Definition

network traffic

Contributor(s): Alex Gillis

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

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

In data center administration, network traffic can be characterized as either being 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.

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 (LAN) traffic horizontally. Hardware virtualization and the internet of things (IoT) are two concepts that have been driving the growth of east-west network traffic. 

Network traffic problems and ensuring quality

Administrators can control network traffic through managing or prioritizing data  and 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 web page, a user will receive a series of packets. A typical packet will contain up to 1,000-5,000 bytes.

Common network traffic issues include component failures, such as server , router, or firewall failures, or 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.

To help ensure network quality, network administrators should analyze, monitor and secure network traffic. Network monitoring will allow the oversight of a computer network for failures and deficiencies to ensure continued network performance. Tools made to aid network monitoring will also commonly notify users if there are any significant or troublesome changes to network performance. Network monitoring allows administrators and IT teams to react quickly to any network issues.

To help secure network traffic, network security tools such as Nagios or Splunk can be used. Other practices, such as enabling firewalls, will 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 allow data center administrators to tailor unique security policies for each unit.

This was last updated in March 2019

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Which type of network traffic does your organization use, east-west, or north-south?
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