This topic explain how TCP protocol data units are transmitted and acknowledged to guarantee delivery. Start learning CCNA 200-301 for free right now!!
Note: Welcome: This topic is part of Chapter 14 of the Cisco CCNA 1 course, for a better follow up of the course you can go to the CCNA 1 section to guide you through an order.
Table of Contents
TCP Reliability – Guaranteed and Ordered Delivery
The reason that TCP is the better protocol for some applications is because, unlike UDP, it resends dropped packets and numbers packets to indicate their proper order before delivery. TCP can also help maintain the flow of packets so that devices do not become overloaded. This topic covers these features of TCP in detail.
There may be times when TCP segments do not arrive at their destination. Other times, the TCP segments might arrive out of order. For the original message to be understood by the recipient, all the data must be received and the data in these segments must be reassembled into the original order. Sequence numbers are assigned in the header of each packet to achieve this goal. The sequence number represents the first data byte of the TCP segment.
During session setup, an initial sequence number (ISN) is set. This ISN represents the starting value of the bytes that are transmitted to the receiving application. As data is transmitted during the session, the sequence number is incremented by the number of bytes that have been transmitted. This data byte tracking enables each segment to be uniquely identified and acknowledged. Missing segments can then be identified.
The ISN does not begin at one but is effectively a random number. This is to prevent certain types of malicious attacks. For simplicity, we will use an ISN of 1 for the examples in this chapter.
Segment sequence numbers indicate how to reassemble and reorder received segments, as shown in the figure.
TCP Segments Are Reordered at the Destination
The receiving TCP process places the data from a segment into a receiving buffer. Segments are then placed in the proper sequence order and passed to the application layer when reassembled. Any segments that arrive with sequence numbers that are out of order are held for later processing. Then, when the segments with the missing bytes arrive, these segments are processed in order.
Video – TCP Reliability – Sequence Numbers and Acknowledgments
One of the functions of TCP is to ensure that each segment reaches its destination. The TCP services on the destination host acknowledge the data that have been received by the source application.
Click Play in the figure to view a lesson on TCP sequence numbers and acknowledgments.
TCP Reliability – Data Loss and Retransmission
No matter how well designed a network is, data loss occasionally occurs. TCP provides methods of managing these segment losses. Among these is a mechanism to retransmit segments for unacknowledged data.
Prior to later enhancements, TCP could only acknowledge the next byte expected. For example, in the figure, using segment numbers for simplicity, host A sends segments 1 through 10 to host B. If all the segments arrive except for segments 3 and 4, host B would reply with acknowledgment specifying that the next segment expected is segment 3. Host A has no idea if any other segments arrived or not. Host A would, therefore, resend segments 3 through 10. If all the resent segments arrived successfully, segments 5 through 10 would be duplicates. This can lead to delays, congestion, and inefficiencies.
Host operating systems today typically employ an optional TCP feature called selective acknowledgment (SACK), negotiated during the three-way handshake. If both hosts support SACK, the receiver can explicitly acknowledge which segments (bytes) were received including any discontinuous segments. The sending host would therefore only need to retransmit the missing data. For example, in the next figure, again using segment numbers for simplicity, host A sends segments 1 through 10 to host B. If all the segments arrive except for segments 3 and 4, host B can acknowledge that it has received segments 1 and 2 (ACK 3), and selectively acknowledge segments 5 through 10 (SACK 5-10). Host A would only need to resend segments 3 and 4.
Note: TCP typically sends ACKs for every other packet, but other factors beyond the scope of this topic may alter this behavior.
TCP uses timers to know how long to wait before resending a segment. In the figure, play the video and click the link to download the PDF file. The video and PDF file examine TCP data loss and retransmission.
Video – TCP Reliability – Data Loss and Retransmission
Click Play in the figure to view a lesson on TCP retransmission.
TCP Flow Control – Window Size and Acknowledgments
TCP also provides mechanisms for flow control. Flow control is the amount of data that the destination can receive and process reliably. Flow control helps maintain the reliability of TCP transmission by adjusting the rate of data flow between source and destination for a given session. To accomplish this, the TCP header includes a 16-bit field called the window size.
The figure shows an example of window size and acknowledgments.
