Troubleshooting puzzle: What caused the streaming to degrade?

Performance of streaming applications worked for years then suddenly dropped, apparently for no reason. Was it the firewalls?

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You’ve just been given the task of solving a network problem that has been unresolved for many months. Where do you start? Is it a solvable problem or is it just the way the network works? Maybe you’ve encountered a limitation on how network protocols function.

What follows is an account of just such a problem that stumped many good network engineers for months and how it was resolved by NetCraftsmen’s Samuel Bickham. It may provide tips for solving problems you face down the road. As Bickham says, “Troubleshooting is kinda like a magic trick: It’s impressive until it’s explained.”

A customer contacted NetCraftsmen to ask if we could diagnose a networking problem that affected only a few applications and a subset of employees on an intermittent basis.

Some, but not all applications reliant upon TCP internet streaming data had suffered degraded performance for nearly 10 months. The most obvious symptoms were choppy voice and video dropouts, indicating something was happening to in-bound traffic. To add to the confusion, problematic performance seemed to occur only for employees whose streaming data was traversing a higher throughput path, but not observed for employees traversing a lower throughput path. Interestingly, the affected applications were running on systems with hard-wired connections. Wireless devices were not experiencing the problem.

These types of problems are very challenging to solve. Their intermittent nature and counter-intuitive symptoms makes it difficult to identify and pinpoint what causes them. In this case, the customer and previous consultants attributed the problem to the physical firewalls performing application inspection of real-time streaming applications used by hard-wired endpoints.

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