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RFC 1263 - TCP Extensions Considered Harmful

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Network Working Group                                        S. O'Malley
Request for Comments: 1263                                   L. Peterson
                                                   University of Arizona
                                                            October 1991


Status of this Memo

   This memo provides information for the Internet community.  It does
   not specify an Internet standard.  Distribution of this document is


   This RFC comments on recent proposals to extend TCP.  It argues that
   the backward compatible extensions proposed in RFC's 1072 and 1185
   should not be pursued, and proposes an alternative way to evolve the
   Internet protocol suite.  Its purpose is to stimulate discussion in
   the Internet community.

1.  Introduction

   The rapid growth of the size, capacity, and complexity of the
   Internet has led to the need to change the existing protocol suite.
   For example, the maximum TCP window size is no longer sufficient to
   efficiently support the high capacity links currently being planned
   and constructed. One is then faced with the choice of either leaving
   the protocol alone and accepting the fact that TCP will run no faster
   on high capacity links than on low capacity links, or changing TCP.
   This is not an isolated incident. We have counted at least eight
   other proposed changes to TCP (some to be taken more seriously than
   others), and the question is not whether to change the protocol
   suite, but what is the most cost effective way to change it.

   This RFC compares the costs and benefits of three approaches to
   making these changes: the creation of new protocols, backward
   compatible protocol extensions, and protocol evolution. The next
   section introduces these three approaches and enumerates the
   strengths and weaknesses of each.  The following section describes
   how we believe these three approaches are best applied to the many
   proposed changes to TCP. Note that we have not written this RFC as an
   academic exercise.  It is our intent to argue against acceptance of
   the various TCP extensions, most notably RFC's 1072 and 1185 [4,5],
   by describing a more palatable alternative.

2.  Creation vs. Extension vs. Evolution

2.1.  Protocol Creation

   Protocol creation involves the design, implementation,
   standardization, and distribution of an entirely new protocol. In
   this context, there are two basic reasons for creating a new
   protocol. The first is to replace an old protocol that is so outdated
   that it can no longer be effectively extended to perform its original
   function.  The second is to add a new protocol because users are
   making demands upon the original protocol that were not envisioned by
   the designer and cannot be efficiently handled in terms of the
   original protocol.  For example, TCP was designed as a reliable
   byte-stream protocol but is commonly used as both a reliable record-
   stream protocol and a reliable request-reply protocol due to the lack
   of such protocols in the Internet protocol suite.  The performance
   demands placed upon a byte-stream protocol in the new Internet
   environment makes it difficult to extend TCP to meet these new
   application demands.

   The advantage of creating a new protocol is the ability to start with
   a clean sheet of paper when attempting to solve a complex network
   problem.  The designer, free from the constraints of an existing
   protocol, can take maximum advantage of modern network research in
   the basic algorithms needed to solve the problem. Even more
   importantly, the implementor is free to steal from a large number of
   existing academic protocols that have been developed over the years.
   In some cases, if truly new functionality is desired, creating a new
   protocol is the only viable approach.

   The most obvious disadvantage of this approach is the high cost of
   standardizing and distributing an entirely new protocol.  Second,
   there is the issue of making the new protocol reliable. Since new
   protocols have not undergone years of network stress testing, they
   often contain bugs which require backward compatible fixes, and
   hence, the designer is back where he or she started.  A third
   disadvantage of introducing new protocols is that they generally have
   new interfaces which require significant effort on the part of the
   Internet community to use. This alone is often enough to kill a new

   Finally, there is a subtle problem introduced by the very freedom
   provided by this approach. Specifically, being able to introduce a
   new protocol often results in protocols that go far beyond the basic
   needs of the situation.  New protocols resemble Senate appropriations
   bills; they tend to accumulate many amendments that have nothing to
   do with the original problem. A good example of this phenomena is the
   attempt to standardize VMTP [1] as the Internet RPC protocol. While

   VMTP was a large protocol to begin with, the closer it got to
   standardization the more features were added until it essentially
   collapsed under its own weight. As we argue below, new protocols
   should initially be minimal, and then evolve as the situation

2.2.  Backward Compatible Extensions

   In a backward compatible extension, the protocol is modified in such
   a fashion that the new version of the protocol can transparently
   inter-operate with existing versions of the protocol. This generally
   implies no changes to the protocol's header. TCP slow start [3] is an
   example of such a change. In a slightly more relaxed version of
   backward compatibility, no changes are made to the fixed part of a
   protocol's header. Instead, either some fields are added to the
   variable length options field found at the end of the header, or
   existing header fields are overloaded (i.e., used for multiple
   purposes). However, we can find no real advantage to this technique
   over simply changing the protocol.