TCP Window Size Example
The window size determines the number of bytes that can be sent before expecting an acknowledgment. The acknowledgment number is the number of the next expected byte.
The window size is the number of bytes that the destination device of a TCP session can accept and process at one time. In this example, the PC B initial window size for the TCP session is 10,000 bytes. Starting with the first byte, byte number 1, the last byte PC A can send without receiving an acknowledgment is byte 10,000. This is known as the send window of PC A. The window size is included in every TCP segment so the destination can modify the window size at any time depending on buffer availability.
The initial window size is agreed upon when the TCP session is established during the three-way handshake. The source device must limit the number of bytes sent to the destination device based on the window size of the destination. Only after the source device receives an acknowledgment that the bytes have been received, can it continue sending more data for the session. Typically, the destination will not wait for all the bytes for its window size to be received before replying with an acknowledgment. As the bytes are received and processed, the destination will send acknowledgments to inform the source that it can continue to send additional bytes.
For example, it is typical that PC B would not wait until all 10,000 bytes have been received before sending an acknowledgment. This means PC A can adjust its send window as it receives acknowledgments from PC B. As shown in the figure, when PC A receives an acknowledgment with the acknowledgment number 2,921, which is the next expected byte. The PC A send window will increment 2,920 bytes. This changes the send window from 10,000 bytes to 12,920. PC A can now continue to send up to another 10,000 bytes to PC B as long as it does not send more than its new send window at 12,920.
A destination sending acknowledgments as it processes bytes received, and the continual adjustment of the source send window, is known as sliding windows. In the previous example, the send window of PC A increments or slides over another 2,921 bytes from 10,000 to 12,920.
If the availability of the destination’s buffer space decreases, it may reduce its window size to inform the source to reduce the number of bytes it should send without receiving an acknowledgment.
Note: Devices today use the sliding windows protocol. The receiver typically sends an acknowledgment after every two segments it receives. The number of segments received before being acknowledged may vary. The advantage of sliding windows is that it allows the sender to continuously transmit segments, as long as the receiver is acknowledging previous segments. The details of sliding windows are beyond the scope of this course.
TCP Flow Control – Maximum Segment Size (MSS)
In the figure, the source is transmitting 1,460 bytes of data within each TCP segment. This is typically the Maximum Segment Size (MSS) that the destination device can receive. The MSS is part of the options field in the TCP header that specifies the largest amount of data, in bytes, that a device can receive in a single TCP segment. The MSS size does not include the TCP header. The MSS is typically included during the three-way handshake.
A common MSS is 1,460 bytes when using IPv4. A host determines the value of its MSS field by subtracting the IP and TCP headers from the Ethernet maximum transmission unit (MTU). On an Ethernet interface, the default MTU is 1500 bytes. Subtracting the IPv4 header of 20 bytes and the TCP header of 20 bytes, the default MSS size will be 1460 bytes, as shown in the figure.
TCP Flow Control – Congestion Avoidance
When congestion occurs on a network, it results in packets being discarded by the overloaded router. When packets containing TCP segments do not reach their destination, they are left unacknowledged. By determining the rate at which TCP segments are sent but not acknowledged, the source can assume a certain level of network congestion.
Whenever there is congestion, retransmission of lost TCP segments from the source will occur. If the retransmission is not properly controlled, the additional retransmission of the TCP segments can make the congestion even worse. Not only are new packets with TCP segments introduced into the network, but the feedback effect of the retransmitted TCP segments that were lost will also add to the congestion. To avoid and control congestion, TCP employs several congestion handling mechanisms, timers, and algorithms.
If the source determines that the TCP segments are either not being acknowledged or not acknowledged in a timely manner, then it can reduce the number of bytes it sends before receiving an acknowledgment. As illustrated in the figure, PC A senses there is congestion and therefore, reduces the number of bytes it sends before receiving an acknowledgment from PC B.
TCP Congestion Control
Acknowledgment numbers are for the next expected byte and not for a segment. The segment numbers used are simplified for illustration purposes.
Notice that it is the source that is reducing the number of unacknowledged bytes it sends and not the window size determined by the destination.
Note: Explanations of actual congestion handling mechanisms, timers, and algorithms are beyond the scope of this course.
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