Traffic Shaping in pfSense: What it Does

traffic shapingTraffic shaping is a computer network traffic management technique designed to delay some or all datagrams to bring them into compliance with a traffic profile. Without traffic shaping, packets are processed on a first in/first out basis by the firewall. Traffic shaping, or Quality of Service (QoS) offers a means of prioritizing different types of traffic. This ensures that higher priority services receive the bandwidth they need before lesser priority services. This helps to optimize or guarantee performance, improve latency, and/or increase usable bandwidth for some kinds of packets by delaying other kinds.

Another way of managing computer traffic is traffic policing. The difference between policing and shaping is that traffic policing propagates bursts. When the traffic rate reaches the configured maximum rate, excess traffic is dropped or remarked. The result is an output rate that appears on a graph as a saw-tooth with crests and troughs. In contrast to policing, traffic shaping retains excess packets in a queue and then schedules the excess for later transmission over increments of time. The result of traffic shaping is a smoothed packet output rate.

For purposes of this discussion, we are concerned mainly with traffic shaping in pf (and therefore pfSense). The way traffic shaping is accomplished in pf is that incoming traffic from the Internet going to a host on the LAN is actually shaped coming out of the LAN interface from the pfSense system. In the same manner, traffic going from the LAN to the Internet is shaped when leaving the WAN. This is because traffic has to be limited in a place where pf/pfSense can actually control the flow of data.

There are two means by which traffic shaping is accomplished: traffic shaping queues and traffic shaping rules. The queues are where bandwidth and priorities are actually allocated, while traffic shaping rules control how traffic is assigned into those queues. If a packet matches a shaper rule, it will be assigned into the queues specified by that rule. In that manner, traffic shaping rules are similar to firewall rules, with matching criteria and with outcomes dictated based on whether a packet matches the criteria.

Traffic Shaping: Reasons

The primary reasons you would use traffic shaping are to control access to available bandwidth, to ensure that traffic conforms to the policies established for it, and to regulate the flow of traffic in order to avoid congestion that can occur when the sent traffic exceeds the access speed of its target (remote) interface. Here are some examples why you might want to use traffic shaping:

  • Control access to bandwidth when policy dictates that the rate of a given interface should not on the average exceed a certain rate even though the access rate exceeds the speed.
  • If the network has differing access rates. Suppose that one end of the link in a Frame Relay network runs at 256 kbps and the other end of the link runs at 128 kbps. Sending packets at 256 kbps could cause failure of the applications using the link.
  • If you offer a subrate service. In this case, traffic shaping enables you to use the router to partition your T1 or T3 links into smaller channels.
  • Smoothing out asymmetric links, where the download speed differs from the upload speed (such as DSL connections). Some links are so out of balance that the maximum download speed is unattainable because it is difficult to send out enough ACK packets to keep traffic flowing. By using the traffic shaper to prioritize ACK packets you can achieve faster and more stable download speeds on asymmetric links.
  • Prioritizing VoIP calls. If your VoIP calls use the same circuit as data, then uploads and downloads may degrade your call quality. pf/pfSense can prioritize the call traffic above other protocols and ensure the calls make it through without breaking up.
  • Network gaming. There are also options to give priority to the traffic associating with networking gaming, even if you are downloading while playing.
  • P2P applications. By lowering the priority of traffic associated with known peer-to-peer ports, pf/pfSense ensures that P2P applications will not interfere with other traffic on your network.

Other Articles in This Series:

Traffic Shaping Wizard: An Introduction
QoS Management Using the Traffic Shaper Wizard
Queue Configuration in pfSense 2.1
Traffic Shaping Rules in pfSense 2.1
Layer 7 Groups in pfSense 2.1
Bandwidth Limiting with the pfSense Limiter
Deep Packet Inspection Using Layer 7 Traffic Shaping

External Links:

Traffic shaping at Wikipedia

Comparing Traffic Policing and Traffic Shaping for Bandwidth Limiting [QoS Policing] at

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