The problem of providing reliable communications over lossy communication channels has been studied for years. The two primary methods for dealing with errors include error-correcting codes and data retransmission. The protocols using retransmissions must also handle data loss, usually by setting a timer, and must also arrange some way for the receiver to signal the sender what it has received. Deciding how long to wait for an ACK can be tricky, as the appropriate time may change as network routing or load on the end systems varies. Modern protocols estimate the round-trip time and set the retransmission timer based on some function of these measurements.
Except for setting the retransmission timer, retransmission protocols are simple when only one packet may be in the network at one time, but they perform poorly for networks where the delay is high. To be more efficient, multiple packets must be injected into the network before an ACK is received. This approach is more efficient but also more complex. A typical approach to managing the complexity is to use sliding windows, whereby packets are marked with sequence numbers, and the window size bounds the number of such packets. When the window size varies based on either feedback from the receiver or other signals (such as dropped packets), both flow control and congestion control can be achieved.
TCP provides a reliable, connection-oriented, byte stream, transport-layer service built using many of these techniques. We looked briefly at all of the fields in the TCP header, noting that most of them are directly related to these abstract concepts in reliable delivery. We will examine them in detail in the chapters that follow. TCP packetizes the application data into segments, sets a timeout anytime it sends data, acknowledges data received by the other end, reorders out-of-order data, discards duplicate data, provides end-to-end flow control, and calculates and verifies a mandatory end-to-end checksum. It is the most widely used protocol on the Internet. It is used by most of the popular applications, such as HTTP, SSH/TLS, NetBIOS (NBT—NetBIOS over TCP), Telnet, FTP, and electronic mail (SMTP). Many distributed file-sharing applications (e.g., BitTorrent, Shareaza) also use TCP.