network traffic

What is network traffic?

Network traffic is the amount of data that moves across a network during any given time. Network traffic may also be referred to as data traffic, or just traffic.

In search engine optimization, traffic to a network can be characterized as being direct, organic or paid. Direct traffic occurs when someone enters a website's URL in a browser. Organic traffic is the direct result of someone using a search engine to locate content. Paid traffic means someone has clicked on a sponsored advertisement.

In data center administration, network traffic can be characterized as being either north-south or east-west. North-south describes client-to-server traffic that moves between the data center and a location outside the network. North-south traffic is typically depicted vertically to illustrate traffic that flows in and out of the data center. In the early days of the internet, most network traffic was north-south.

A diagram showing east-west traffic and north-south traffic
East-west traffic moves from server to server, while north-south traffic moves from client to server.

In contrast, east-west network traffic characterizes data packets that move from server to server within a data center. The term east-west was inspired by network diagrams that depict local area network traffic horizontally. Hardware virtualization and the internet of things are two concepts that have driven the growth of east-west network traffic.

Administrators can control network traffic by managing or prioritizing data, and they can monitor network traffic by measuring the amount and types of traffic. Network traffic is encapsulated in packets, which are units of data that provide the load in a network. For example, by visiting a webpage, a user receives a series of packets. A typical packet contains 1,000 bytes to 5,000 bytes.

Common network traffic problems

Common network traffic issues include the following:

  • component failures, such as server, router or firewall failures; and
  • traffic failures, such as bottlenecks and high latency.

Bottlenecks can occur when there is not enough data handling capacity to process the current traffic volume. Latency, or the delay from input into a system to its outcome, can be caused by components in the data center relaying information to each other, increasing network traffic. High latency can occur more commonly with east-west traffic.

Monitoring network traffic

To help ensure network quality, network administrators should analyze, monitor and secure network traffic. Network monitoring enables the oversight of a computer network for failures and deficiencies to ensure continued network performance.

Tools made to aid network monitoring also commonly notify users if there are any significant or troublesome changes to network performance. Network monitoring enables administrators and IT teams to react quickly to any network issues.

Securing network traffic

To help secure network traffic, network and security teams can use network security tools, such as Nagios or Splunk. Other practices, such as enabling firewalls, also add more security to a network.

For east-west traffic, microsegmentation can reduce the attack surface of an application. Microsegmentation segments a data center into logical units to enable data center administrators to tailor unique security policies for each unit.

This was last updated in December 2022

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