Monitoring bandwidth usage

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About

Regardless of what Internet Service Provider (ISP) you use, it's all too easy to go over your monthly quota. This problem is especially large if you live in a house with multiple computers - in my case a large student share house - it's often difficult to know who is using how much quota and/or why the internet is slowing down all the time. You can help avoid going over quota by regularly logging on to your ISP's website to check your check your "usage meter"; but it's a bit of a pain. This article should hopefully give you a few tips on other measures you can take.


Tip 1: Switch to bandwidth shaping

Just like mobile phones - if you go over quota you can be charged per volume (often per GB, or even per MB!), and there can be a big bill involved. Regardless of what plan your on - whether you're a big downloader (many GB) or use the internet for web and e-mail only - you can probably save yourself from a large bill by asking to be put on "shaping". Instead of charging for how much you go over, "shaping" will slow you down to the old "dial-up modem" speeds - and although frustratingly slow, you will hopefully learn your lesson (i.e. not to go over next month) without paying the extra cash.

In our house we use Exetel, and although it's rated one of the best Australian ISPs, they only shape an extra GB over the quota; after which we either lose internet or have to buy extra data chunks. Some like this feature, but I'd rather it just slow down exponentially (forcing you to only use the internet for what you need), because I see this as TRUE shaping!


Tip 2: Install Net Usage (firefox addon)

If you use the FireFox web browser, the good news is there is a fantastic little Add-on called "Net Usage Item" which will can show your monthly usage meter on the FireFox toolbar. This works with almost all Australian ISPs (not USA sorry). You can download if from here, then follow their instructions, as copied here:

  • Right click on the toolbar > Customize, find the Net Usage bar and drag it to a convenient location on your toolbar.
  • Right click the bar > Preferences, and then enter your ISP service number, password and month on peak and off peak quota amount.
  • Right click the bar > Update Usage.

The bar should now update by retrieving your quota used info from your ISP. It will show you the percentage of days elapsed (black triangle) and percentage of quota used on the same bar... and more info if you hold your mouse over it.


Tip 3: Limit file sharing programs during on-peak!

If you notice a huge chunk out of your quota or a big slow in internet speed, it's most likely someone in your house has spent the day online gaming (which is usually obvious enough to everyone) or peer-to-peer (which is much less obvious)!

Regular e-mail web browsing doesn't actually use up a lot of bandwidth - unless of course you download huge attachments or do a ton of youtube surfing (or any streaming video or streaming audio for that matter). The REAL killers of bandwidth (i.e. download rate) are peer-to-peer file sharing programs! By definition, peer-to-peer means data is going both ways. You may have only leeched (i.e. downloaded) a 700MB album, but meanwhile you may have (without really knowing it) "seeded" (i.e. uploading) hundreds of other files. Although uploading doesn't usually contribute to your quota, file sharing programs typically do a lot of back and forward communication, and much accessing of files. And so if you are not downloading, don't leave these programs running in the background - they will slow down your network, and your disk drive! I don't do much file sharing myself, but housemate uses Vuze because it was one of the few file sharing programs which lets you schedule WHEN to do all the downloading - allowing him to use us off-peak time (when we're asleep), but give the rest of us full bandwidth when we need it.



Tip 4: Don't install and run unnecessary programs

A HUGE percentage of programs nowadays will connect to the internet - even if it's just sending a couple of small packets (most internet packets being 1-1.5kB) to and from a server check if a newer version exists. Most of these programs will have negligible effect on your total download quota (which is probably GB), but sometimes it's the program you don't expect which contribute to you going over-quota. For example:

  • iTunes - can download quite a bit; especially if you subscribe to pod casts!
  • Skype - if you talk for hours... although don't forget even IRCs like Windows Messenger periodically check who is online.

Even if the program is in the background and you aren't using it, it can still be sending out sending out messages, and the messages are being returned. But the real danger is programs you aren't aware are running on your computer! Many modern viruses and spyware programs won't attack your computer, but instead use it as a platform to attack other computers. Hence, it's a good idea to: (a) only install the programs you need and are sure of, and (b) try to minimize the number of programs which open on startup. Not only can these programs slow down your internet; they slow down your whole computer!


Tip 5: Monitoring Network Traffic

Hopefully by this stage your problems will be more or less resolved, and your chance of running over-quota massively reduced. If however, you are still going over quota there is a possibility: (a) someone in your house is being dishonest about their internet usage or (b) someone in your house is unwittingly using a program (possibly a virus) taking up all your bandwidth.



Packet Sniffers

One solution to this is to install a packet sniffer on your computer - a program which intercepts and logs all traffic passing through your network. I one called Microsoft Network Monitor and I've created a separate page outlining how to use this program here:

Microsoft Network Monitor

Admittedly I haven't tried any other packet sniffers, but this seems like the only free one with a decent GUI. The disadvantage of this however, is it it's hard to analyze the hundreds of thousands of packets received, it takes up a LOT of memory, and is really best suited for being used in small bursts; not over month long periods!


Bandwith Monitoring Programs

Another solution is to install a bandwidth monitoring program which counts the amount of data THAT computer has downloaded. NetMeter is a awesome free program for doing this: it features up a very useful little window showing how much you are downloading at any given time, daily/weekly/monthly traffic reports, AND allows you to set alarms if you download too much. Bandwidth Monitor is almost identical, but is ~$20 after a 30 day trial. NetMonitor is one for MAC computers, although haven't tried it.

The disadvantage, however, is that you have to install it on everyones computer, and ALSO rely on their honesty! Futhermore, none of these programs differentiate between Internet and local traffic - so if you watch a movie off the network, you will suddenly have "downloaded" many GB.  :(


Filtering Traffic at the Router

Some router will actually have their own options for creating priority traffic, and most will have options to block certain types of traffic. For most people this is a little complex however, and will depend entirely on what type of router you have!


Network Monitoring!

If you were a real control freak you could install an all-out program like Net Spy Pro, but programs like these are typically expensive, and scream invasion of privacy!  :-)


Conclusion

I hope this has helped you. If you know of any other useful programs or techniques to help monitor bandwidth I'd love to hear them.  :-)

Just remember: for every MB you download, there is probably another MB in extra messages you're not aware of. Happy downloading!


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