Chapter 8. Optimizing for Mobile Networks

First off, minimizing latency through keepalive connections, geo-positioning your servers and data closer to the client, optimizing your TLS deployments, and all the other protocol optimizations we have covered are only more important on mobile applications, where both latency and throughput are always at a premium. Similarly, all the web application performance best practices are equally applicable. Feel free to flip ahead to Chapter 10; we’ll wait.

However, mobile networks also pose some new and unique requirements for our performance strategy. Designing applications for the mobile web requires careful planning and consideration of the presentation of the content within the constraints of the form factor of the device, the unique performance properties of the radio interface, and the impact on the battery life. The three are inextricably linked.

Perhaps because it is the easiest to control, the presentation layer, with topics such as responsive design, tends to receive the most attention. However, where most applications fall short, it is often due to the incorrect design assumptions about networking performance: the application protocols are the same, but the differences in the physical delivery layers impose a number of constraints that, if unaccounted for, will lead to slow response times, high latency variability, and ultimately a compromised experience for the user. To add insult to injury, poor networking decisions will also have an outsized negative impact on the battery life of the device.

There is no universal solution for these three constraints. There are best practices for the presentation layer, the networking, and the battery life performance, but frequently they are at odds; it is up to you and your application to find the balance in your requirements. One thing is for sure: simply disregarding any one of them won’t get you far.

With that in mind, we won’t elaborate too much on the presentation layer, as that varies with every platform and type of application—plus, there are plenty of existing books dedicated to this subject. But, regardless of the make or the operating system, the radio and battery constraints imposed by mobile networks are universal, and that is what we will focus on in this chapter.

Throughout this chapter and especially in the following pages, the term "mobile application" is used in its broadest definition: all of our discussions on the performance of mobile networks are equally applicable to native applications, regardless of the platform, and applications running in your browser, regardless of the browser vendor.

Preserve Battery Power

When it comes to mobile, conserving power is a critical concern for everyone involved: device manufacturers, carriers, application developers, and the end users of our applications. When in doubt, or wondering why or how certain mobile behaviors were put in place, ask a simple question: how does it impact or improve the battery life? In fact, this is a great question to ask for any and every feature in your application also.

Networking performance on mobile networks is inherently linked to battery performance. In fact, the physical layers of the radio interface are specifically built to optimize the battery life against the following constraints:

  • Radio use at full power can drain a full battery in a matter of hours.
  • Radio power requirements are going up with every wireless generation.
  • Radio is often second in power consumption only to the screen.
  • Radio use has a nonlinear energy profile with respect to data transferred.

With that in mind, mobile applications should aim to minimize their use of the radio interface. To be clear, that is not to say that you should avoid using the radio entirely; after all we are building connected applications that rely on access to the network! However, because keeping the radio active is so expensive in terms of battery life, our applications should maximize the amount of transferred data while the radio is on and then seek to minimize the number of additional data transfers.

Even though WiFi uses a radio interface to transfer data, it is important to realize that the underlying mechanics of WiFi, and consequently the latency, throughput, and power profiles of WiFi, when compared with 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile networks are fundamentally different; see our earlier discussion on “3G, 4G, and WiFi Power Requirements”. Consequently, the networking behavior can and often should be different when on WiFi vs. mobile networks.

Eliminate Periodic and Inefficient Data Transfers

The fact that the mobile radio incurs a fixed power cost to cycle into the full power state, regardless of the amount of data to be transferred, tells us that there is no such thing as a "small request" as far as the battery is concerned. Intermittent network access is a performance anti-pattern on mobile networks; see “Inefficiency of Periodic Transfers”. In fact, extending this same logic yields the following rules:

  • Polling is exceptionally expensive on mobile networks; minimize it.
  • Where possible, push delivery and notifications should be used.
  • Outbound and inbound requests should be coalesced and aggregated.
  • Noncritical requests should be deferred until the radio is active.

In general, push delivery is more efficient than polling. However, a high-frequency push stream can be just as, if not more, expensive. Whenever there is a need for real-time updates, you should consider the following questions:

  • What is the best interval of updates and does it match user expectations?
  • Instead of a fixed update interval, can an adaptive strategy be used?
  • Can the inbound or outbound requests be aggregated into fewer network calls?
  • Can the inbound or outbound requests be deferred until later?

