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Within computer science, a communications protocol is a system of digital rules for message exchange within or between computers. When messages are exchanged through a computer network, the rules system is called a network protocol.
Communicating systems use well-defined formats for exchanging messages. Each message has an exact meaning intended to provoke a particular response of the receiver. Thus, a protocol must define the syntax, semantics, and synchronization of communication; the specified behavior is typically independent of how it is to be implemented. A protocol can therefore be implemented as hardware, software, or both. Communications protocols have to be agreed upon by the parties involved. To reach agreement a protocol may be developed into a technical standard. A programming language describes the same for computations, so there is a close analogy between protocols and programming languages: protocols are to communications as programming languages are to computations.
The information exchanged between devices—through a network, or other media—is governed by rules and conventions that can be set out in technical specifications called communication protocol standards. The nature of a communication, the actual data exchanged and any state-dependent behaviors, is defined by its specification.
In digital computing systems, the rules can be expressed by algorithms and data structures. Expressing the algorithms in a portable programming language makes the protocol software operating system independent.
Operating systems usually consist of a set of cooperating processes that manipulate shared data to communicate with each other. This communication is governed by well-understood protocols, which can be embedded in the process code itself.
In contrast, because there is no common memory, communicating systems have to communicate with each other using a shared transmission medium. Transmission is not necessarily reliable, and individual systems may use different hardware and/or operating systems.
To implement a networking protocol, the protocol software modules are interfaced with a framework implemented on the machine's operating system. This framework implements the networking functionality of the operating system. The best known frameworks are the TCP/IP model and the OSI model.
At the time the Internet was developed, layering had proven to be a successful design approach for both compiler and operating system design and, given the similarities between programming languages and communication protocols, layering was applied to the protocols as well. This gave rise to the concept of layered protocols which nowadays forms the basis of protocol design.
Systems typically do not use a single protocol to handle a transmission. Instead they use a set of cooperating protocols, sometimes called a protocol family or protocol suite. Some of the best known protocol suites include: IPX/SPX, X.25, AX.25, AppleTalk and TCP/IP.
The protocols can be arranged based on functionality in groups, for instance there is a group of transport protocols. The functionalities are mapped onto the layers, each layer solving a distinct class of problems relating to, for instance: application-, transport-, internet- and network interface-functions. To transmit a message, a protocol has to be selected from each layer, so some sort of multiplexing/demultiplexing takes place. The selection of the next protocol is accomplished by extending the message with a protocol selector for each layer.
Messages are sent and received on communicating systems to establish communications. Protocols should therefore specify rules governing the transmission. In general, much of the following should be addressed:
Getting the data across a network is only part of the problem for a protocol. The data received has to be evaluated in the context of the progress of the conversation, so a protocol has to specify rules describing the context. These kind of rules are said to express the syntax of the communications. Other rules determine whether the data is meaningful for the context in which the exchange takes place. These kind of rules are said to express the semantics of the communications.
This analogy has important consequences for both the design and the development of protocols. One has to consider the fact that algorithms, programs and protocols are just different ways of describing expected behaviour of interacting objects. A familiar example of a protocolling language is the HTML language used to describe web pages which are the actual web protocols.
In programming languages the association of identifiers to a value is termed a definition. Program text is structured using block constructs and definitions can be local to a block. The localized association of an identifier to a value established by a definition is termed a binding and the region of program text in which a binding is effective is known as its scope. The computational state is kept using two components: the environment, used as a record of identifier bindings, and the store, which is used as a record of the effects of assignments.
In communications, message values are transferred using transmission media. By analogy, the equivalent of a store would be a collection of transmission media, instead of a collection of memory locations. A valid assignment in a protocol (as an analog of programming language) could be Ethernet:='message' , meaning a message is to be broadcast on the local ethernet.
On a transmission medium there can be many receivers. For instance a mac-address identifies an ether network card on the transmission medium (the 'ether'). In our imaginary protocol, the assignment ethernet[mac-address]:=message value could therefore make sense.
By extending the assignment statement of an existing programming language with the semantics described, a protocolling language could easily be imagined.
