Types of Protocol Layers

Types of Protocol Layers


From our discussion thus far, it is apparent that the internet is an extremely complicated system. We have seen that there are many pieces to the internet : numerous applications and protocols, various types of end systems, packet switches, and various types of link-level media. Given this enormous complexity, is there any hope of organizing a network architecture, or at least our discussion of network architecture?

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Fortunately, the answer to both questions is yes.

Layered Architecture

Before attempting to organize our thoughts on internet architecture, let’s look for a human analogy. Actually, we deal with complex systems all the time in our everyday life. Imagine if someone asked you to describe, for example, the airline system. How would you find the structure to describe this complex system that has ticketing agents, baggage checkers, pilots, airplanes, air traffic control, and a worldwide system for routing airplanes? One way to describe this system might be to describe the series of actions you take (or others take for you) when you fly on an airline. You purchase your ticket, check your bags, go to the gate, and eventually get loaded onto the plane. The plane takes off and is routed to its destination. After you plane lands, you deplane at the gate and claim your bags. If the trip was bad, you complain about the flight to the ticket agent (getting nothing from your effort). This scenario is shown in fig. 1.21.

Already, we can see some analogies here with computer networking: You are being shipped from source to destination by the airline; a packet is shipped from source host to destination in the internet. But this is not quite the analogy we are after. We are looking for some structure in fig.1.21. looking at figure 1.21, we note that there is a ticket function at each end; there is also a baggage function for already-ticketed passengers, and a gate function for already-ticketed and already-baggage-checked passengers. For passengers who have made it through the gate (that is, passengers who are already ticketed, baggage-checked, and through the gate), there is a takeoff and landing function, and while in flight, there is an airplane routing function. This suggests that we can look at the functionality in fig 1.21 in a horizontal manner, as shown in fig.1.22

Fig. 1.22 has divided the airline functionality into layers, providing a framework in which we can discuss airline travel. Note that each layer, combined with the layers below it, implements some functionality, some service. At the ticketing layer and below, airline-counter-to-airline-counter transfer of a person is accomplished. At the baggage layer and below, baggage-check-to-baggage-claim transfer of a person and bags is accomplished. Not that the baggage layer provides this service only to an already-ticketed-person. At the gate layer, departure-gate-to-arrival-gate-transfer of a person of people and their bags is accomplished. At the takeoff/landing layer, runway-to-runway transfer of people and their bags is accomplished. Each layer provides its service by (1) performing certain actions within that layer (for example, at the gate layer, loading and unloading people from an airplane) and by (2) using the services of the layer directly below it (for example, in the gate layer, using the runway-to-runway passenger transfer service of the takeoff/landing layer).

A layered architecture allows us to discuss a well-defined, specific part of a large and complex system. This simplification itself is of considerable value by providing modularity, making it much easier to change the implementation of the service provided by the layer. As long as the layer provides the same service to the layer above it, and uses the same services from the layer below it, the remainder of the system remains unchanged when a layer’s implementation is changed. (Note that changing the implementation of a service is very different from changing the service itself). For example, if the gate functions we changed (for instance, to have people board and disembark by height), the remainder of the airline system would remain unchanged since the gate layer still provides the same function (loading and unloading people); it simply implements that a function in a different manner after the change. For large and complex systems that are constantly being updated, the ability to change the implementation of a service without affecting other components of the systems is another important advantage of layering.

Protocol Layering

To provide structure to the design of network protocols, network designers organize protocols – and the network hardware and software that implement the protocols – in layers. Each protocol belongs to one of the layers, just as each function in the airline architecture in figure 1.22 belonged to a layer. We are again interested in the services that a layer offers to the layer above – the so-called service model of a layer. Just as in the case of our airline example, each layer provides its services by (1) performing certain actions within that layer and by (2) using the services of the layer below it. For example, the services provided by layer n may include reliable delivery of messages from one edge of the network to the other. This might be implemented by using an unreliable edge-to-edge message delivery service of layer n-1, and adding layer n functionality to detect and transmit lost messages.

A protocol layer can be implemented in software, in hardware, or in a combination of the two. Application –layer protocols – such as HTTP and SMTP – are almost always implemented in software in the end systems; so are transport-layer protocols. Because the physical layer and data link layers are responsible for handling communication over a specific link, they are typically implemented in a network interface card (for example, Ethernet or WiFi interface cards) associated with a given link. The network layer is often a mixed implementation of hardware and software. Also note that just as the functions in the layered airline architecture were distributed among the various airports and flight control centers that make up the system, so too is a layer n protocol distributed among the end systems, packet switches, and other components that make up the network. That is, there’s often a piece of a layer n protocol in each of these network components.

Protocol layering has conceptual and structural advantages. As we have seen, layering provides a structured way to discuss system components. Modularity makes it easier to update system components. We mention, however, that some researchers and networking engineers are vehemently opposed to layering. One potential drawback of layering is that one layer may duplicate lower-layer functionality. For example, many protocol stacks provide error recovery on both a per-link basis and an end-to-end basis. As second potential drawback is that functionality at one layer may need information (for example, a time-stamp value) that is present only in another layer; this violates the goal of separation of layers.

When taken together, the protocols of the various layers are called the protocol stack . The internet protocol stack consists of five layers; the physical , link , network, transport, and application layers as shown in fig. 1.23(a). If you examine the table of contents, you will see that we have roughly organized this course using the layers of the internet protocol stack. We take a top-down approach, first covering the application layer and then proceeding downward.

