A beginner's guide to latency

A beginner’s guide to latency

Everything a digital device does needs to be explained in zeroes and ones, and this translation from English programming languages explains why certain actions take longer than we’d like.

Similarly, everything a digital device does online has to be sent back and forth along telecommunications infrastructure which often wasn’t designed for this role.

The result? Once again, certain actions take longer than we’d like.

This may be highly significant in terms of certain online activities.

Waiting a few seconds for a webpage to load doesn’t matter. However, waiting a few seconds to see if your free kick resulted in a goal in FIFA21 will destroy the gaming experience.

These are both examples of latency – an online phenomenon many companies and service providers are desperate to minimise.

So what is latency?

Latency is defined as the delay between issuing an instruction and receiving a response.

It measures in milliseconds the time taken for a key press or mouse click to be fed to a remote server, interpreted, and then displayed as an outcome.

The fact that latency is generally below one second is hugely impressive, since those remote servers could be half a world away.

Yet latency of just 30 milliseconds can have an effect on certain online experiences.

When you consider it takes 100 milliseconds to blink, the question ‘what is latency’ quickly becomes less relevant than the follow-up question ‘what is latency bad for?’

The answer is just about everything.

Better late than never

These are some of the stages where latency begins to become a problem:

  • For online gaming, latency of 30ms could begin to affect immersive games like first-person shooters or collaborative quest-based titles – which is why fast broadband is essential for gamers.
  • Microsoft recommend database access shouldn’t take more than 50ms, such as interrogating product availability on ecommerce websites.
  • Video calls won’t be able to cope with latency of more than 150ms, leading to pixelated images and dropped sound.

High latency results in audience/visitor/customer abandonment, reduced SEO performance in Google and Bing results, and a generally poor user experience.

However, there are ways in which service providers can mitigate the effects of latency.

To server and protect

The growth of edge computing is seeing greater amounts of processing conducted locally rather than remotely in the cloud – thereby eliminating data transfer times.

Clever routing protocols and universal file formats reduce the number of zeroes and ones which need to be transmitted, packaging data as efficiently as possible.

This is typified by adaptive bitrates. You see this when a streaming video file starts blocky but improves in quality as data is transferred in the highest quality your connection can support.

Positioning data close to end user terminals also helps, which is why website hosting companies might have data centres (filled with servers) in both London and Manchester.

Latency can never be completely eliminated, but there are many processes that help to reduce its day-to-day impact on our online activities and experiences.

The first step to reducing latency for at-home devices is to ensure you have the best broadband deal to suit your needs!

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