Operating systems provide reliable communication and synchronization facilities for communicating objects confined to the same system by means of system libraries. A programmer using a general purpose programming language (like C or ADA) can use the routines in the libraries to implement a protocol, instead of using a dedicated protocolling language.
|The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.|
|—Andrew S. Tanenbaum in Computer Networks|
Despite their numbers, networking protocols show little variety, because all networking protocols use the same underlying principles and concepts, in the same way. So, the use of a general purpose programming language would yield a large number of applications only differing in the details. A suitably defined (dedicated) protocolling language would therefore have little syntax, perhaps just enough to specify some parameters or optional modes of operation, because its virtual machine would have incorporated all possible principles and concepts making the virtual machine itself a universal protocol. The protocolling language would have some syntax and a lot of semantics describing this universal protocol and would therefore in effect be a protocol, hardly differing from this universal networking protocol. In this (networking) context a protocol is a language.
The notion of a universal networking protocol provides a rationale for standardization of networking protocols; assuming the existence of a universal networking protocol, development of protocol standards using a consensus model (the agreement of a group of experts) might be a viable way to coordinate protocol design efforts.
Networking protocols operate in very heterogeneous environments consisting of very different network technologies and a (possibly) very rich set of applications, so a single universal protocol would be very hard to design and implement correctly. Instead, the IETF decided to reduce complexity by assuming a relatively simple network architecture allowing decomposition of the single universal networking protocol into two generic protocols, TCP and IP, and two classes of specific protocols, one dealing with the low-level network details and one dealing with the high-level details of common network applications (remote login, file transfer, email and web browsing). ISO choose a similar but more general path, allowing other network architectures, to standardize protocols.
Communicating systems operate in parallel. The programming tools and techniques for dealing with parallel processes are collectively called concurrent programming. Concurrent programming only deals with the synchronization of communication. The syntax and semantics of the communication governed by a low-level protocol usually have modest complexity, so they can be coded with relative ease. High-level protocols with relatively large complexity could however merit the implementation of language interpreters. An example of the latter case is the HTML language.
Concurrent programming has traditionally been a topic in operating systems theory texts. Formal verification seems indispensable, because concurrent programs are notorious for the hidden and sophisticated bugs they contain. A mathematical approach to the study of concurrency and communication is referred to as Communicating Sequential Processes (CSP). Concurrency can also be modelled using finite state machines like Mealy and Moore machines. Mealy and Moore machines are in use as design tools in digital electronics systems, which we encounter in the form of hardware used in telecommunications or electronic devices in general.
This kind of design can be a bit of a challenge to say the least, so it is important to keep things simple. For the Internet protocols, in particular and in retrospect, this meant a basis for protocol design was needed to allow decomposition of protocols into much simpler, cooperating protocols.
Systems do not use a single protocol to handle a transmission. Instead they use a set of cooperating protocols, sometimes called a protocol family or protocol suite. To cooperate the protocols have to communicate with each other, so some kind of conceptual framework is needed to make this communication possible. Also note that software is needed to implement both the 'xfer-mechanism' and a protocol (no protocol, no communication).
In literature there are numerous references to the analogies between computer communication and programming. By analogy we could say that the aforementioned 'xfer-mechanism' is comparable to a cpu; a 'xfer-mechanism' performs communications and a cpu performs computations and the 'framework' introduces something that allows the protocols to be designed independent of one another by providing separate execution environments for them. Furthermore, it is repeatedly stated that protocols are to computer communication what programming languages are to computation.
The communications protocols in use on the Internet are designed to function in very complex and diverse settings. To ease design, communications protocols are structured using a layering scheme as a basis. Instead of using a single universal protocol to handle all transmission tasks, a set of cooperating protocols fitting the layering scheme is used. The layering scheme in use on the Internet is called the TCP/IP model. The actual protocols are collectively called the Internet protocol suite. The group responsible for this design is called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
Typically, a hardware delivery mechanism layer is used to build a connectionless packet delivery system on top of which a reliable transport layer is built, on top of which is the application software. Layers below and above these can be defined, and protocols are very often stacked to give tunnelling, for example the internet protocol can be tunnelled across an ATM network protocol to provide connectivity by layering the internet protocol on top of the ATM protocol transport layer.
The number of layers of a layering scheme and the way the layers are defined can have a drastic impact on the protocols involved. This is where the analogies come into play for the TCP/IP model, because the designers of TCP/IP employed the same techniques used to conquer the complexity of programming language compilers (design by analogy) in the implementation of its protocols and its layering scheme.