For push delivery, native applications have access to platform-specific push delivery services, which should be used when possible. For web applications, server-sent events (SSEs) and WebSocket delivery can be used to minimize latency and protocol overhead. Avoid polling and costly XHR techniques when possible.

A simple aggregation strategy of bundling multiple notifications into a single push event, based on an adaptive interval, user preference, or even the battery level on the device, can make a significant improvement to the power profile of any application, especially background applications, which often rely on this type of network access pattern.

Intermittent beacon requests such as audience measurement pings and real-time analytics can easily negate all of your careful battery optimizations. These pings are mostly harmless on wired and even WiFi networks but carry an outsized cost on mobile networks. Do these beacons need to happen instantaneously? There is a good chance that you can easily log and defer these requests until next time the radio is active. Piggyback your background pings, and pay close attention to the network access patterns of third-party libraries and snippets in your code.

Finally, while we have so far focused on the battery, intermittent network access required for techniques such as progressive enhancement and incremental loading also carries a large latency cost due to the RRC state transitions! Recall that every state transition incurs a high control-plane latency cost in mobile networks, which may inject hundreds or thousands of extra milliseconds of latency—an especially expensive proposition for user-initiated and interactive traffic.

Eliminate Unnecessary Application Keepalives

The connection state and the lifecycle of any TCP or UDP connection is independent of the radio state on the device: the radio can be in a low-power state while the connections are maintained by the carrier network. Then, when a new packet arrives from the external network, the carrier radio network will notify the device, promote its radio to a connected state, and resume the data transfer.

The application does not need to keep the radio "active" to ensure that connections are not dropped. Unnecessary application keepalives can have an enormous negative impact on battery life performance and are often put in place due to simple misunderstanding of how the mobile radio works. Refer to “Physical Layer vs. Application Layer Connectivity” and “Packet Flow in a Mobile Network”.

Most mobile carriers set a 5–30 minute NAT connection timeout. Hence, you may need a periodic (5 minute) keepalive to keep an idle connection from being dropped. If you find yourself requiring more frequent keepalives, check your own server, proxy, and load balancer configuration first!

Anticipate Network Latency Overhead

A single HTTP request for a required resource may incur anywhere from hundreds to thousands of milliseconds of network latency overhead in a mobile network. In part, this is due to the high roundtrip latencies, but we also can’t forget the overhead (Figure 8-2) of DNS, TCP, TLS, and control-plane costs!

Components of a "simple" HTTP request
Figure 8-2. Components of a "simple" HTTP request

In the best case, the radio is already in a high-power state, the DNS is pre-resolved, and an existing TCP connection is available: the client may be able to reuse an existing connection and avoid the overhead of establishing a new connection. However, if the connection is busy, or nonexistent, then we must incur a number of additional roundtrips before any application data can be sent.

To illustrate the impact of these extra network roundtrips, let’s assume an optimistic 100 ms roundtrip time for 4G and a 200 ms roundtrip time for 3.5G+ networks:

Table 8-1. Latency overhead of a single HTTP request
  3G 4G

Control plane

200–2,500 ms

50–100 ms

DNS lookup

200 ms

100 ms

TCP handshake

200 ms

100 ms

TLS handshake

200–400 ms

100–200 ms

HTTP request

200 ms

100 ms

Total latency overhead

200–3500 ms

100–600 ms

The RRC control-plane latency alone can add anywhere from hundreds to thousands of milliseconds of overhead to reestablish the radio context on a 3G network! Once the radio is active, we may need to resolve the hostname to an IP address and then perform the TCP handshake—two network roundtrips. Then, if a secure tunnel is required, we may need up to two extra network roundtrips (see “TLS Session Resumption”). Finally, the HTTP request can be sent, which adds a minimum of another roundtrip.

We have not accounted for the server response time or the size of the response, which may require several roundtrips, and yet we have already incurred up to half a dozen roundtrips. Multiply that by the roundtrip time, and we are looking at entire seconds of latency overhead for 3G, and roughly half a second for 4G networks.

Account for RRC State Transitions

If the mobile device has been idle for more than a few seconds, you should assume and anticipate that the first packet will incur hundreds, or even thousands of milliseconds of extra RRC latency. As a rule of thumb, add 100 ms for 4G, 150–500 ms for 3.5G+, and 500–2,500 ms for 3G networks, as a one-time, control-plane latency cost.

