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leaky bucket algorithm

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

The leaky bucket algorithm is a method of temporarily storing a variable number of requests and organizing them into a set-rate output of packets in an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) network.

The leaky bucket is used to implement traffic policing and traffic shaping in Ethernet and cellular data networks. The algorithm can also be used to control metered-bandwidth Internet connections to prevent going over the allotted bandwidth for a month, thereby avoiding extra charges.

The algorithm works similarly to the way an actual leaky bucket holds water: The leaky bucket takes data and collects it up to a maximum capacity. Data in the bucket is only released from the bucket at a set rate and size of packet. When the bucket runs out of data, the leaking stops. If incoming data would overfill the bucket, then the packet is considered to be non-conformant and is not added to the bucket. Data is added to the bucket as space becomes available for conforming packets.

The leaky bucket algorithm can also detect both gradually increasing and dramatic memory error increases by comparing how the average and peak data rates exceed set acceptable background amounts.

In a broader context, the leaky bucket is an analogy for describing how inputs and outputs work in a wide variety of business and technology systems.

See a video demonstration of the leaky bucket in traffic shaping:

This was last updated in April 2015

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I wonder if the leaky bucket gets used by some companies to help with throttling on their APIs.
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It's used in telecom to throttle systems and API's. The idea is that under extreme heavy load you don't want to bring down the network, instead you want to maintain a stead rate of transactions that you know you can handle reliable and then just delay or shed the rest of the load. This is what happens in an emergency situation when you can't get a dial-tone. The system is letting as many calls go through as it safely can and then just blocking the rest, rather than what happens with some websites where they get a spike in traffic and then crash. It is also sometimes used for licensing. A consumer of a service pays for a specific rate and the throttle keeps them to that rate. If they want to go faster they pay more for their license.
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I would not doubt it. Who knows whats going to happen with this "Net Neutrality". now.
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