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Thursday, April 28, 2011

How To Easily Set Up Router QoS for VoIP, File Sharing, and Gaming

Routers accept traffic from a lot of sources — laptops, consoles, phones and tablets, all jockeying for control of your bits and bytes. But it doesn’t take much to clog the pipes, and be it torrents or Team Fortress, keeping your bandwidth under control isn’t always easy.

That’s why we’re going to show you how to configure a little something called Quality of Service for a smoother online experience. You can prioritize applications, throttle specific machines, and configure your whole house or apartment with multiple users and devices in mind — quelling data hogs and headaches at the same time.

Here’s the straightforward way to setting it up, no matter where your bandwidth priorities lie.

For this to work, you’re going to need a custom router firmware called DD-WRT. There are lots of models capable of running the software — and more still that have alternate firmware variants of their own — so now might be a good time to read our previous article on the subject.

Quality of Service — or QoS — is similar in theory to how many ISPs throttle traffic, but on a local scale. The router watches certain ports, protocols or devices of your choosing, and can be configured to prioritize traffic coming and going from each. The whole process is near-invisible to the average user, but means your Netflix binge wont affect the Battlefield tournament going on in the next room.

That being said, we’re going to focus on three of the biggest QoS concerns — VoIP, file sharing, and gaming. These three categories are particularly sensitive to changes in bandwidth, and can also adversely affect available bandwidth as well. The goal is to give each category just enough room to function, but without affecting other users or services on the network.

Getting Started

Within the DD-WRT firmware, you’ll see QoS has been given its own tab. Click it, and navigate to the QoS subheading. Next, you’ll need to determine the average upload and download speed of your connection, preferably with a service like SpeedTest for the most accurate results (after all, its unlikely you’re getting the exact speeds promised by your ISP).

The goal here is to allot around 85% of your available bandwidth — the speeds you just measure — for QoS purposes. This is very important. Leave those numbers blank, and you’ll shut internet traffic off completely. Put them at 100%, and you’ll leave no bottleneck or breathing room for QoS to do its thing. It might seem counter-intuitive, but in practice, this won’t affect your actual speeds. Otherwise, you can leave everything else under the QoS Settings section as it is.

Services Priority is where we really want to be. This is where DD-WRT's various policies — essentially, a list of applications, and the ports they use to transfer data — can be ranked and prioritized as you wish. Each priority level is broken down as follows:

  • Exempt: (Ignores global limits)
  • Premium: 75% - 100%
  • Express: 15% - 100%
  • Standard: 10% - 100%
  • Bulk: 1.5% - 100%

Let's assume you're downloading the latest episode of Archer at 100kb/s, using an application categorized as Standard. If another application in the higher Express bracket needs to download some data of its own, that episode of Archer will scale back to 10kb/s — a value of 10%, as indicated by the Standard tier's rule. Make sense? Just don't try and set all of your applications to Premium or Exempt with the expectation of better speeds; you'll defeat the whole point of prioritizing in the first place.
That being said, here are a few handy set ups you can try.

#1: For crystal-clear Skype calls, and other VoIP services

It's not uncommon to find users rely increasingly on Skype and other VoIP services as their main phone line. However, that means the quality of your calls are subject to the same whims as the rest of your connection. To keep things crystal-clear, your best bet is to prioritize those services near the top of the food-chain to withstand even the most bandwidth-hungry of applications.

DD-WRT even has a few application profiles already built-in, which you can select from the policy drop-down menu. However, you may need to verify that the ports being prioritized are the same being used by your application — after all, such things can change, especially after updates. In the event you need to add your own application policy, the process is dead-simple, as long as you know the range of ports with which your application transmits data over.

#2: For a smooth, streaming experience on your game console or set-top box

When dealing with, say, a PlayStation 3 or a Roku streaming box, you probably won’t be bothered to prioritize traffic based on service. In fact, it’s far more likely you’ll want to prioritize the device itself — something DD-WRT offers via MAC address.
You’ll need to find the address first, of course, usually buried in a settings menu, or sometimes, printed on the device itself. Once you’ve entered the MAC into your DD-WRT firmware, you can prioritize traffic in relation to the other rules you’ve already set up, which should keep those late-night Netflix marathons free of buffering.

#3: For lag-free gaming, even while tormenting

Bitorrent is the bane of many a gamer’s online existence — useful at the best of times, but awful as far as latency and bandwidth are concerned. In fact, torrent clients have a tendency to max-out available bandwidth in their ongoing search for seeds and peers, which in turn can wreak havoc on online games.

The solution here is to designate all file sharing and P2P activities to the lowest bracket, Bulk. Clients like uTorrent or Transmission can be slowed to an absolute crawl when other, high-ranked applications require network access, and resume their duties during idle periods. You can even do the reverse of our second tip, and designate streaming applications like Hulu and Netflix to a lower bracket, such asStandard or Express — enough to prevent high-definition streaming, but still allow the video to play, albeit at a reduced quality.

If you turn QoS on and off, the difference in network traffic becomes readily apparent. While by no means a scientific test, a number of bandwidth-hogging torrents sent our game of Team Fortress 2 to a ping of 800 and higher. But with QoS enabled, torrent traffic slowed to a crawl, and our ping returned to a far more manageable level.

By now, the benefits of QoS should be obvious. In situations where multiple users and devices are all sharing a single internet connection, its hard to predict the potential impact on bandwidth. By enabling an ever-present, highly-adaptable service such as this, you won't have to — making lag spikes and buffering woes a thing of the bast.

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