Chapter 2 - What is Network QoS?

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QoS Parameters
Fundamental QoS Resources and Traffic Handling Mechanisms
Allocating QoS Resources in Network Devices

Let's assume the following simplistic view of the host/network system: Applications run on hosts and exchange information with their peers. Applications send data by submitting it to the operating system, to be carried across the network. Once data is submitted to the operating system, it becomes network traffic.

Network QoS refers to the ability of the network1 to handle this traffic such that it meets the service needs of certain applications. This requires fundamental traffic handling mechanisms in the network, the ability to identify traffic that is entitled to these mechanisms and the ability to control these mechanisms.

QoS functionality can be perceived to satisfy two customers - network applications and network administrators. It appears that these are often at odds, since in many cases the network administrator limits the resources used by a particular application while the application attempts to seize resources from the network. These apparently conflicting goals can be reconciled by realizing that the network administrator is chartered with maximizing the utility of the network across the full range of applications and users.

QoS Parameters

Different applications have different requirements regarding the handling of their traffic in the network. Applications generate traffic at varying rates and generally require that the network be able to carry traffic at the rate at which they generate it. In addition, applications are more or less tolerant of traffic delays in the network and of variation in traffic delay. Certain applications can tolerate some degree of traffic loss while others cannot. These requirements are expressed using the following QoS-related parameters:

  • Bandwidth - the rate at which an application's traffic must be carried by the network

  • Latency - the delay that an application can tolerate in delivering a packet of data

  • Jitter - the variation in latency

  • Loss - the percentage of lost data

If infinite network resources were available, then all application traffic could be carried at the required bandwidth, with zero latency, zero jitter and zero loss. However, network resources are not infinite. As a result, there are parts of the network in which resources are unable to meet demand. QoS mechanisms work by controlling the allocation of network resources to application traffic in a manner that meets the application's service requirements.2

Fundamental QoS Resources and Traffic Handling Mechanisms

Networks interconnect hosts using a variety of network devices, including host network adapters, routers, switches, and hubs. Each of these contains network interfaces. The interfaces interconnect the various devices via cables and fibers. Network devices generally use a combination of hardware and software to forward traffic from one interface to another.3 Each interface can send and receive traffic at a finite rate. If the rate at which traffic is directed to an interface exceeds the rate at which the interface can forward the traffic onward, then congestion occurs. Network devices may handle this condition by queuing traffic in the device's memory until the congestion subsides. In other cases, network equipment may discard traffic to alleviate congestion. As a result, applications experience varying latency (as traffic backs up in queues, on interfaces) or traffic loss.

The capacity of interfaces to forward traffic and the memory available to store traffic in network devices (until it can be forwarded) are the fundamental resources that are required to provide QoS to application traffic flows. Mechanisms internal to network devices determine which traffic gets preferential access to these resources. These are the fundamental traffic handling mechanisms that comprise the QoS enabled network.

Allocating QoS Resources in Network Devices

Devices that provide QoS support do so by intelligently allocating resources to submitted traffic. For example, under congestion, a network device might choose to queue the traffic of applications that are more latency-tolerant instead of the traffic of applications that are less latency-tolerant. As a result, the traffic of applications that are less latency-tolerant can be forwarded immediately to the next network device. In this example, interface capacity is a resource that is granted to the latency-intolerant traffic. Device memory is a resource that has been granted to the latency-tolerant traffic.

In order to allot resources preferentially to certain traffic, it is necessary to identify different traffic and to associate it with certain resources. This is typically achieved as follows: Traffic arriving at network devices is identified in each device and is separated into distinct flows4 via the process of packet classification. Traffic from each flow is directed to a corresponding queue. The queues are then serviced according to some queue-servicing algorithm. The queue-servicing algorithm determines the rate at which traffic from each queue is submitted to the network, thereby determining the resources that are allotted to each queue and to the corresponding flows. Thus, in order to provide network QoS, it is necessary to provision the following in network devices:

  • Classification information by which devices separate traffic into flows.

  • Queues and queue-servicing algorithms that handle traffic from the separate flows.

We will refer to these jointly as traffic handling mechanisms. These traffic-handling mechanisms must be provisioned or configured in a manner that provides useful end-to-end services across a network. As such, the various QoS technologies that we will discuss will fall into the category of a traffic handling mechanism or a provisioning or configuration mechanism.

1 We consider the network to include host network related software and hardware as well as any network equipment that resides between communicating hosts.
2 Certain applications adapt (within limits) to network conditions. These applications can be said to implement a form of application QoS. In this discussion, we focus on network QoS mechanisms rather than application QoS.
3 Hosts typically include only a single network interface that is used to forward traffic from applications to the network or from the network to applications.
4 For the purpose of this discussion, a flow is a subset of all packets passing through a network device, which has uniform QoS requirements.