   Backward compatible extensions are widely used to modify protocols
   because there is no need to synchronize the distribution of the new
   version of the protocol. The new version is essentially allowed to
   diffuse through the Internet at its own pace, and at least in theory,
   the Internet will continue to function as before. Thus, the explicit
   distribution costs are limited. Backward compatible extensions also
   avoid the bureaucratic costs of standardizing a new protocol. TCP is
   still TCP and the approval cost of a modification to an existing
   protocol is much less than that of a new protocol. Finally, the very
   difficulty of making such changes tends to restrict the changes to
   the minimal set needed to solve the current problem. Thus, it is rare
   to see unneeded changes made when using this technique.

   Unfortunately, this approach has several drawbacks. First, the time
   to distribute the new version of the protocol to all hosts can be
   quite long (forever in fact). This leaves the network in a
   heterogeneous state for long periods of time. If there is the
   slightest incompatibly between old and new versions, chaos can
   result. Thus, the implicit cost of this type of distribution can be
   quite high. Second, designing a backward compatible change to a new
   protocol is extremely difficult, and the implementations "tend toward
   complexity and ugliness" [5]. The need for backward compatibility
   ensures that no code can every really be eliminated from the
   protocol, and since such vestigial code is rarely executed, it is
   often wrong. Finally, most protocols have limits, based upon the
   design decisions of it inventors, that simply cannot be side-stepped
   in this fashion.

2.3.  Protocol Evolution

   Protocol evolution is an approach to protocol change that attempts to
   escape the limits of backward compatibility without incurring all of
   the costs of creating new protocols. The basic idea is for the
   protocol designer to take an existing protocol that requires
   modification and make the desired changes without maintaining
   backward compatibility.  This drastically simplifies the job of the
   protocol designer. For example, the limited TCP window size could be
   fixed by changing the definition of the window size in the header
   from 16-bits to 32-bits, and re-compiling the protocol. The effect of
   backward compatibility would be ensured by simply keeping both the
   new and old version of the protocol running until most machines use
   the new version. Since the change is small and invisible to the user
   interface, it is a trivial problem to dynamically select the correct
   TCP version at runtime. How this is done is discussed in the next

   Protocol evolution has several advantages. First, it is by far the
   simplest type of modification to make to a protocol, and hence, the
   modifications can be made faster and are less likely to contain bugs.
   There is no need to worry about the effects of the change on all
   previous versions of the protocol. Also, most of the protocol is
   carried over into the new version unchanged, thus avoiding the design
   and debugging cost of creating an entirely new protocol. Second,
   there is no artificial limit to the amount of change that can be made
   to a protocol, and as a consequence, its useful lifetime can be
   extended indefinitely. In a series of evolutionary steps, it is
   possible to make fairly radical changes to a protocol without
   upsetting the Internet community greatly. Specifically, it is
   possible to both add new features and remove features that are no
   longer required for the current environment.  Thus, the protocol is
   not condemned to grow without bound. Finally, by keeping the old
   version of the protocol around, backward compatibility is guaranteed.
   The old code will work as well as it ever did.

   Assuming the infrastructure described in the following subsection,
   the only real disadvantage of protocol evolution is the amount of
   memory required to run several versions of the same protocol.
   Fortunately, memory is not the scarcest resource in modern
   workstations (it may, however, be at a premium in the BSD kernel and
   its derivatives). Since old versions may rarely if ever be executed,
   the old versions can be swapped out to disk with little performance
   loss. Finally, since this cost is explicit, there is a huge incentive
   to eliminate old protocol versions from the network.

2.4.  Infrastructure Support for Protocol Evolution

   The effective use of protocol evolution implies that each protocol is
   considered a vector of implementations which share the same top level
   interface, and perhaps not much else.  TCP[0] is the current
   implementation of TCP and exists to provide backward compatibility
   with all existing machines. TCP[1] is a version of TCP that is
   optimized for high-speed networks.  TCP[0] is always present; TCP[1]
   may or may not be. Treating TCP as a vector of protocols requires
   only three changes to the way protocols are designed and implemented.

   First, each version of TCP is assigned a unique id, but this id is
   not given as an IP protocol number. (This is because IP's protocol
   number field is only 8 bits long and could easily be exhausted.)  The
   "obvious" solution to this limitation is to increase IP's protocol
   number field to 32 bits. In this case, however, the obvious solution
   is wrong, not because of the difficultly of changing IP, but simply
   because there is a better approach. The best way to deal with this
   problem is to increase the IP protocol number field to 32 bits and
   move it to the very end of the IP header (i.e., the first four bytes
   of the TCP header).  A backward compatible modification would be made
   to IP such that for all packets with a special protocol number, say
   77, IP would look into the four bytes following its header for its
   de-multiplexing information. On systems which do not support a
   modified IP, an actual protocol 77 would be used to perform the de-
   multiplexing to the correct TCP version.

