General description of the TCP/IP protocols

TCP/IP is a layered set of protocols. In order to understand what this means, it is useful to look at an example. A typical situation is sending mail. First, there is a protocol for mail. This defines a set of commands which one machine sends to another, e.g. commands to specify who the sender of the message is, who it is being sent to, and then the text of the message. However this protocol assumes that there is a way to communicate reliably between the two computers. Mail, like other application protocols, simply defines a set of commands and messages to be sent. It is designed to be used together with TCP and IP. 

TCP IP Layered Protocols

TCP is responsible for making sure that the commands get through to the other end. It keeps track of what is sent, and re transmits anything that did not get through. If any message is too large for one datagram, e.g. the text of the mail, TCP will split it up into several datagrams, and make sure that they all arrive correctly. Since these functions are needed for many applications, they are put together into a separate protocol, rather than being part of the specifications for sending mail. You can think of TCP as forming a library of routines that applications can use when they need reliable network communications with another computer. Similarly, TCP calls on the services of IP. Although the services that TCP supplies are needed by many applications, there are still some kinds of applications that don’t need them. However there are some services that every application needs. So these services are put together into IP. As with TCP, you can think of IP as a library of routines that TCP calls on, but which is also available to applications that don’t use TCP. This strategy of building several levels of protocol is called “layering”. We think of the applications programs such as mail, TCP, and IP, as being separate “layers”, each of which calls on the services of the layer below it.

Generally, TCP/IP applications use 4 layers: 

  • An application protocol such as mail
  • A protocol such as TCP that provides services need by many applications
  • IP, which provides the basic service of getting datagrams to their destination
  • The protocols needed to manage a specific physical medium, such as Ethernet or a point to point line.

TCP/IP is based on the “catenet model”. (This is described in more detail in IEN 48.) This model assumes that there are a large number of independent networks connected together by gateways. The user should be able to access computers or other resources on any of these networks. Datagrams will often pass through a dozen different networks before getting to their final destination. The routing needed to accomplish this should be completely invisible to the user. As far as the user is concerned, all he needs to know in order to access another system is an “Internet address”. This is an address that looks like 128.6.4.194. It is actually a 32-bit number. However it is normally written as 4 decimal numbers, each representing 8 bits of the address. (The term “octet” is used by Internet documentation for such 8-bit chunks. The term “byte” is not used, because TCP/IP is supported by some computers that have byte sizes other than 8 bits.) Generally the structure of the address gives you some information about how to get to the system. For example, 128.6 is a network number assigned by a central authority to Rutgers University. Rutgers uses the next octet to indicate which of the campus Ethernets is involved. 128.6.4 happens to be an Ethernet used by the Computer Science Department. The last octet allows for up to 254 systems on each Ethernet. (It is 254 because 0 and 255 are not allowed, for reasons that will be discussed later.) Note that 128.6.4.194 and 128.6.5.194 would be different systems. The structure of an Internet address is described in a bit more detail later.

Of course we normally refer to systems by name, rather than by Internet address. When we specify a name, the network software looks it up in a database, and comes up with the corresponding Internet address. Most of the network software deals strictly in terms of the address. (RFC 882 describes the name server technology used to handle this lookup.)

TCP/IP is built on “connectionless” technology. Information is transferred as a sequence of “datagrams”. A datagram is a collection of data that is sent as a single message. Each of these datagrams is sent through the network individually. There are provisions to open connections (i.e. to start a conversation that will continue for some time). However at some level, information from those connections is broken up into datagrams, and those datagrams are treated by the network as completely separate. For example, suppose you want to transfer a 15000 octet file. Most networks can’t handle a 15000 octet datagram. So the protocols will break this up into something like 30 500-octet datagrams. Each of these datagrams will be sent to the other end. At that point, they will be put back together into the 15000-octet file. However while those datagrams are in transit, the network doesn’t know that there is any connection between them. It is perfectly possible that datagram 14 will actually arrive before datagram 13. It is also possible that somewhere in the network, an error will occur, and some datagram won’t get through at all. In that case, that datagram has to be sent again.

Note by the way that the terms “datagram” and “packet” often seem to be nearly interchangeable. Technically, datagram is the right word to use when describing TCP/IP. A datagram is a unit of data, which is what the protocols deal with. A packet is a physical thing, appearing on an Ethernet or some wire. In most cases a packet simply contains a datagram, so there is very little difference. However they can differ. When TCP/IP is used on top of X.25, the X.25 interface breaks the datagrams up into 128-byte packets. This is invisible to IP, because the packets are put back together into a single datagram at the other end before being processed by TCP/IP. So in this case, one IP datagram would be carried by several packets. However with most media, there are efficiency advantages to sending one datagram per packet, and so the distinction tends to vanish.