Protocol layering now forms the basis of protocol design. It allows the decomposition of single, complex protocols into simpler, cooperating protocols, but it is also a functional decomposition, because each protocol belongs to a functional class, called a protocol layer. The protocol layers each solve a distinct class of communications problems. The Internet protocol suite consists of the following layers: application-, transport-, internet- and network interface-functions. Together, the layers make up a layering scheme or model.
In computations, we have algorithms and data, and in communications, we have protocols and messages, so the analog of a data flow diagram would be some kind of message flow diagram. To visualize protocol layering and protocol suites, a diagram of the message flows in and between two systems, A and B, is shown in figure 3.
The systems both make use of the same protocol suite. The vertical flows (and protocols) are in system and the horizontal message flows (and protocols) are between systems. The message flows are governed by rules, and data formats specified by protocols. The blue lines therefore mark the boundaries of the (horizontal) protocol layers.
The vertical protocols are not layered because they don't obey the protocol layering principle which states that a layered protocol is designed so that layer n at the destination receives exactly the same object sent by layer n at the source. The horizontal protocols are layered protocols and all belong to the protocol suite. Layered protocols allow the protocol designer to concentrate on one layer at a time, without worrying about how other layers perform.
The vertical protocols need not be the same protocols on both systems, but they have to satisfy some minimal assumptions to ensure the protocol layering principle holds for the layered protocols. This can be achieved using a technique called Encapsulation.
Usually, a message or a stream of data is divided into small pieces, called messages or streams, packets, IP datagrams or network frames depending on the layer in which the pieces are to be transmitted. The pieces contain a header area and a data area. The data in the header area identifies the source and the destination on the network of the packet, the protocol, and other data meaningful to the protocol like CRC's of the data to be sent, data length, and a timestamp.
The rule enforced by the vertical protocols is that the pieces for transmission are to be encapsulated in the data area of all lower protocols on the sending side and the reverse is to happen on the receiving side. The result is that at the lowest level the piece looks like this: 'Header1,Header2,Header3,data' and in the layer directly above it: 'Header2,Header3,data' and in the top layer: 'Header3,data', both on the sending and receiving side. This rule therefore ensures that the protocol layering principle holds and effectively virtualizes all but the lowest transmission lines, so for this reason some message flows are coloured red in figure 3.
To ensure both sides use the same protocol, the pieces also carry data identifying the protocol in their header.
The design of the protocol layering and the network (or Internet) architecture are interrelated, so one cannot be designed without the other. Some of the more important features in this respect of the Internet architecture and the network services it provides are described next.
Having established the protocol layering and the protocols, the protocol designer can now resume with the software design. The software has a layered organization and its relationship with protocol layering is visualized in figure 5.
The software modules implementing the protocols are represented by cubes. The information flow between the modules is represented by arrows. The (top two horizontal) red arrows are virtual. The blue lines mark the layer boundaries.
To send a message on system A, the top module interacts with the module directly below it and hands over the message to be encapsulated. This module reacts by encapsulating the message in its own data area and filling in its header data in accordance with the protocol it implements and interacts with the module below it by handing over this newly formed message whenever appropriate. The bottom module directly interacts with the bottom module of system B, so the message is sent across. On the receiving system B the reverse happens, so ultimately (and assuming there were no transmission errors or protocol violations etc.) the message gets delivered in its original form to the topmodule of system B.
On protocol errors, a receiving module discards the piece it has received and reports back the error condition to the original source of the piece on the same layer by handing the error message down or in case of the bottom module sending it across.
The division of the message or stream of data into pieces and the subsequent reassembly are handled in the layer that introduced the division/reassembly. The reassembly is done at the destination (i.e. not on any intermediate routers).
TCP/IP software is organized in four layers.
Program translation has been divided into four subproblems: compiler, assembler, link editor, and loader. As a result, the translation software is layered as well, allowing the software layers to be designed independently. Noting that the ways to conquer the complexity of program translation could readily be applied to protocols because of the analogy between programming languages and protocols, the designers of the TCP/IP protocol suite were keen on imposing the same layering on the software framework. This can be seen in the TCP/IP layering by considering the translation of a pascal program (message) that is compiled (function of the application layer) into an assembler program that is assembled (function of the transport layer) to object code (pieces) that is linked (function of the Internet layer) together with library object code (routing table) by the link editor, producing relocatable machine code (datagram) that is passed to the loader which fills in the memory locations (ethernet addresses) to produce executeable code (network frame) to be loaded (function of the network interface layer) into physical memory (transmission medium). To show just how closely the analogy fits, the terms between parentheses in the previous sentence denote the relevant analogs and the terms written cursively denote data representations. Program translation forms a linear sequence, because each layer's output is passed as input to the next layer. Furthermore, the translation process involves multiple data representations. We see the same thing happening in protocol software where multiple protocols define the data representations of the data passed between the software modules.
