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Getting Your Money's Worth From Your ISP

Do you ever wonder what your Internet Service Providers’ service is really like? Are you getting your money’s worth? Should you use Google’s public DNS services or stick to those of your provider? A research group led by Fabián Bustamante at Northwestern University may be able to answer that for you.

Characterizing Internet Service Providers (ISP) is critical to customers shopping for alternative ISPs, Internet companies providing reliable services, and governments surveying the availability of broadband services to their citizens.

A number of efforts by both private companies and government agencies around the world are trying to shed some light on this topic, from Netflix’s recently released ISP performance rankings to the FCC/SamKnows partnership for broadband speed testing.

According to Bustamante, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, ISP characterization should be ideally done continuously, on a large scale and by the customers of those ISPs. Measuring ISP performance at scale and over time is necessary to capture the variations that customers receive, which are partially determined by their city or even neighborhood, as well as the day and time they access the Internet.

Bustamante's new Dasu project is based on the idea that popular network-intensive applications, such as BitTorrent or Skype, offer a nearly ideal vantage point for ISP characterization. Through them, one can easily and continuously capture the network performance and service reliability of customers in nearly every corner of the world.

Bustamante's AquaLab research group has recently released a publicly available implementation of their ideas as an extension to BitTorrent. The goal of their Dasu extension for the popular Vuze/Azureus BitTorrent client is to efficiently capture ISP service variations by constantly monitoring and measuring the level of service provided by customers’ ISP, so they can make informed decisions about users’ choice of service provider. In addition to Bustamante, graduate students Mario Sánchez, John Otto and Zach Bischof worked on the project.

Users can see some of the interesting information the system makes available through a demo (test-drive Dasu). Looking through the tabs – the same interface users would find if they ran Dasu within BitTorrent – users can see the name of their ISP provider, their Internet performance (including a comparison between their ISP's DNS service and some common public DNS services, as well as the latency for popular websites in their area), their current and historical BitTorrent performance, and whether their ISP is interfering with their traffic.