Real World 802.11ac Performance Under OS X

A good friend of mine recently bought an older house and had been contemplating running a bunch of Cat6 through the crawlspace in order to get good, high-speed connectivity through his home. Pretty stoked about what I found with 802.11ac performance on the MacBook Air, I thought I came across a much easier solution to his problem. I shared my iPerf data with him, but he responded with a totally valid request: was I seeing those transfer rates in real world file copies?

I have an iMac running Mountain Lion connected over Gigabit Ethernet to my network. I mounted an AFP share on the MacBook Air connected over 802.11ac and copied a movie over.

21.2MB/s or 169.6Mbps is the fastest I saw.

Hmm. I connected the iMac to the same ASUS RT-AC66U router as the MacBook Air. Still 21.2MB/s.

I disabled all other wireless in my office. Still, no difference. I switched ethernet cables, I tried different Macs, I tried copying from a PC, I even tried copying smaller files - none of these changes did anything. At most, I only saw 21.2MB/s over 802.11ac.

I double checked my iPerf data. 533Mbps. Something weird was going on.

I plugged in Apple’s Thunderbolt Gigabit Ethernet adaptor and saw 906Mbps, clearly the source and the MacBook Air were both capable of high speed transfers.

What I tried next gave me some insight into what was going on. I setup web and FTP servers on the MacBook Air and transferred files that way. I didn’t get 533Mbps, but I broke 300Mbps. For some reason, copying over AFP or SMB shares was limited to much lower performance. This was a protocol issue.

Digging Deeper, Finding the Culprit

A major component of TCP networking, and what guarantees reliable data transmission, is the fact that all transfers are acknowledged and retransmitted if necessary. How frequently transfers are acknowledged has big implications on performance. Acknowledge (ACK) too frequently and you’ll get terrible throughput as the sender has to stop all work and wait for however long an ACK takes to travel across the network. Acknowledge too rarely on the other hand and you run the risk of doing a lot of wasted work in sub optimal network conditions. The TCP window size is a variable that’s used to define this balance.

TCP window size defines the max amount of data that can be in flight before an acknowledgement has to be sent/received. Modern TCP implementations support dynamic scaling of the TCP window in order to optimize for higher bandwidth interfaces.

If you know the round trip latency of a network, TCP window size as well as the maximum bandwidth that can be delivered over the connection you can actually calculate maximum usable bandwidth on the network.

The ratio of the network’s bandwidth-delay product to the TCP window size gives us that max bandwidth number.

The 2-stream 802.11ac in the new MacBook Air supports link rates of up to 867Mbps. My iPerf data showed ~533Mbps of usable bandwidth in the best conditions. Round trip latency over 50 ping requests between the MBA client and an iMac wired over Gigabit Ethernet host averaged 2.8ms. The bandwidth-delay product is 533Mbps x 2.8ms or 186,550 bytes. Now let’s look at the maximum usable bandwidth as a function of TCP window size:

Impact of TCP Window Size on 802.11ac Transfer Rates, 533Mbps Link, 2.8ms Latency
Window Size Bandwidth-Delay Product TCP Window/BDP Percentage Link Bandwidth Max Realized Bandwidth
32KB 186550B 32768/186550B 17.6% 533Mbps 93.6Mbps
64KB 186550B 65536/186550B 31.1% 533Mbps 187.2Mbps
128KB 186550B 131072/186550B 70.3% 533Mbps 374.5Mbps
256KB 186550B 262144/186550B 140.5% 533Mbps 533Mbps

The only way to get the full 533Mbps is by using a TCP window size that’s at least 256KB.

I re-ran my iPerf test and sniffed the packets that went by to confirm the TCP window size during the test. The results came back as expected. OS X properly scaled up the TCP window to 256KB, which enabled me to get the 533Mbps result:

I then monitored packets going by while copying files over an AFP share and found my culprit:

OS X didn’t scale the TCP window size beyond 64KB, which limits performance to a bit above what I could get over 5GHz 802.11n on the MacBook Air. Interestingly enough you can get better performance over HTTP or FTP, but in none of the cases would OS X scale TCP window size to 256KB - thus artificially limiting 802.11ac.

I spent a good amount of time trying to work around this issue, even manually setting TCP window size in OS X, but came up empty handed. I’m not overly familiar with the networking stack in OS X so it’s very possible that I missed something, but I’m confident in saying that there’s an issue here. At a risk of oversimplifying, it looks like the TCP window scaling algorithm features a hard limit in OS X’s WiFi networking stack optimized for 802.11n and unaware of ac’s higher bandwidth capabilities. I should also add that the current developer preview of OS X Mavericks doesn’t fix the issue, nor does using an Apple 802.11ac router.

The bad news is that in its shipping configuration, the new MacBook Air is capable of some amazing transfer rates over 802.11ac but you won’t see them when copying files between Macs or PCs. The good news is the issue seems entirely confined to software. I’ve already passed along my findings to Apple. If I had to guess, I would expect that we’ll see a software update addressing this.

802.11ac: 533Mbps Over WiFi Display


View All Comments

  • spronkey - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Samsung LCDs might have slightly better early quality control. LG Display have been a bit notorious for early run issues with their panels lately. But I agree - taking these away, LG has more cred as a panel maker than Samsung does. Reply
  • airmantharp - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    I'd prove that LG makes a better screen than Samsung- but it's already been proven. Reply
  • Malih - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    The laptop focuses on being lightweight, thus thin, thus limited battery capacity,
    and limited battery capacity doesn't play well with high res display,

    They could choose to increase resolution with haswell and keep the same battery life, but seeing as they chose battery shows where they are focusing with Air.

    That means if you want high res display, then get Retina MBP instead.
  • airmantharp - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Your iPhone would like to have a talk with you. Reply
  • seapeople - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - link

    And tell you about what? It's similar display resolution? Reply
  • abazigal - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    You can always pay more to have the air ship with more ram. Reply
  • darwinosx - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Or faster procs or more sad. Reply
  • Strulf - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Yep, 8 GB are possible. In the generation before already. Reply
  • MatthiasP - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    The resolution is quite OK if you consider the battery life and weight you get. Also both displays still offer a higher DPI than what you can get on the best desktop displays. What is really disappointing is the lack of an IPS panel. There is no excuse for that on a mobile device. Reply
  • Exelius - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    8gb is available as a BTO option. I have a 11" 2012 MBP with an i7-3667U and 8gb RAM and it's more than enough for running a VM and even for doing some database work. Honestly, the machine is still mostly bound by the speed of the SSD for every workload I use it for. I love the size of the 11".

    The only complaint I have is that the GPU is a bit anemic, which the Haswell update seems to have addressed. I find that the 2012 Air has some noticeable jerkiness driving a 1080p display in OS X, which I suspect is a large part of the reason that the Airs haven't had a larger display. Hopefully, with that limitation removed, Apple can start to put some higher resolution displays in these machines over the next year or two.

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