   Second, a version control protocol, called VTCP, is used to select
   the appropriate version of TCP for a particular connection. VTCP is
   an example of a virtual protocol as introduced in [2]. Application
   programs access the various versions of TCP through VTCP. When a TCP
   connection is opened to a specific machine, VTCP checks its local
   cache to determine the highest common version shared by the two
   machines. If the target machine is in the cache, it opens that
   version of TCP and returns the connection to the protocol above and
   does not effect performance. If the target machine is not found in
   the cache, VTCP sends a UDP packet to the other machine asking what
   versions of TCP that machine supports. If it receives a response, it
   uses that information to select a version and puts the information in
   the cache.  If no reply is forthcoming, it assumes that the other
   machine does not support VTCP and attempts to open a TCP[0]
   connection. VTCP's cache is flushed occasionally to ensure that its
   information is current.

   Note that this is only one possible way for VTCP to decide the right
   version of TCP to use. Another possibility is for VTCP to learn the
   right version for a particular host when it resolves the host's name.
   That is, version information could be stored in the Domain Name

   System. It is also possible that VTCP might take the performance
   characteristics of the network into consideration when selecting a
   version; TCP[0] may in fact turn out to be the correct choice for a
   low-bandwidth network.

   Third, because our proposal would lead to a more dynamically changing
   network architecture, a mechanism for distributing new versions will
   need to be developed. This is clearly the hardest requirement of the
   infrastructure, but we believe that it can be addressed in stages.
   More importantly, we believe this problem can be addressed after the
   decision has been made to go the protocol evolution route.  In the
   short term, we are considering only a single new version of TCP---
   TCP[1]. This version can be distributed in the same ad hoc way, and
   at exactly the same cost, as the backward compatible changes
   suggested in RFC's 1072 and 1185.

   In the medium term, we envision the IAB approving new versions of TCP
   every year or so. Given this scenario, a simple distribution
   mechanism can be designed based on software distribution mechanisms
   that have be developed for other environments; e.g., Unix RDIST and
   Mach SUP.  Such a mechanism need not be available on all hosts.
   Instead, hosts will be divided into two sets, those that can quickly
   be updated with new protocols and those that cannot.  High
   performance machines that can use high performance networks will need
   the most current version of TCP as soon as it is available, thus they
   have incentive to change.  Old machines which are too slow to drive a
   high capacity lines can be ignored, and probably should be ignored.

   In the long term, we envision protocols being designed on an
   application by application basis, without the need for central
   approval. In such a world, a common protocol implementation
   environment---a protocol backplane---is the right way to go.  Given
   such a backplane, protocols can be automatically installed over the
   network. While we claim to know how to build such an environment,
   such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

2.5.  Remarks

   Each of these three methods has its advantages.  When used in
   combination, the result is better protocols at a lower overall cost.
   Backward compatible changes are best reserved for changes that do not
   affect the protocol's header, and do not require that the instance
   running on the other end of the connection also be changed.  Protocol
   evolution should be the primary way of dealing with header fields
   that are no longer large enough, or when one algorithm is substituted
   directly for another.  New protocols should be written to off load
   unexpected user demands on existing protocols, or better yet, to

   catch them before they start.

   There are also synergistic effects. First, since we know it is
   possible to evolve a newly created protocol once it has been put in
   place, the pressure to add unnecessary features should be reduced.
   Second, the ability to create new protocols removes the pressure to
   overextend a given protocol. Finally, the ability to evolve a
   protocol removes the pressure to maintain backward compatibility
   where it is really not possible.

3.  TCP Extensions: A Case Study

   This section examines the effects of using our proposed methodology
   to implement changes to TCP. We will begin by analyzing the backward
   compatible extensions defined in RFC's 1072 and 1185, and proposing a
   set of much simpler evolutionary modifications. We also analyze
   several more problematical extensions to TCP, such as Transactional
   TCP. Finally, we point our some areas of TCP which may require
   changes in the future.

   The evolutionary modification to TCP that we propose includes all of
   the functionality described in RFC's 1072 and 1185, but does not
   preserve the header format.  At the risk of being misunderstood as
   believing backward compatibility is a good idea, we also show how our
   proposed changes to TCP can be folded into a backward compatible
   implementation of TCP.  We do this as a courtesy for those readers
   that cannot accept the possibility of multiple versions of TCP.

3.1.  RFC's 1072 and 1185

   3.1.1.  Round Trip Timing

   In RFC 1072, a new ECHO option is proposed that allows each TCP
   packet to carry a timestamp in its header.  This timestamp is used to
   keep a more accurate estimate of the RTT (round trip time) used to
   decide when to re-transmit segments. In the original TCP algorithm,
   the sender manually times a small number of sends. The resulting
   algorithm was quite complex and does not produce an accurate enough
   RTT for high capacity networks. The inclusion of a timestamp in every
   header both simplifies the code needed to calculate the RTT and
   improves the accuracy and robustness of the algorithm.