2.1 The TCP level

Two separate protocols are involved in handling TCP/IP datagrams. TCP (the “transmission control protocol”) is responsible for breaking up the message into datagrams, reassembling them at the other end, resending anything that gets lost, and putting things back in the right order. IP (the “internet protocol”) is responsible for routing individual datagrams. It may seem like TCP is doing all the work. And in small networks that is true. However in the Internet, simply getting a datagram to its destination can be a complex job. A connection may require the datagram to go through several networks at Rutgers, a serial line to the John von Neuman Supercomputer Center, a couple of Ethernets there, a series of 56K baud phone lines to another NSFnet site, and more Ethernets on another campus. Keeping track of the routes to all of the destinations and handling incompatibilities among different transport media turns out to be a complex job. Note that the interface between TCP and IP is fairly simple. TCP simply hands IP a datagram with a destination. IP doesn’t know how this datagram relates to any datagram before it or after it.

It may have occurred to you that something is missing here. We have talked about Internet addresses, but not about how you keep track of multiple connections to a given system. Clearly it isn’t enough to get a datagram to the right destination. TCP has to know which connection this datagram is part of. This task is referred to as “demultiplexing.” In fact, there are several levels of demultiplexing going on in TCP/IP. The information needed to do this demultiplexing is contained in a series of “headers”. A header is simply a few extra octets tacked onto the beginning of a datagram by some protocol in order to keep track of it. It’s a lot like putting a letter into an envelope and putting an address on the outside of the envelope. Except with modern networks it happens several times. It’s like you put the letter into a little envelope, your secretary puts that into a somewhat bigger envelope, the campus mail center puts that envelope into a still bigger one, etc. Here is an overview of the headers that get stuck on a message that passes through a typical TCP/IP network:

We start with a single data stream, say a file you are trying to send to some other computer:

……………………………………………… 

TCP breaks it up into manageable chunks. (In order to do this, TCP has to know how large a datagram your network can handle. Actually, the TCP’s at each end say how big a datagram they can handle, and then they pick the smallest size.)

…. …. …. …. …. …. …. …. 

TCP puts a header at the front of each datagram. This header actually contains at least 20 octets, but the most important ones are a source and destination “port number” and a “sequence number”. The port numbers are used to keep track of different conversations. Suppose 3 different people are transferring files. Your TCP might allocate port numbers 1000, 1001, and 1002 to these transfers. When you are sending a datagram, this becomes the “source” port number, since you are the source of the datagram. Of course the TCP at the other end has assigned a port number of its own for the conversation. Your TCP has to know the port number used by the other end as well. (It finds out when the connection starts, as we will explain below.) It puts this in the “destination” port field. Of course if the other end sends a datagram back to you, the source and destination port numbers will be reversed, since then it will be the source and you will be the destination. Each datagram has a sequence number. This is used so that the other end can make sure that it gets the datagrams in the right order, and that it hasn’t missed any. (See the TCP specification for details.) TCP doesn’t number the datagrams, but the octets. So if there are 500 octets of data in each datagram, the first datagram might be numbered 0, the second 500, the next 1000, the next 1500, etc. Finally, I will mention the Checksum. This is a number that is computed by adding up all the octets in the datagram (more or less – see the TCP spec). The result is put in the header. TCP at the other end computes the checksum again. If they disagree, then something bad happened to the datagram in transmission, and it is thrown away. So here’s what the datagram looks like now.

TCP IP Layered Protocols image 1

If we abbreviate the TCP header as “T”, the whole file now looks like this:

T…. T…. T…. T…. T…. T…. T…. 

You will note that there are items in the header that I have not described above. They are generally involved with managing the connection. In order to make sure the datagram has arrived at its destination, the recipient has to send back an “acknowledgement”. This is a datagram whose “Acknowledgement number” field is filled in. For example, sending a packet with an acknowledgement of 1500 indicates that you have received all the data up to octet number 1500. If the sender doesn’t get an acknowledgement within a reasonable amount of time, it sends the data again. The window is used to control how much data can be in transit at any one time. It is not practical to wait for each datagram to be acknowledged before sending the next one. That would slow things down too much. On the other hand, you can’t just keep sending, or a fast computer might overrun the capacity of a slow one to absorb data. Thus each end indicates how much new data it is currently prepared to absorb by putting the number of octets in its “Window” field. As the computer receives data, the amount of space left in its window decreases. When it goes to zero, the sender has to stop. As the receiver processes the data, it increases its window, indicating that it is ready to accept more data. Often the same datagram can be used to acknowledge receipt of a set of data and to give permission for additional new data (by an updated window). The “Urgent” field allows one end to tell the other to skip ahead in its processing to a particular octet. This is often useful for handling asynchronous events, for example when you type a control character or other command that interrupts output. The other fields are beyond the scope of this document.

