NETWORK SOFTWARE and Protocol Hierarchies

The first computer networks were designed with the hardware as the main concern and the software as an afterthought. This strategy no longer works. Network software is now highly structured. In the following sections we examine the software structuring technique in some detail. The approach described here forms the keystone of the entire book and will occur repeatedly later on.

To reduce their design complexity, most networks are organized as a stack of layers or levels, each one built upon the one below it. The number of layers, the name of each layer, the contents of each layer, and the function of each layer differ from network to network. The purpose of each layer is to offer certain services
to the higher layers while shielding those layers from the details of how the offered services are actually implemented. In a sense, each layer is a kind of virtual machine, offering certain services to the layer above it.

This concept is actually a familiar one and is used throughout computer science, where it is variously known as information hiding, abstract data types, data encapsulation, and object-oriented programming. The fundamental idea is that a particular piece of software (or hardware) provides a service to its users but keeps the details of its internal state and algorithms hidden from them.

When layer n on one machine carries on a conversation with layer n on another machine, the rules and conventions used in this conversation are collectively known as the layer n protocol. Basically, a protocol is an agreement between the communicating parties on how communication is to proceed. As an analogy, when a woman is introduced to a man, she may choose to stick out her hand. He, in turn, may decide to either shake it or kiss it, depending, for example, on whether she is an American lawyer at a business meeting or a European princess at a formal ball. Violating the protocol will make communication more difficult, if not completely impossible.

A five-layer network is illustrated in the following figure. The entities comprising the corresponding layers on different machines are called peers. The peers may besoftware processes, hardware devices, or even human beings. In other words, it is the peers that communicate by using the protocol to talk to each other.

                                                    Layers, protocols, and interfaces.

In reality, no data are directly transferred from layer n on one machine to layer n on another machine. Instead, each layer passes data and control information to the layer immediately below it, until the lowest layer is reached. Below layer 1 is the physical medium through which actual communication occurs. In above figure, virtual communication is shown by dotted lines and physical communication by solid lines.

Between each pair of adjacent layers is an interface. The interface defines which primitive operations and services the lower layer makes available to the upper one. When network designers decide how many layers to include in a network and what each one should do, one of the most important considerations is defining clean interfaces between the layers. Doing so, in turn, requires that each layer perform a specific collection of well-understood functions. In addition to minimizing the amount of information that must be passed between layers, clearcut interfaces also make it simpler to replace one layer with a completely different protocol or implementation (e.g., replacing all the telephone lines by satellite channels) because all that is required of the new protocol or implementation is that it offer exactly the same set of services to its upstairs neighbor as the old one did. It is common that different hosts use different implementations of the same protocol (often written by different companies). In fact, the protocol itself can change in some layer without the layers above and below it even noticing.

A set of layers and protocols is called a network architecture. The specification of an architecture must contain enough information to allow an implementer to write the program or build the hardware for each layer so that it will correctly obey the appropriate protocol. Neither the details of the implementation nor the specification of the interfaces is part of the architecture because these are hidden away inside the machines and not visible from the outside. It is not even necessary that the interfaces on all machines in a network be the same, provided
that each machine can correctly use all the protocols. A list of the protocols used by a certain system, one protocol per layer, is called a protocol stack. Network architectures, protocol stacks, and the protocols themselves are the principal subjects of this book.

An analogy may help explain the idea of multilayer communication. Imagine two philosophers (peer processes in layer 3), one of whom speaks Urdu and English and one of whom speaks Chinese and French. Since they have no common language, they each engage a translator (peer processes at layer 2), each of whom in turn contacts a secretary (peer processes in layer 1). Philosopher 1 wishes to convey his affection for oryctolagus cuniculus to his peer. To do so, he passes a message (in English) across the 2/3 interface to his translator, saying ‘‘I like rabbits,’’ as illustrated in following figure. The translators have agreed on a neutral language known to both of them, Dutch, so the message is converted to ‘‘Ik vind konijnen leuk.’’ The choice of the language is the layer 2 protocol and is up to the layer 2 peer processes.

                                 The philosopher-translator-secretary architecture

The translator then gives the message to a secretary for transmission, for example, by email (the layer 1 protocol). When the message arrives at the other secretary, it is passed to the local translator, who translates it into French and passes it across the 2/3 interface to the second philosopher. Note that each protocol is completely independent of the other ones as long as the interfaces are not changed. The translators can switch from Dutch to, say, Finnish, at will, provided that they both agree and neither changes his interface with either layer 1 or layer 3. Similarly, the secretaries can switch from email to telephone without disturbing (or even informing) the other layers. Each process may add some information intended only for its peer. This information is not passed up to the layer above.

Now consider a more technical example: how to provide communication to the top layer of the five-layer network in next figure. A message, M, is produced by an application process running in layer 5 and given to layer 4 for transmission. Layer 4 puts a header in front of the message to identify the message and passes the result to layer 3. The header includes control information, such as addresses, to allow layer 4 on the destination machine to deliver the message. Other examples of control information used in some layers are sequence numbers (in case the lower layer does not preserve message order), sizes, and times.

           Example information flow supporting virtual communication in layer 5

In many networks, no limit is placed on the size of messages transmitted in the layer 4 protocol but there is nearly always a limit imposed by the layer 3 protocol. Consequently, layer 3 must break up the incoming messages into smaller units, packets, prepending a layer 3 header to each packet. In this example, M is split into two parts, M1 and M2, that will be transmitted separately.

Layer 3 decides which of the outgoing lines to use and passes the packets to layer 2. Layer 2 adds to each piece not only a header but also a trailer, and gives the resulting unit to layer 1 for physical transmission. At the receiving machine the message moves upward, from layer to layer, with headers being stripped off as it progresses. None of the headers for layers below n are passed up to layer n.

The important thing to understand about above figure is the relation between the virtual and actual communication and the difference between protocols and interfaces. The peer processes in layer 4, for example, conceptually think of their communication as being ‘‘horizontal,’’ using the layer 4 protocol. Each one is likely to have procedures called something like SendToOtherSide and GetFromOtherSide, even though these procedures actually communicate with lower layers across the 3/4 interface, and not with the other side.

The peer process abstraction is crucial to all network design. Using it, the unmanageable task of designing the complete network can be broken into several smaller, manageable design problems, namely, the design of the individual layers.

Although ‘‘Network Software,’’ it is worth pointing out that the lower layers of a protocol hierarchy are frequently implemented in hardware or firmware. Nevertheless, complex protocol algorithms are involved, even if they are embedded (in whole or in part) in hardware.

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