The RRC is specifically designed to help mitigate some of the cost of operating the power-hungry radio. However, what we gain in battery life is offset by increases in latency and lower throughput due to the presence of the various timers, counters, and the consequent overhead of required network negotiation to transition between the different radio states. However, the RRC is also a fact of life on mobile networks–there is no way around it–and if you want to build optimized applications for the mobile web, you must design with the RRC in mind.

A quick summary of what we have learned about the RRC:

  • RRC state machines are different for every wireless standard.
  • RRC state machines are managed by the radio network for each device.
  • RRC state promotions to high power occur when data must be transferred.
  • RRC state demotions to lower power occur on network-configured timeouts.
  • (4G) LTE state transitions can take 10 to 100 milliseconds.
  • (4G) HSPA+ state transitions are competitive with LTE.
  • (3G) HSPA and CDMA state transitions can take several seconds.
  • Every network transfer, no matter the size, incurs an energy tail.

We have already covered why preserving battery is such an important goal for mobile applications, and we have also highlighted the inefficiency of intermittent transfers, which are a direct result of the timeout-driven RRC state transitions. However, there is one more thing you need to take away: if the device radio has been idle, then initiating a new data transfer on mobile networks will incur an additional latency delay, which may take anywhere from 100 milliseconds on latest-generation networks to up to several seconds on older 3G and 2G networks.

While the network presents the illusion of an always-on experience to our applications, the physical or the radio layer controlled by the RRC is continuously connecting and disconnecting. On the surface, this is not an issue, but the delays imposed by the RRC are, in fact, often easily noticeable by many users when unaccounted for.

Decouple User Interactions from Network Communication

A well-designed application can feel fast by providing instant feedback even if the underlying connection is slow or the request is taking a long time to complete. Do not couple user interactions, user feedback, and network communication. To deliver the best experience, the application should acknowledge user input within hundreds of milliseconds; see “Speed, Performance, and Human Perception”.

If a network request is required, then initiate it in the background, and provide immediate UI feedback to acknowledge user input. The control plane latency alone will often push your application over the allotted budget for providing instant user feedback. Plan for high latencies—you cannot "fix" the latency imposed by the core network and the RRC—and work with your design team to ensure that they are aware of these limitations when designing the application.

Design for Variable Network Interface Availability

Users dislike slow applications, but broken applications, due to transient network errors, are the worst experience of all. Your mobile application must be robust in the face of common networking failures: unreachable hosts, sudden drops in throughput or increases in latency, or outright loss of connectivity. Unlike the tethered world, you simply cannot assume that once the connection is established, it will remain established. The user may be on the move and may enter an area with high amounts of interference, many active users, or plain poor coverage.

Further, just as you cannot design your pages just for the latest browsers, you cannot design your application just for the latest-generation mobile networks. As we have covered earlier (“Building for the Multigeneration Future”), even users with the latest handsets will continuously transition between 4G, 3G, and even 2G networks based on the continuously changing conditions of their radio environments. Your application should subscribe to these interface transitions and adjust accordingly.

The application can subscribe to navigator.onLine notifications to monitor connection status. For a good introduction, also see Paul Kinlan’s article on HTML5Rocks: Working Off the Grid with HTML5 Offline.

Change is the only constant in mobile networks. Radio channel quality is always changing based on distance from the tower, congestion from nearby users, ambient interference, and dozens of other factors. With that in mind, while it may be tempting to perform various forms of bandwidth and latency estimation to optimize your mobile application, the results should be treated, at best, as transient data points.

The iPhone 4 "antennagate" serves as a great illustration of the unpredictable nature of radio performance: reception quality was affected by the physical location of your hand in regards to the phone’s antenna, which gave birth to the infamous "You’re holding it wrong."

Latency and bandwidth estimates on mobile networks are stable on the order of tens to hundreds of milliseconds, at most a second, but not more. Hence, while optimizations such as adaptive bitrate streaming are still useful for long-lived streams, such as video, which is adapted in data chunks spanning a few seconds, these bandwidth estimates should definitely not be cached or used later to make decisions about the available throughput: even on 4G, you may measure your throughput as just a few hundred Kbit/s, and then move your radio a few inches and get Mbit/s+ performance!