2.2 The IP level

TCP sends each of these datagrams to IP. Of course it has to tell IP the Internet address of the computer at the other end. Note that this is all IP is concerned about. It doesn’t care about what is in the datagram, or even in the TCP header. IP’s job is simply to find a route for the datagram and get it to the other end. In order to allow gateways or other intermediate systems to forward the datagram, it adds its own header. The main things in this header are the source and destination Internet address (32-bit addresses, like 128.6.4.194), the protocol number, and another checksum. The source Internet address is simply the address of your machine. (This is necessary so the other end knows where the datagram came from.) 

The destination Internet address is the address of the other machine. (This is necessary so any gateways in the middle know where you want the datagram to go.) The protocol number tells IP at the other end to send the datagram to TCP. Although most IP traffic uses TCP, there are other protocols that can use IP, so you have to tell IP which protocol to send the datagram to. Finally, the checksum allows IP at the other end to verify that the header wasn’t damaged in transit. Note that TCP and IP have separate checksums. IP needs to be able to verify that the header didn’t get damaged in transit, or it could send a message to the wrong place. For reasons not worth discussing here, it is both more efficient and safer to have TCP compute a separate checksum for the TCP header and data. Once IP has tacked on its header, here’s what the message looks like:

TCP IP Layered Protocols image 2

If we represent the IP header by an “I”, your file now looks like this:

IT…. IT…. IT…. IT…. IT…. IT…. IT…. 

Again, the header contains some additional fields that have not been discussed. Most of them are beyond the scope of this document. The flags and fragment offset are used to keep track of the pieces when a datagram has to be split up. This can happen when datagrams are forwarded through a network for which they are too big. (This will be discussed a bit more below.) The time to live is a number that is decremented whenever the datagram passes through a system. When it goes to zero, the datagram is discarded. This is done in case a loop develops in the system somehow. Of course this should be impossible, but well-designed networks are built to cope with “impossible” conditions.

At this point, it’s possible that no more headers are needed. If your computer happens to have a direct phone line connecting it to the destination computer, or to a gateway, it may simply send the datagrams out on the line (though likely a synchronous protocol such as HDLC would be used, and it would add at least a few octets at the beginning and end).

2.3 The Ethernet level

However most of our networks these days use Ethernet. So now we have to describe Ethernet headers. Unfortunately, Ethernet has its own addresses. The people who designed Ethernet wanted to make sure that no two machines would end up with the same Ethernet address. Furthermore, they didn’t want the user to have to worry about assigning addresses. So each Ethernet controller comes with an address builtin from the factory. In order to make sure that they would never have to reuse addresses, the Ethernet designers allocated 48 bits for the Ethernet address. People who make Ethernet equipment have to register with a central authority, to make sure that the numbers they assign don’t overlap any other manufacturer. Ethernet is a “broadcast medium”. That is, it is in effect like an old party line telephone. 

When you send a packet out on the Ethernet, every machine on the network sees the packet. So something is needed to make sure that the right machine gets it. As you might guess, this involves the Ethernet header. Every Ethernet packet has a 14-octet header that includes the source and destination Ethernet address, and a type code. Each machine is supposed to pay attention only to packets with its own Ethernet address in the destination field. (It’s perfectly possible to cheat, which is one reason that Ethernet communications are not terribly secure.) Note that there is no connection between the Ethernet address and the Internet address. Each machine has to have a table of what Ethernet address corresponds to what Internet address. (We will describe how this table is constructed a bit later.) 

In addition to the addresses, the header contains a type code. The type code is to allow for several different protocol families to be used on the same network. So you can use TCP/IP, DECnet, Xerox NS, etc. at the same time. Each of them will put a different value in the type field. Finally, there is a checksum. The Ethernet controller computes a checksum of the entire packet. When the other end receives the packet, it re computes the checksum, and throws the packet away if the answer disagrees with the original. The checksum is put on the end of the packet, not in the header. The final result is that your message looks like this:

TCP IP Layered Protocols image 3

If we represent the Ethernet header with “E”, and the Ethernet checksum with “C”, your file now looks like this:

EIT….C EIT….C EIT….C EIT….C EIT….C 

When these packets are received by the other end, of course all the headers are removed. The Ethernet interface removes the Ethernet header and the checksum. It looks at the type code. Since the type code is the one assigned to IP, the Ethernet device driver passes the datagram up to IP. IP removes the IP header. It looks at the IP protocol field. Since the protocol type is TCP, it passes the datagram up to TCP. TCP now looks at the sequence number. It uses the sequence numbers and other information to combine all the datagrams into the original file.

The ends our initial summary of TCP/IP. There are still some crucial concepts we haven’t gotten to, so we’ll now go back and add details in several areas. (For detailed descriptions of the items discussed here see, RFC 793 for TCP, RFC 791 for IP, and RFC’s 894 and 826 for sending IP over Ethernet.)

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