TCP characteristics

The TCP protocol resides on top of the IP protocol. It is a stateful protocol and has built-in functions to see that the data was received properly by the other end host. The main goals of the TCP protocol is to see that data is reliably received and sent, that the data is transported between the Internet layer and Application layer correctly, and that the packet data reaches the proper program in the application layer, and that the data reaches the program in the right order. All of this is possible through the TCP headers of the packet.

The TCP protocol looks at data as an continuous data stream with a start and a stop signal. The signal that indicates that a new stream is waiting to be opened is called a SYN three-way handshake in TCP, and consists of one packet sent with the SYN bit set. The other end then either answers with SYN/ACK or SYN/RST to let the client know if the connection was accepted or denied, respectively. If the client receives an SYN/ACK packet, it once again replies, this time with an ACK packet. At this point, the whole connection is established and data can be sent. During this initial handshake, all of the specific options that will be used throughout the rest of the TCP connection is also negotiated, such as ECN, SACK, etcetera.

While the datastream is alive, we have further mechanisms to see that the packets are actually received properly by the other end. This is the reliability part of TCP. This is done in a simple way, using a Sequence number in the packet. Every time we send a packet, we give a new value to the Sequence number, and when the other end receives the packet, it sends an ACK packet back to the data sender. The ACK packet acknowledges that the packet was received properly. The sequence number also sees to it that the packet is inserted into the data stream in a good order.

Once the connection is closed, this is done by sending a FIN packet from either end-point. The other end then responds by sending a FIN/ACK packet. The FIN sending end can then no longer send any data, but the other end-point can still finish sending data. Once the second end-point wishes to close the connection totally, it sends a FIN packet back to the originally closing end-point, and the other end-point replies with a FIN/ACK packet. Once this whole procedure is done, the connection is torn down properly.

As you will also later see, the TCP headers contain a checksum as well. The checksum consists of a simple hash of the packet. With this hash, we can with rather high accuracy see if a packet has been corrupted in any way during transit between the hosts.