The network interface layer uses physical addresses and all the other layers only use IP addresses. The boundary between network interface layer and Internet layer is called the high-level protocol address boundary. The modules below the application layer are generally considered part of the operating system. Passing data between these modules is much less expensive than passing data between an application program and the transport layer. The boundary between application layer and transport layer is called the operating system boundary.
Strictly adhering to a layered model, a practice known as strict layering, is not always the best approach to networking. Strict layering, can have a serious impact on the performance of the implementation, so there is at least a trade-off between simplicity and performance. Another, perhaps more important point can be shown by considering the fact that some of the protocols in the Internet Protocol Suite cannot be expressed using the TCP/IP model, in other words some of the protocols behave in ways not described by the model. To improve on the model, an offending protocol could, perhaps be split up into two protocols, at the cost of one or two extra layers, but there is a hidden caveat, because the model is also used to provide a conceptual view on the suite for the intended users. There is a trade-off to be made here between preciseness for the designer and clarity for the intended user.
For communication to take place, protocols have to be agreed upon. Recall that in digital computing systems, the rules can be expressed by algorithms and datastructures, raising the opportunity for hardware independence. Expressing the algorithms in a portable programming language, makes the protocol software operating system independent. The source code could be considered a protocol specification. This form of specification, however is not suitable for the parties involved.
For one thing, this would enforce a source on all parties and for another, proprietary software producers would not accept this. By describing the software interfaces of the modules on paper and agreeing on the interfaces, implementers are free to do it their way. This is referred to as source independence. By specifying the algorithms on paper and detailing hardware dependencies in an unambiguous way, a paper draft is created, that when adhered to and published, ensures interoperability between software and hardware.
Such a paper draft can be developed into a protocol standard by getting the approval of a standards organization. To get the approval the paper draft needs to enter and successfully complete the standardization process. This activity is referred to as protocol development. The members of the standards organization agree to adhere to the standard on a voluntary basis. Often the members are in control of large market-shares relevant to the protocol and in many cases, standards are enforced by law or the government, because they are thought to serve an important public interest, so getting approval can be very important for the protocol.
It should be noted though that in some cases protocol standards are not sufficient to gain widespread acceptance i.e. sometimes the source code needs to be disclosed and enforced by law or the government in the interest of the public.
The need for protocol standards can be shown by looking at what happened to the bi-sync protocol (BSC) invented by IBM. BSC is an early link-level protocol used to connect two separate nodes. It was originally not intended to be used in a multinode network, but doing so revealed several deficiencies of the protocol. In the absence of standardization, manufacturers and organizations felt free to 'enhance' the protocol, creating incompatible versions on their networks. In some cases, this was deliberately done to discourage users from using equipment from other manufacturers. There are more than 50 variants of the original bi-sync protocol. One can assume, that a standard would have prevented at least some of this from happening.
In some cases, protocols gain market dominance without going through a standardization process. Such protocols are referred to as de facto standards. De facto standards are common in emerging markets, niche markets, or markets that are monopolized (or oligopolized). They can hold a market in a very negative grip, especially when used to scare away competition. From a historical perspective, standardization should be seen as a measure to counteract the ill-effects of de facto standards. Positive exceptions exist; a 'de facto standard' operating system like GNU/Linux does not have this negative grip on its market, because the sources are published and maintained in an open way, thus inviting competition. Standardization is therefore not the only solution for open systems interconnection.
Some of the standards organizations of relevance for communications protocols are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF maintains the protocols in use on the Internet. The IEEE controls many software and hardware protocols in the electronics industry for commercial and consumer devices. The ITU is an umbrella organization of telecommunications engineers designing the public switched telephone network (PSTN), as well as many radio communication systems. For marine electronics the NMEA standards are used. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produces protocols and standards for Web technologies.
International standards organizations are supposed to be more impartial than local organizations with a national or commercial self-interest to consider. Standards organizations also do research and development for standards of the future. In practice, the standards organizations mentioned, cooperate closely with each other.