Application Layer

The application layer is where network applications and their application-layer protocols reside. The internet’s application layer includes many protocols, such as the HTTP protocol (which provides for web document request and transfer), SMTP (which provides for the transfer of e-mail messages), and FTP (which provides for the transfer of files between two end systems). We’ll see that certain network functions, such as the translation of human-friendly names for internet end systems like www.ietf.org to a 32-bit network address, are also done with the help of a specific application-layer protocol, namely, the domain name system (DNS). It is very easy to create and deploy our own new application-layer protocols.

An application-layer protocol is distributed over multiple end systems, with the application in one end system using the protocol to exchange packets of information with the application in another end system. We’ll refer to this packet of information at the application layer as a message.

Transport Layer

The internet’s transport layer transports application-layer messages between application endpoints. In the Internet there are two transport protocols, TCP and UDP, either of which can transport application-layer messages. TCP provides a connection-oriented service to its applications. This service includes guaranteed delivery of application-layer messages to the destination and flow control (that is, sender/receiver speed matching. TCP also breaks long messages into shorter segments and provides a congestion-control mechanism, so that a source throttles its transmission rate when the network is congested. The UDP protocol provides a connectionless service to its applications. This is a no-frills service that provides no reliability, no flow control, and no congestion control. In this course, we’ll refer to a transport-layer packet as a segment.

Network Layer

The internet’s network layer is responsible for moving network-layer packets known as datagrams from one host to another. The internet transport-layer protocol (TCP or UDP) in a source host passes a transport-layer segment and a destination address to the network layer, just as you would give the postal service a letter with a destination address. The network layer then provides the service of delivering the segment to the transport layer in the destination host.

The internet’s network layer includes the celebrated IP Protocol, which defines the fields in the datagram as well as how the end systems and routers act on these fields. There is only one IP protocol, and all internet components that have a network layer must run the IP protocol. The internet’s network layer also contains routing protocols that determine the routes that datagrams take between sources and destinations. The internet has many routing protocols. As we know the internet is a network of networks, and within a network , the network administrator can run any routing protocol desired. Although the network layer contains both the IP protocol and numerous routing protocols, it is often simply referred to as the IP layer, reflecting the fact that IP is the glue that binds the internet together.

Link Layer

The internet’s network layer routes a datagram through a series of routers between the source and destination. To move a packet from one node (host or router) to the next node in the router, the network layer relies on the services of the link layer. In particular, at each node, the network layer passes the datagram down the link layer, which delivers the datagram to the nest node along the route. At this next node, the link layer passes the datagram up to the network layer.

The services provided by the link layer depend on the specific link-layer protocol that is employed over the link. For example, some link-layer protocols provide reliable delivery, from transmitting node, over one link, to receiving node. Note that this reliable delivery service is different from the reliable delivery service of TCP, which provides reliable delivery from one end system to another. Examples of link-layer protocols include Ethernet, WiFi, and the cable access network’s DOCSIS protocol. As datagrams typically need to traverse several links to travel from source to links along its route. For example, a datagram may be handled by Ehternet on one link and by PPP on the next link. The network layer will receive a different service from each of the different link-layer protocols. In this course, we’ll refer to the link-layer packets as frames.

Physical Layer

While the job of the link layer is to move entire frames from one network element to an adjacent network element, the job of the physical layer is to move the individual bits within the frame from one node to the next. The protocols in this layer are again link dependent and further depend on the actual transmission medium of the link (for example, twisted-pair copper wire, single-mode fiber optics). For example, Ethernet has many physical-layer protocols: one for twisted-pair copper wire, another for coaxial cable, another for fiber , and so on. In each case, a bit is moved across the link in a different way.

The OSI Model

Having discussed the internet protocol stack in detail, we should mention that it is not the only protocol stack around. In particular, back in the late 1970s, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) proposed that computer networks be organized around seven layers, called the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. The OSI model took shape when the protocols that were to become the internet protocols were in their infancy, and were but one of many different protocols suites under development; in fact, the inventors of the original OSI model probably did not have the internet in mind when creating it. Nevertheless, beginning in the late 1970s, many training and university courses picked up on the early impact on networking education, the seven-layer model continues to linger on in some networking textbooks and training courses.

The seven layers of the OSI reference model, shown in figure 1.23(b) are :

  1. Application layer
  2. Presentation layer
  3. Session layer
  4. Transport layer
  5. Network layer
  6. Data link layer , &
  7. Physical layer

The functionality of five of these layers is roughly the same as their similarly named internet counterparts. Thus, let’s consider the two additional layers present in the OSI reference model – the presentation layer and the session layer. The role of the presentation layer is to provide services that allow communicating applications to interpret the meaning of data exchanged. These services include data description (which frees the applications from having to worry about the internal format in which data are represented/stored – formats that may differ from one computer to another). The session layer provides for delimiting and synchronizing of data exchange, including the means to build a checkpoint and recovery scheme.

The fact that the internet lacks two layers found in the OSI reference model poses a couple of interesting questions: Are the services provided by these layers unimportant? What if an application needs one of these services? The internet’s answer to both of these question is the same – it’s up to the application developer. It’s up to the application developer to decide if a service is important, and if the service is important, it’s up to the application developer to build that functionality into the application.