   The new algorithm as proposed in RFC 1072 does not appear to have any
   serious problems. However, the authors of RFC 1072 go to great
   lengths in an attempt to keep this modification backward compatible
   with the previous version of TCP. They place an ECHO option in the

   SYN segment and state, "It is likely that most implementations will
   properly ignore any options in the SYN segment that they do not
   understand, so new initial options should not cause problems" [4].
   This statement does not exactly inspire confidence, and we consider
   the addition of an optional field to any protocol to be a de-facto,
   if not a de-jure, example of an evolutionary change. Optional fields
   simply attempt to hide the basic incompatibility inside the protocol,
   it does not eliminate it.  Therefore, since we are making an
   evolutionary change anyway, the only modification to the proposed
   algorithm is to move the fields into the header proper.  Thus, each
   header will contain 32-bit echo and echo reply fields. Two fields are
   needed to handle bi-directional data streams.

   3.1.2.  Window Size and Sequence Number Space

   Long Fat Networks (LFN's), networks which contain very high capacity
   lines with very high latency, introduce the possibility that the
   number of bits in transit (the bandwidth-delay product) could exceed
   the TCP window size, thus making TCP the limiting factor in network
   performance.  Worse yet, the time it takes the sequence numbers to
   wrap around could be reduced to a point below the MSL (maximum
   segment lifetime), introducing the possibility of old packets being
   mistakenly accepted as new.

   RFC 1072 extends the window size through the use of an implicit
   constant scaling factor. The window size in the TCP header is
   multiplied by this factor to get the true window size.  This
   algorithm has three problems. First, one must prove that at all times
   the implicit scaling factor used by the sender is the same as the
   receiver.  The proposed algorithm appears to do so, but the
   complexity of the algorithm creates the opportunity for poor
   implementations to affect the correctness of TCP.  Second, the use of
   a scaling factor complicates the TCP implementation in general, and
   can have serious effects on other parts of the protocol.

   A final problem is what we characterize as the "quantum window
   sizing" problem. Assuming that the scaling factors will be powers of
   two, the algorithm right shifts the receiver's window before sending
   it.  This effectively rounds the window size down to the nearest
   multiple of the scaling factor. For large scaling factors, say 64k,
   this implies that window values are all multiples of 64k and the
   minimum window size is 64k; advertising a smaller window is
   impossible. While this is not necessarily a problem (and it seems to
   be an extreme solution to the silly window syndrome) what effect this
   will have on the performance of high-speed network links is anyone's
   guess. We can imagine this extension leading to future papers
   entitled "A Quantum Mechanical Approach to Network Performance".

   RFC 1185 is an attempt to get around the problem of the window
   wrapping too quickly without explicitly increasing the sequence
   number space.  Instead, the RFC proposes to use the timestamp used in
   the ECHO option to weed out old duplicate messages. The algorithm
   presented in RFC 1185 is complex and has been shown to be seriously
   flawed at a recent End-to-End Research Group meeting.  Attempts are
   currently underway to fix the algorithm presented in the RFC. We
   believe that this is a serious mistake.

   We see two problems with this approach on a very fundamental level.
   First, we believe that making TCP depend on accurate clocks for
   correctness to be a mistake. The Internet community has NO experience
   with transport protocols that depend on clocks for correctness.
   Second, the proposal uses two distinct schemes to deal with old
   duplicate packets: the sliding window algorithm takes care of "new"
   old packets (packets from the current sequence number epoch) and the
   timestamp algorithm deals with "old" old packets (packets from
   previous sequence number epochs). It is hard enough getting one of
   these schemes to work much less to get two to work and ensure that
   they do not interfere with one another.

   In RFC 1185, the statement is made that "An obvious fix for the
   problem of cycling the sequence number space is to increase the size
   of the TCP sequence number field." Using protocol evolution, the
   obvious fix is also the correct one. The window size can be increased
   to 32 bits by simply changing a short to a long in the definition of
   the TCP header. At the same time, the sequence number and
   acknowledgment fields can be increased to 64 bits.  This change is
   the minimum complexity modification to get the job done and requires
   little or no analysis to be shown to work correctly.

   On machines that do not support 64-bit integers, increasing the
   sequence number size is not as trivial as increasing the window size.
   However, it is identical in cost to the modification proposed in RFC
   1185; the high order bits can be thought of as an optimal clock that
   ticks only when it has to.  Also, because we are not dealing with
   real time, the problems with unreliable system clocks is avoided.  On
   machines that support 64-bit integers, the original TCP code may be
   reused.  Since only very high performance machines can hope to drive
   a communications network at the rates this modification is designed
   to support, and the new generation of RISC microprocessors (e.g.,
   MIPS R4000 and PA-RISC) do support 64-bit integers, the assumption of
   64-bit arithmetic may be more of an advantage than a liability.

   3.1.3.  Selective Retransmission

   Another problem with TCP's support for LFN's is that the sliding
   window algorithm used by TCP does not support any form of selective
   acknowledgment. Thus, if a segment is lost, the total amount of data
   that must be re-transmitted is some constant times the bandwidth-
   delay product, despite the fact that most of the segments have in
   fact arrived at the receiver.  RFC 1072 proposes to extend TCP to
   allow the receiver to return partial acknowledgments to the sender in
   the hope that the sender will use that information to avoid
   unnecessary re-transmissions.