End-to-end bandwidth and latency estimation is a hard problem on any network, but doubly so on mobile networks. Avoid it, because you will get it wrong. Instead, use coarse-grained information about the generation of the network, and adjust your code accordingly. To be clear, knowing the generation or type of mobile network does not make any end-to-end performance guarantees, but it does tell you important data about the latency of the first wireless hop and the end-to-end performance of the carrier network; see “Latency and Jitter in Mobile Networks” and Table 7-6.

Finally, throughput and latency aside, you should plan for loss of connectivity: assume this case is not an exception but the rule. Your application should remain operational, to the extent possible, when the network is unavailable or a transient failure happens and should adapt based on request type and specific error:

  • Do not cache or attempt to guess the state of the network.
  • Dispatch the request, listen for failures, and diagnose what happened.
  • Transient errors will happen; plan for them, and use a retry strategy.
  • Listen to connection state to anticipate the best request strategy.
  • Use a backoff algorithm for request retries; do not spin forever.
  • If offline, log and dispatch the request later if possible.
  • Leverage HTML5 AppCache and localStorage for offline mode.

With the growing adoption of HetNet infrastructure, the frequency of cell handoffs is set to rise dramatically, which makes monitoring your connection state and type only more important.

Burst Your Data and Return to Idle

Mobile radio interface is optimized for bursty transfers, which is a property you should leverage whenever possible: group your requests together and download as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and then let the radio return to an idle state. This strategy will deliver the best network throughput and maximize battery life of the device.

The only accurate way to estimate the network’s speed is, well, to use it! Latest-generation networks, such as LTE and HSPA+, perform dynamic allocation of resources in one-millisecond intervals and prioritize bursty data flows. To go fast, keep it simple: batch and pre-fetch as much data as you can, and let the network do the rest.

An important corollary is that progressive loading of resources may do more harm than good on mobile networks. By downloading content in small chunks, we expose our applications to higher variability both in throughput and latency, not to mention the much higher energy costs to operate the radio. Instead, anticipate what your users will need next, download the content ahead of time, and let the radio idle:

  • If you need to fetch a large music or a video file, consider downloading the entire file upfront, instead of streaming in chunks.
  • Prefetch application content and invest in metrics and statistical models to help identify which content is appropriate to download ahead of time.
  • Prefetch third-party content, such as ads, ahead of time and add application logic to show and update their state when necessary.
  • Eliminate unnecessary intermittent transfers. See “46% of Battery Consumption to Transfer 0.2% of Total Bytes”.

Offload to WiFi Networks

Current industry estimates show that almost 90% of the worldwide wireless traffic is expected to originate indoors, and frequently in areas with WiFi connectivity within reach. Hence, while the latest 4G networks may compete with WiFi over peak throughput and latency, very frequently they still impose a monthly data cap: mobile access is metered and often expensive to the user. Further, WiFi connections are more battery efficient (see “3G, 4G, and WiFi Power Requirements”) for large transfers and do not require an RRC.

Whenever possible, and especially if you are building a data-intensive application, you should leverage WiFi connectivity when available, and if not, then consider prompting the user to enable WiFi on her device to improve experience and minimize costs.

Apply Protocol and Application Best Practices

One of the great properties of the layered architecture of our network infrastructure is that it abstracts the physical delivery from the transport layer, and the transport layer abstracts the routing and data delivery from the application protocols. This separation provides great API abstractions, but for best end-to-end performance, we still need to consider the entire stack.

Throughout this chapter, we have focused on the unique properties of the physical layer of mobile networks, such as the presence of the RRC, concerns over the battery life of the device, and incurred routing latencies in mobile networks. However, on top of this physical layer reside the transport and session protocols we have covered in earlier chapters, and all of their optimizations are just as critical, perhaps doubly so:

Minimizing latency by reusing keepalive connections, geo-positioning servers and data closer to the client, optimizing TLS deployments, and all the other optimizations we outlined earlier are even more important on mobile networks, where roundtrip latencies are high and bandwidth is always at a premium.

Of course, our optimization strategy does not stop with transport and session protocols; they are simply the foundation. From there, we must also consider the performance implications of different application protocols (HTTP 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0), as well as general web application best practices—keep reading, we are not done yet!