4. Protocols other than TCP: UDP and ICMP

So far, we have described only connections that use TCP. Recall that TCP is responsible for breaking up messages into datagrams, and reassembling them properly. However in many applications, we have messages that will always fit in a single datagram. An example is name lookup. When a user attempts to make a connection to another system, he will generally specify the system by name, rather than Internet address. His system has to translate that name to an address before it can do anything. Generally, only a few systems have the database used to translate names to addresses. So the user's system will want to send a query to one of the systems that has the database. This query is going to be very short. It will certainly fit in one datagram. So will the answer. Thus it seems silly to use TCP. Of course TCP does more than just break things up into datagrams. It also makes sure that the data arrives, resending datagrams where necessary. But for a question that fits in a single datagram, we don't need all the complexity of TCP to do this. If we don't get an answer after a few seconds, we can just ask again. For applications like this, there are alternatives to TCP.

The most common alternative is UDP ("user datagram protocol"). UDP is designed for applications where you don't need to put sequences of datagrams together. It fits into the system much like TCP. There is a UDP header. The network software puts the UDP header on the front of your data, just as it would put a TCP header on the front of your data. Then UDP sends the data to IP, which adds the IP header, putting UDP's protocol number in the protocol field instead of TCP's protocol number. However UDP doesn't do as much as TCP does. It doesn't split data into multiple datagrams. It doesn't keep track of what it has sent so it can resend if necessary. About all that UDP provides is port numbers, so that several programs can use UDP at once. UDP port numbers are used just like TCP port numbers. There are well-known port numbers for servers that use UDP. Note that the UDP header is shorter than a TCP header. It still has source and destination port numbers, and a checksum, but that's about it. No sequence number, since it is not needed. UDP is used by the protocols that handle name lookups (see IEN 116, RFC 882, and RFC 883), and a number of similar protocols.

Another alternative protocol is ICMP ("Internet control message protocol"). ICMP is used for error messages, and other messages intended for the TCP/IP software itself, rather than any particular user program. For example, if you attempt to connect to a host, your system may get back an ICMP message saying "host unreachable". ICMP can also be used to find out some information about the network. See RFC 792 for details of ICMP. ICMP is similar to UDP, in that it handles messages that fit in one datagram. However it is even simpler than UDP. It doesn't even have port numbers in its header. Since all ICMP messages are interpreted by the network software itself, no port numbers are needed to say where a ICMP message is supposed to go.

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