   It has been our experience on predictable local area networks that
   the performance of partial re-transmission strategies is highly non-
   obvious, and it generally requires more than one iteration to find a
   decent algorithm. It is therefore not surprising that the algorithm
   proposed in RFC 1072 has some problems.  The proposed TCP extension
   allows the receiver to include a short list of received fragments
   with every ACK.  The idea being that when the receiver sends back a
   normal ACK, it checks its queue of segments that have been received
   out of order and sends the relative sequence numbers of contiguous
   blocks of segments back to the sender. The sender then uses this
   information to re-transmit the segments transmitted but not listed in
   the ACK.

   As specified, this algorithm has two related problems: (1) it ignores
   the relative frequencies of delivered and dropped packets, and (2)
   the list provided in the option field is probably too short to do
   much good on networks with large bandwidth-delay products.  In every
   model of high bandwidth networks that we have seen, the packet loss
   rate is very low, and thus, the ratio of dropped packets to delivered
   packets is very low. An algorithm that returns ACKs as proposed is
   simply going to have to send more information than one in which the
   receiver returns NAKs.

   This problem is compounded by the short size of the TCP option field
   (44 bytes). In theory, since we are only worried about high bandwidth
   networks, returning ACKs instead of NAKs is not really a problem; the
   bandwidth is available to send any information that's needed. The
   problem comes when trying to compress the ACK information into the 44
   bytes allowed.  The proposed extensions effectively compresses the
   ACK information by allowing the receiver to ACK byte ranges rather
   than segments, and scaling the relative sequence numbers of the re-
   transmitted segments. This makes it much more difficult for the
   sender to tell which segments should be re-transmitted, and
   complicates the re-transmission code.  More importantly, one should
   never compress small amounts of data being sent over a high bandwidth
   network; it trades a scarce resource for an abundant resource.  On

   low bandwidth networks, selective retransmission is not needed and
   the SACK option should be disabled.

   We propose two solutions to this problem. First, the receiver can
   examine its list of out-of-order packets and guess which segments
   have been dropped, and NAK those segments back to the sender. The
   number of NAKs should be low enough that one per TCP packet should be
   sufficient. Note that the receiver has just as much information as
   the sender about what packets should be retransmitted, and in any
   case, the NAKs are simply suggestions which have no effect on

   Our second proposed modification is to increase the offset field in
   the TCP header from 4 bits to 16 bits.  This allows 64k-bytes of TCP
   header, which allows us to radically simplify the selective re-
   transmission algorithm proposed in RFC 1072.  The receiver can now
   simply send a list of 64-bit sequence numbers for the out-of-order
   segments to the sender. The sender can then use this information to
   do a partial retransmission without needing an ouji board to
   translate ACKs into segments.  With the new header size, it may be
   faster for the receiver to send a large list than to attempt to
   aggregate segments into larger blocks.

   3.1.4.  Header Modifications

   The modifications proposed above drastically change the size and
   structure of the TCP header. This makes it a good time to re-think
   the structure of the proposed TCP header. The primary goal of the
   current TCP header is to save bits in the output stream. When TCP was
   developed, a high bandwidth network was 56kbps, and the key use for
   TCP was terminal I/O.  In both situations, minimal header size was
   important.  Unfortunately, while the network has drastically
   increased in performance and the usage pattern of the network is now
   vastly different, most protocol designers still consider saving a few
   bits in the header to be worth almost any price. Our basic goal is
   different: to improve performance by eliminating the need to extract
   information packed into odd length bit fields in the header.  Below
   is our first cut at such a modification.

   The protocol id field is there to make further evolutionary
   modifications to TCP easier. This field basically subsumes the
   protocol number field contained in the IP header with a version
   number.  Each distinct TCP version has a different protocol id and
   this field ensures that the right code is looking at the right
   header.  The offset field has been increased to 16 bits to support
   the larger header size required, and to simplify header processing.
   The code field has been extended to 16 bits to support more options.

   The source port and destination port are unchanged. The size of both
   the sequence number and ACK fields have been increased to 64 bits.
   The open window field has been increased to 32 bits. The checksum and
   urgent data pointer fields are unchanged. The echo and echo reply
   fields are added.  The option field remains but can be much larger
   than in the old TCP.  All headers are padded out to 32 bit
   boundaries.  Note that these changes increase the minimum header size
   from 24 bytes (actually 36 bytes if the ECHO and ECHO reply options
   defined in RFC 1072 are included on every packet) to 48 bytes. The
   maximum header size has been increased to the maximum segment size.
   We do not believe that the the increased header size will have a
   measurable effect on protocol performance.

       0                   1                   2                   3
       0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
      |                        Protocol ID                            |
      |              Offset           |              Code             |
      |              Source           |              Dest             |
      |                              Seq                              |
      |                                                               |
      |                              Ack                              |
      |                                                               |
      |                            Window                             |
      |             Checksum          |             Urgent            |
      |                             Echo                              |
      |                          Echo Reply                           |
      |  Options                                      |     Pad       |

   3.1.5.  Backward Compatibility

   The most likely objection to the proposed TCP extension is that it is
   not backward compatible with the current version of TCP, and most
   importantly, TCP's header. In this section we will present three
   versions of the proposed extension with increasing degrees of
   backward compatibility. The final version will combine the same
   degree of backward compatibility found in the protocol described in

   RFC's 1072/1185, with the much simpler semantics described in this

   We believe that the best way to preserve backward compatibility is to
   leave all of TCP alone and support the transparent use of a new
   protocol when and where it is needed. The basic scheme is the one
   described in section 2.4. Those machines and operating systems that
   need to support high speed connections should implement some general
   protocol infrastructure that allows them to rapidly evolve protocols.
   Machines that do not require such service simply keep using the
   existing version of TCP. A virtual protocol is used to manage the use
   of multiple TCP versions.

   This approach has several advantages. First, it guarantees backward
   compatibility with ALL existing TCP versions because such
   implementations will never see strange packets with new options.
   Second, it supports further modification of TCP with little
   additional costs. Finally, since our version of TCP will more closely
   resemble the existing TCP protocol than that proposed in RFC's
   1072/1185, the cost of maintaining two simple protocols will probably
   be lower than maintaining one complex protocol.  (Note that with high
   probability you still have to maintain two versions of TCP in any
   case.)  The only additional cost is the memory required for keeping
   around two copies of TCP.

   For those that insist that the only efficient way to implement TCP
   modifications is in a single monolithic protocol, or those that
   believe that the space requirements of two protocols would be too
   great, we simply migrate the virtual protocol into TCP. TCP is
   modified so that when opening a connection, the sender uses the TCP
   VERSION option attached to the SYN packet to request using the new
   version.  The receiver responds with a TCP VERSION ACK in the SYN ACK
   packet, after which point, the new header format described in Section
   3.1.4 is used. Thus, there is only one version of TCP, but that
   version supports multiple header formats. The complexity of such a
   protocol would be no worse than the protocol described in RFC
   1072/1185. It does, however, make it more difficult to make
   additional changes to TCP.

   Finally, for those that believe that the preservation of the TCP's
   header format has any intrinsic value (e.g., for those that don't
   want to re-program their ethernet monitors), a header compatible
   version of our proposal is possible.  One simply takes all of the
   additional information contained in the header given in Section 3.1.4
   and places it into a single optional field. Thus, one could define a
   new TCP option which consists of the top 32 bits of the sequence and
   ack fields, the echo and echo_reply fields, and the top 16 bits of
   the window field. This modification makes it more difficult to take

   advantage of machines with 64-bit address spaces, but at a minimum
   will be just as easy to process as the protocol described in RFC
   1072/1185.  The only restriction is that the size of the header
   option field is still limited to 44 bytes, and thus, selective
   retransmission using NAKs rather than ACKs will probably be required.

   The key observation is that one should make a protocol extension
   correct and simple before trying to make it backward compatible.  As
   far as we can tell, the only advantages possessed by the protocol
   described in RFC 1072/1185 is that its typical header, size including
   options, is 8 to 10 bytes shorter. The price for this "advantage" is
   a protocol of such complexity that it may prove impossible for normal
   humans to implement. Trying to maintain backward compatibility at
   every stage of the protocol design process is a serious mistake.

3.2.  TCP Over Extension

   Another potential problem with TCP that has been discussed recently,
   but has not yet resulted in the generation of an RFC, is the
   potential for TCP to grab and hold all 2**16 port numbers on a given
   machine.  This problem is caused by short port numbers, long MSLs,
   and the misuse of TCP as a request-reply protocol. TCP must hold onto
   each port after a close until all possible messages to that port have
   died, about 240 seconds. Even worse, this time is not decreasing with
   increase network performance.  With new fast hardware, it is possible
   for an application to open a TCP connection, send data, get a reply,
   and close the connection at a rate fast enough to use up all the
   ports in less than 240 seconds. This usage pattern is generated by
   people using TCP for something it was never intended to do---
   guaranteeing at-most-once semantics for remote procedure calls.

   The proposed solution is to embed an RPC protocol into TCP while
   preserving backward compatibility. This is done by piggybacking the
   request message on the SYN packet and the reply message on the SYN-
   ACK packet. This approach suffers from one key problem: it reduces
   the probability of a correct TCP implementation to near 0. The basic
   problem has nothing to do with TCP, rather it is the lack of an
   Internet request-reply protocol that guarantees at-most-once

   We propose to solve this problem by the creation of a new protocol.
   This has already been attempted with VMTP, but the size and
   complexity of VMTP, coupled with the process currently required to
   standardize a new protocol doomed it from the start.  Instead of
   solving the general problem, we propose to use Sprite RPC [7], a much
   simpler protocol, as a means of off-loading inappropriate users from

   The basic design would attempt to preserve as much of the TCP
   interface as possible in order that current TCP (mis)users could be
   switched to Sprite RPC without requiring code modification on their
   part. A virtual protocol could be used to select the correct protocol
   TCP or Sprite RPC if it exists on the other machine. A backward
   compatible modification to TCP could be made which would simply
   prevent it from grabbing all of the ports by refusing connections.
   This would encourage TCP abusers to use the new protocol.

   Sprite RPC, which is designed for a local area network, has two
   problems when extended into the Internet. First, it does not have a
   usefully flow control algorithm. Second, it lacks the necessary
   semantics to reliably tear down connections. The lack of a tear down
   mechanism needs to be solved, but the flow control problem could be
   dealt with in later iterations of the protocol as Internet blast
   protocols are not yet well understood; for now, we could simple limit
   the size of each message to 16k or 32k bytes. This might also be a
   good place to use a decomposed version of Sprite RPC [2], which
   exposes each of these features as separate protocols. This would
   permit the quick change of algorithms, and once the protocol had
   stabilized, a monolithic version could be constructed and distributed
   to replace the decomposed version.

   In other words, the basic strategy is to introduce as simple of RPC
   protocol as possible today, and later evolve this protocol to address
   the known limitations.

3.3.  Future Modifications

   The header prediction algorithm should be generalized so as to be
   less sensitive to changes in the protocols header and algorithm.
   There almost seems to be as much effort to make all modifications to
   TCP backward compatible with header prediction as there is to make
   them backward compatible with TCP.  The question that needs to be
   answered is: are there any changes we can made to TCP to make header
   prediction easier, including the addition of information into the
   header.  In [6], the authors showed how one might generalize
   optimistic blast from VMTP to almost any protocol that performs
   fragmentation and reassembly.  Generalizing header prediction so that
   it scales with TCP modification would be step in the right direction.

   It is clear that an evolutionary change to increase the size of the
   source and destination ports in the TCP header will eventually be
   necessary.  We also believe that TCP could be made significantly
   simpler and more flexible through the elimination of the pseudo-
   header. The solution to this problem is to simply add a length field
   and the IP address of the destination to the TCP header. It has also

   been mentioned that better and simpler TCP connection establishment
   algorithms would be useful.  Some form of reliable record stream
   protocol should be developed.  Performing sliding window and flow
   control over records rather than bytes would provide numerous
   opportunities for optimizations and allow TCP to return to its
   original purpose as a byte-stream protocol. Finally, it has become
   clear to us that the current Internet congestion control strategy is
   to use TCP for everything since it is the only protocol that supports
   congestion control. One of the primary reasons many "new protocols"
   are proposed as TCP options is that it is the only way to get at
   TCP's congestion control. At some point, a TCP-independent congestion
   control scheme must be implemented and one might then be able to
   remove the existing congestion control from TCP and radically
   simplify the protocol.

4.  Discussion

   One obvious side effect of the changes we propose is to increase the
   size of the TCP header. In some sense, this is inevitable; just about
   every field in the header has been pushed to its limit by the radical
   growth of the network. However, we have made very little effort to
   make the minimal changes to solve the current problem. In fact, we
   have tended to sacrifice header size in order to defer future changes
   as long as possible. The problem with this is that one of TCP's
   claims to fame is its efficiency at sending small one byte packets
   over slow networks. Increasing the size of the TCP header will
   inevitably result in some increase in overhead on small packets on
   slow networks. Clark among others have stated that they see no
   fundamental performance limitations that would prevent TCP from
   supporting very high speed networks. This is true as far as it goes;
   there seems to be a direct trade-off between TCP performance on high
   speed networks and TCP performance on slow speed networks. The
   dynamic range is simply too great to be optimally supported by one
   protocol. Hence, in keeping around the old version of TCP we have
   effectively split TCP into two protocols, one for high bandwidth
   lines and the other for low bandwidth lines.

   Another potential argument is that all of the changes mentioned above
   should be packaged together as a new version of TCP. This version
   could be standardized and we could all go back to the status quo of
   stable unchanging protocols.  While to a certain extent this is
   inevitable---there is a backlog of necessary TCP changes because of
   the current logistical problems in modifying protocols---it is only
   begs the question. The status quo is simply unacceptably static;
   there will always be future changes to TCP.  Evolutionary change will
   also result in a better and more reliable TCP.  Making small changes
   and distributing them at regular intervals ensures that one change

   has actually been stabilized before the next has been made.  It also
   presents a more balanced workload to the protocol designer; rather
   than designing one new protocol every 10 years he makes annual
   protocol extensions. It will also eventually make protocol
   distribution easier: the basic problem with protocol distribution now
   is that it is done so rarely that no one knows how to do it and there
   is no incentive to develop the infrastructure needed to perform the
   task efficiently.  While the first protocol distribution is almost
   guaranteed to be a disaster, the problem will get easier with each
   additional one. Finally, such a new TCP would have the same problems
   as VMTP did; a radically new protocol presents a bigger target.

   The violation of backward compatibility in systems as complex as the
   Internet is always a serious step. However, backward compatibility is
   a technique, not a religion. Two facts are often overlooked when
   backward compatibility gets out of hand. First, violating backward
   compatibility is always a big win when you can get away with it.  One
   of the key advantages of RISC chips over CISC chips is simply that
   they were not backward compatible with anything. Thus, they were not
   bound by design decisions made when compilers were stupid and real
   men programmed in assembler. Second, one is going to have to break
   backward compatibility at some point anyway. Every system has some
   headroom limitations which result in either stagnation (IBM mainframe
   software) or even worse, accidental violations of backward

   Of course, the biggest problem with our approach is that it is not
   compatible with the existing standardization process. We hope to be
   able to design and distribute protocols in less time than it takes a
   standards committee to agree on an acceptable meeting time.  This is
   inevitable because the basic problem with networking is the
   standardization process. Over the last several years, there has been
   a push in the research community for lightweight protocols, when in
   fact what is needed are lightweight standards.  Also note that we
   have not proposed to implement some entirely new set of "superior"
   communications protocols, we have simply proposed a system for making
   necessary changes to the existing protocol suites fast enough to keep
   up with the underlying change in the network.  In fact, the first
   standards organization that realizes that the primary impediment to
   standardization is poor logistical support will probably win.

5.  Conclusions

   The most important conclusion of this RFC is that protocol change
   happens and is currently happening at a very respectable clip.  While
   all of the changes given as example in this document are from TCP,
   there are many other protocols that require modification.  In a more

   prosaic domain, the telephone company is running out of phone
   numbers; they are being overrun by fax machines, modems, and cars.
   The underlying cause of these problems seems to be an consistent
   exponential increase almost all network metrics: number of hosts,
   bandwidth, host performance, applications, and so on, combined with
   an attempt to run the network with a static set of unchanging network
   protocols.  This has been shown to be impossible and one can almost
   feel the pressure for protocol change building. We simply propose to
   explicitly deal with the changes rather keep trying to hold back the

   Of almost equal importance is the observation that TCP is a protocol
   and not a platform for implementing other protocols. Because of a
   lack of any alternatives, TCP has become a de-facto platform for
   implementing other protocols. It provides a vague standard interface
   with the kernel, it runs on many machines, and has a well defined
   distribution path. Otherwise sane people have proposed Bounded Time
   TCP (an unreliable byte stream protocol), Simplex TCP (which supports
   data in only one direction) and Multi-cast TCP (too horrible to even
   consider).  All of these protocols probably have their uses, but not
   as TCP options. The fact that a large number of people are willing to
   use TCP as a protocol implementation platform points to the desperate
   need for a protocol independent platform.

   Finally, we point out that in our research we have found very little
   difference in the actual technical work involved with the three
   proposed methods of protocol modification. The amount of work
   involved in a backward compatible change is often more than that
   required for an evolutionary change or the creation of a new
   protocol.  Even the distribution costs seem to be identical.  The
   primary cost difference between the three approaches is the cost of
   getting the modification approved. A protocol modification, no matter
   how extensive or bizarre, seems to incur much less cost and risk. It
   is time to stop changing the protocols to fit our current way of
   thinking, and start changing our way of thinking to fit the

6.  References

[1]  Cheriton D., "VMTP: Versatile Message Transaction Protocol", RFC
     1045, Stanford University, February 1988.

[2]  Hutchinson, N., Peterson, L., Abbott, M., and S. O'Malley, "RPC in
     the x-Kernel: Evaluating New Design Techniques", Proceedings of the
     12th Symposium on Operating System Principles, Pgs. 91-101,

     December 1989.

[3]  Jacobson, V., "Congestion Avoidance and Control", SIGCOMM '88,
     August 1988.

[4]  Jacobson, V., and R. Braden, "TCP Extensions for Long-Delay Paths",
     RFC 1072, LBL, ISI, October 1988.

[5]  Jacobson, V., Braden, R., and L. Zhang, "TCP Extensions for High-
     Speed Paths", RFC 1185, LBL, ISI, PARC, October 1990.

[6]  O'Malley, S., Abbott, M., Hutchinson, N., and L. Peterson, "A Tran-
     sparent Blast Facility", Journal of Internetworking, Vol. 1, No.
     2, Pgs. 57-75, December 1990.

[7]  Welch, B., "The Sprite Remote Procedure Call System", UCB/CSD
     86/302, University of California at Berkeley, June 1988.

7.  Security Considerations

   Security issues are not discussed in this memo.

8.  Authors' Addresses

   Larry L. Peterson
   University of Arizona
   Department of Computer Sciences
   Tucson, AZ 85721

   Phone: (602) 621-4231
   EMail: llp@cs.arizona.edu

   Sean O'Malley
   University of Arizona
   Department of Computer Sciences
   Tucson, AZ 85721

   Phone: 602-621-8373
   EMail: sean@cs.arizona.edu


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