The standardization process starts off with ISO commissioning a sub-committee workgroup. The workgroup issues working drafts and discussion documents to interested parties (including other standards bodies) in order to provoke discussion and comments. This will generate a lot of questions, much discussion and usually some disagreement on what the standard should provide and if it can satisfy all needs (usually not). All conflicting views should be taken into account, often by way of compromise, to progress to a draft proposal of the working group.
The draft proposal is discussed by the member countries' standard bodies and other organizations within each country. Comments and suggestions are collated and national views will be formulated, before the members of ISO vote on the proposal. If rejected, the draft proposal has to consider the objections and counter-proposals to create a new draft proposal for another vote. After a lot of feedback, modification, and compromise the proposal reaches the status of a draft international standard, and ultimately an international standard.
The process normally takes several years to complete. The original paper draft created by the designer will differ substantially from the standard, and will contain some of the following 'features':
International standards are reissued periodically to handle the deficiencies and reflect changing views on the subject.
A lesson learned from ARPANET (the predecessor of the Internet) is that standardization of protocols is not enough, because protocols also need a framework to operate. It is therefore important to develop a general-purpose, future-proof framework suitable for structured protocols (such as layered protocols) and their standardization. This would prevent protocol standards with overlapping functionality and would allow clear definition of the responsibilities of a protocol at the different levels (layers). This gave rise to the ISO Open Systems Interconnection reference model (RM/OSI), which is used as a framework for the design of standard protocols and services conforming to the various layer specifications.
In the OSI model, communicating systems are assumed to be connected by an underlying physical medium providing a basic (and unspecified) transmission mechanism. The layers above it are numbered (from one to seven); the nth layer is referred to as (n)-layer. Each layer provides service to the layer above it (or at the top to the application process) using the services of the layer immediately below it. The layers communicate with each other by means of an interface, called a service access point. Corresponding layers at each system are called peer entities. To communicate, two peer entities at a given layer use an (n)-protocol, which is implemented by using services of the (n-1)-layer. When systems are not directly connected, intermediate peer entities (called relays) are used. An address uniquely identifies a service access point. The address naming domains need not be restricted to one layer, so it is possible to use just one naming domain for all layers. For each layer there are two types of standards: protocol standards defining how peer entities at a given layer communicate, and service standards defining how a given layer communicates with the layer above it.
In the original version of RM/OSI, the layers and their functionality are (from highest to lowest layer):
In contrast to the TCP/IP layering scheme, which assumes a connectionless network, RM/OSI assumed a connection-oriented network. Connection-oriented networks are more suitable for wide area networks and connectionless networks are more suitable for local area networks. Using connections to communicate implies some form of session and (virtual) circuits, hence the (in the TCP/IP model lacking) session layer. The constituent members of ISO were mostly concerned with wide area networks, so development of RM/OSI concentrated on connection oriented networks and connectionless networks were only mentioned in an addendum to RM/OSI. At the time, the IETF had to cope with this and the fact that the Internet needed protocols which simply were not there. As a result the IETF developed its own standardization process based on "rough consensus and running code".
The standardization process is described by RFC2026.
Nowadays, the IETF has become a standards organization for the protocols in use on the Internet. RM/OSI has extended its model to include connectionless services and because of this, both TCP and IP could be developed into international standards.
Classification schemes for protocols usually focus on domain of use and function. As an example of domain of use, connection-oriented protocols and connectionless protocols are used on connection-oriented networks and connectionless networks respectively. For an example of function consider a tunneling protocol, which is used to encapsulate packets in a high-level protocol, so the packets can be passed across a transport system using the high-level protocol.
A layering scheme combines both function and domain of use. The dominant layering schemes are the ones proposed by the IETF and by ISO. Despite the fact that the underlying assumptions of the layering schemes are different enough to warrant distinguishing the two, it is a common practice to compare the two by relating common protocols to the layers of the two schemes. For an example of this practice see: List of network protocols.
The layering scheme from the IETF is called Internet layering or TCP/IP layering. The functionality of the layers has been described in the section on software layering and an overview of protocols using this scheme is given in the article on Internet protocols.
The layering scheme from ISO is called the OSI model or ISO layering. The functionality of the layers has been described in the section on the future of standardization and an overview of protocols using this scheme is given in the article on OSI protocols.
The Internet Protocol is used in concert with other protocols within the Internet Protocol Suite. Prominent members of which include:
Other instances of high level interaction protocols are: