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12.3 TCP Header and Encapsulation

TCP is encapsulated in IP datagrams as shown in Figure 12-2.

The header itself is considerably more complicated than the header we saw for UDP in Chapter 10. This is not very surprising, as TCP is a significantly more complicated protocol that must keep each end of the connection informed (synchronized) about the current state. It is shown in Figure 12-3.

Figure 12-3

Figure 12-3 The TCP header. Its normal size is 20 bytes, unless options are present. The HeaderLength field gives the size of the header in 32-bit words (minimum value is 5). The shaded fields (Acknowledgment Number, Window Size, plus ECE and ACK bits) refer to the data flowing in the opposite direction relative to the sender of this segment.

Each TCP header contains the source and destination port number. These two values, along with the source and destination IP addresses in the IP header, uniquely identify each connection. The combination of an IP address and a port number is sometimes called an endpoint or socket in the TCP literature. The latter term appeared in [RFC0793] and was ultimately adopted as the name of the Berkeley-derived programming interface for network communications (now frequently called "Berkeley sockets"). It is a pair of sockets or endpoints (the 4-tuple consisting of the client IP address, client port number, server IP address, and server port number) that uniquely identifies each TCP connection. This fact will become important when we look at how a TCP server can communicate with multiple clients (see Chapter 13).

The Sequence Number field identifies the byte in the stream of data from the sending TCP to the receiving TCP that the first byte of data in the containing segment represents. If we consider the stream of bytes flowing in one direction between two applications, TCP numbers each byte with a sequence number. This sequence number is a 32-bit unsigned number that wraps back around to 0 after reaching (232) – 1. Because every byte exchanged is numbered, the Acknowledgment Number field (also called the ACK Number or ACK field for short) contains the next sequence number that the sender of the acknowledgment expects to receive. This is therefore the sequence number of the last successfully received byte of data plus 1. This field is valid only if the ACK bit field (described later in this section) is on, which it usually is for all but initial and closing segments. Sending an ACK costs nothing more than sending any other TCP segment because the 32-bit ACK Number field is always part of the header, as is the ACK bit field.

When a new connection is being established, the SYN bit field is turned on in the first segment sent from client to server. Such segments are called SYN segments, or simply SYNs. The Sequence Number field then contains the first sequence number to be used on that direction of the connection for subsequent sequence numbers and in returning ACK numbers (recall that connections are all bidirectional). Note that this number is not 0 or 1 but instead is another number, often randomly chosen, called the initial sequence number (ISN). The reason for the ISN not being 0 or 1 is a security measure and will be discussed in Chapter 13. The sequence number of the first byte of data sent on this direction of the connection is the ISN plus 1 because the SYN bit field consumes one sequence number. As we shall see later, consuming a sequence number also implies reliable delivery using retransmission. Thus, SYNs and application bytes (and FINs, which we will see later) are reliably delivered. ACKs, which do not consume sequence numbers, are not.

TCP can be described as "a sliding window protocol with cumulative positive acknowledgments." The ACK Number field is constructed to indicate the largest byte received in order at the receiver (plus 1). For example, if bytes 1–1024 are received OK, and the next segment contains bytes 2049–3072, the receiver cannot use the regular ACK Number field to signal the sender that it received this new segment. Modern TCPs, however, have a selective acknowledgment (SACK) option that allows the receiver to indicate to the sender out-of-order data it has received correctly. When paired with a TCP sender capable of selective repeat, a significant performance benefit may be realized [FF96]. In Chapter 14 we will see how TCP uses duplicate acknowledgments (multiple segments with the same ACK field) to help with its congestion control and error control procedures.

The Header Length field gives the length of the header in 32-bit words. This is required because the length of the Options field is variable. With a 4-bit field, TCP is limited to a 60-byte header. Without options, however, the size is 20 bytes.

Currently eight bit fields are defined for the TCP header, although some older implementations understand only the last six of them.1 One or more of them can be turned on at the same time. We briefly mention their use here and discuss each of them in more detail in later chapters.

  1. CWR— Congestion Window Reduced (the sender reduced its sending rate); see Chapter 16.
  2. ECE— ECN Echo (the sender received an earlier congestion notification); see Chapter 16.
  3. URG— Urgent (the Urgent Pointer field is valid—rarely used); see Chapter 15.
  4. ACK— Acknowledgment (the Acknowledgment Number field is valid—always on after a connection is established); see Chapters 13 and 15.
  5. PSH— Push (the receiver should pass this data to the application as soon as possible—not reliably implemented or used); see Chapter 15.
  6. RST— Reset the connection (connection abort, usually because of an error); see Chapter 13.
  7. SYN— Synchronize sequence numbers to initiate a connection; see Chapter 13.
  8. FIN— The sender of the segment is finished sending data to its peer; see Chapter 13.

TCP's flow control is provided by each end advertising a window size using the Window Size field. This is the number of bytes, starting with the one specified by the ACK number, that the receiver is willing to accept. This is a 16-bit field, limiting the window to 65,535 bytes, and thereby limiting TCP's throughput performance. In Chapter 15 we will look at the Window Scale option that allows this value to be scaled, providing much larger windows and improved performance for high-speed and long-delay networks.

The TCP Checksum field covers the TCP header and data and some fields in the IP header, using a pseudo-header computation similar to the one used with ICMPv6 and UDP that we discussed in Chapters 8 and 10. It is mandatory for this field to be calculated and stored by the sender, and then verified by the receiver. The TCP checksum is calculated with the same algorithm as the IP, ICMP, and UDP ("Internet") checksums.

The Urgent Pointer field is valid only if the URG bit field is set. This "pointer" is a positive offset that must be added to the Sequence Number field of the segment to yield the sequence number of the last byte of urgent data. TCP's urgent mechanism is a way for the sender to provide specially marked data to the other end.

The most common Option field is the Maximum Segment Size option, called the MSS. Each end of a connection normally specifies this option on the first segment it sends (the ones with the SYN bit field set to establish the connection). The MSS option specifies the maximum-size segment that the sender of the option is willing to receive in the reverse direction. We describe the MSS option in more detail in Chapter 13 and some of the other TCP options in Chapters 14 and 15. Other common options we investigate include SACK, Timestamp, and Window Scale.

In Figure 12-2 we note that the data portion of the TCP segment is optional. We will see in Chapter 13 that when a connection is established, and when a connection is terminated, segments are exchanged that contain only the TCP header (with or without options) but no data. A header without any data is also used to acknowledge received data, if there is no data to be transmitted in that direction (called a pure ACK), and to notify the communication peer of a change in the window size (called a window update). There are also some cases resulting from timeouts when a segment can be sent without any data.

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