is the most diverse tool on my list in terms of scope, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your system and price point. This software will monitor cloud-based networks, virtual systems, remote sites, wireless systems, and traditional WAN. On the other hand, Nagios XI is not as diverse when it comes to operating system compatibility because it only runs on CentOS and RHEL Linux. You can work around this if you have VMware or Hyper-V machines.

Nagios XI comes from the Nagios Core family of free, open-source software. Unfortunately, Nagios XI isn’t free. To get a user interface, GUI capabilities, and full functionality, you have to pay for either the standard or enterprise edition of Nagios XL. Nagios Core offers a 60-day free trial of this tool.

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How to Fix High Packet Loss

Detecting, troubleshooting, and preventing packet loss is key to optimal network performance. Again, I want to stress there’s no surefire way to eradicate packet loss from your system forever. In fact, you’re bound to come up against it because, well, packet loss just happens. Networks aren’t infallible.

But there are steps you can take to improve your packet loss situation. I suggest starting out with a well-rounded tool like SolarWinds NPM, or if your packet loss mostly impacts VoIP, SolarWinds VNQM. With either of these, you’re getting the most bang for your buck, as these tools make it much easier to find out what’s causing your network to drop packets. You’ll get more visibility into packet loss, tools for troubleshooting, and an incredible range of additional network monitoring features. It’s worth it to try to mitigate the effects of packet loss, thereby increasing productivity and lowering your bandwidth requirements. Take advantage of the available free trials to find the right network packet loss monitoring solution for you.