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What is Network Traffic?

Network Traffic Definition

Network traffic is the amount of data moving across a computer network at any given time. Network traffic, also called data traffic, is broken down into data packets and sent over a network before being reassembled by the receiving device or computer.

Network traffic has two directional flows, north-south and east-west. Traffic affects network quality because an unusually high amount of traffic can mean slow download speeds or spotty Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) connections. Traffic is also related to security because an unusually high amount of traffic could be the sign of an attack.

Data Packets

When data travels over a network or over the internet, it must first be broken down into smaller batches so that larger files can be transmitted efficiently. The network breaks down, organizes, and bundles the data into data packets so that they can be sent reliably through the network and then opened and read by another user in the network. Each packet takes the best route possible to spread network traffic evenly. 

North-south Traffic

North-south traffic refers to client-to-server traffic that moves between the data center and the rest of the network (i.e., a location outside of the data center). 

East-west Traffic

East-west traffic refers to traffic within a data center, also known as server-to-server traffic.  

Types of Network Traffic

To better manage bandwidth, network administrators decide how certain types of traffic are to be treated by network devices like routers and switches. There are two general categories of network traffic: real-time and non-real-time. 

Real-time Traffic

Traffic deemed important or critical to business operations must be delivered on time and with the highest quality possible. Examples of real-time network traffic include VoIP, videoconferencing, and web browsing.

Non-real-time Traffic

Non-real-time traffic, also known as best-effort traffic, is traffic that network administrators consider less important than real-time traffic. Examples include File Transfer Protocol (FTP) for web publishing and email applications.

Why Network Traffic Analysis and Monitoring Are Important

Network traffic analysis (NTA) is a technique used by network administrators to examine network activity, manage availability, and identify unusual activity. NTA also enables admins to determine if any security or operational issues exist—or might exist moving forward—under current conditions. Addressing such issues as they occur not only optimizes the organization's resources but also reduces the possibility of an attack. As such, NTA is tied to enhanced security. 

  1. Identify bottlenecks: Bottlenecks are likely to occur as a result of a spike in the number of users in a single geographic location.
  2. Troubleshoot bandwidth issues: A slow connection can be because a network is not designed to accommodate an increase in the number of users or amount of activity.
  3. Improve visibility of devices on your network: Increased awareness of endpoints can help administrators anticipate network traffic and make adjustments if necessary.
  4. Detect security issues and fix them more quickly: NTA works in real time, alerting admins when there is a traffic anomaly or possible breach.

How Fortinet Can Help

The right network monitoring software helps organizations gain visibility into all the devices and applications running on a network. It is important to know which devices are using the most bandwidth to reconfigure the network as necessary or make changes to the types of content being filtered to prevent access to certain websites or services (e.g., YouTube and Netflix).


A software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) uses software to manage connections between an organization's data centers and its remote locations. SD-WAN can accommodate multiple connection types, such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and Long Term Evolution (LTE). It can also automatically segment traffic based on defined criteria. 

The Fortinet SD-WAN solution determines the best wide-area network (WAN) path for traffic, which optimizes performance and increases productivity across the organization. The Fortinet Secure SD-WAN solution is a leader in Gartner’s 2020 Magic Quadrant report.

Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW)

A next-generation firewall (NGFW) inspects and filters traffic before it can enter the network. NGFWs identify and block potential threats, protecting organizations from attacks. The Fortinet NGFW, FortiGate, provides secure sockets layer (SSL) inspection, application control, intrusion detection and prevention, and robust tracking across all endpoints and applications, securing the network without compromising network performance.