Well-known sockets and the applications layer

So far, we have described how a stream of data is broken up into packets, sent to another computer, and put back together. However something more is needed in order to accomplish anything useful. There has to be a way for you to open a connection to a specified computer, log into it, tell it what file you want, and control the transmission of the file. (If you have a different application in mind, e.g. computer mail, some analogous protocol is needed.) This is done by application protocols. The application protocols run on top of TCP/IP. That is, when they want to send a message, they give the message to TCP. TCP makes sure it gets delivered to the other end. Because TCP and IP take care of all the networking details, the applications protocols can treat a network connection as if it were a simple byte stream, like a terminal or phone line.

Before going into more details about applications programs, we have to describe how you find an application. Suppose you want to send a file to a computer whose Internet address is To start the process, you need more than just the Internet address. You have to connect to the file transfer server at the other end. In general, network programs are specialized for a specific set of tasks. Most systems have separate programs to handle file transfers, remote terminal logins, mail, etc. When you connect to, you have to specify that you want to talk to the file transfer program. This is done by having well-known sockets for each program. Recall that TCP uses port numbers to keep track of individual conversations. User programs normally use more or less random port numbers. However specific port numbers are assigned to the programs that sit waiting for requests. For example, if you want to send a file, you will start a program called ftp. It will open a connection using some random number, say 1234, for the port number on its end. However it will specify port number 21 for the other end. This is the official port number for the ftp server. Note that there are two different programs involved. You run ftp on your side. This is a program designed to accept commands from your terminal and pass them on to the other end. The program that you talk to on the other machine is the ftp server. It is designed to accept commands from the network connection, rather than an interactive terminal. There is no need for your program to use a well-known socket number for itself. Nobody is trying to find it. However the servers have to have well-known numbers, so that people can open connections to them and start sending them commands. The official port numbers for each program are given in Assigned Numbers.

Note that a connection is actually described by a set of 4 numbers: the Internet address at each end, and the TCP port number at each end. Every packet has all four of those numbers in it. (The Internet addresses are in the IP header, and the TCP port numbers are in the TCP header.) In order to keep things straight, no two connections can have the same set of numbers. However it is enough for any one number to be different. For example, it is perfectly possible for two different users on a machine to be sending files to the same other machine. This could result in connections with the following parameters:

               Internet addresses         TCP ports
connection 1,      1234, 21
connection 2,      1235, 21

Since the same machines are involved, the Internet addresses are the same. Since they are both doing file transfers, one end of the connection involves the well-known port number for file transfer. The only thing that differs is the port number for the program that the users are running. That's enough of a difference. Generally, at least one end of the connection asks the network software to assign it a port number that is guaranteed to be unique. Normally, it's the user's end, since the server has to use a well-known number.

Now that we know how to open connections, let's get back to the applications programs. As mentioned above, once TCP has opened a connection, we have something that might as well be a simple wire. All the hard parts are handled by TCP and IP. However we still need some agreement as to what we send over this connection. In effect this is simply an agreement on what set of commands the application will understand, and the format in which they are to be sent. Generally, what is sent is a combination of commands and data. They use context to differentiate. For example, the mail protocol works like this: Your mail program opens a connection to the mail server at the other end. Your program gives it your machine's name, the sender of the message, and the recipients you want it sent to. It then sends a command saying that it is starting the message. At that point, the other end stops treating what it sees as commands, and starts accepting the message. Your end then starts sending the text of the message. At the end of the message, a special mark is sent (a dot in the first column). After that, both ends understand that your program is again sending commands. This is the simplest way to do things, and the one that most applications use.

File transfer is somewhat more complex. The file transfer protocol involves two different connections. It starts out just like mail. The user's program sends commands like log me in as this user, here is my password, send me the file with this name. However once the command to send data is sent, a second connection is opened for the data itself. It would certainly be possible to send the data on the same connection, as mail does. However file transfers often take a long time. The designers of the file transfer protocol wanted to allow the user to continue issuing commands while the transfer is going on. For example, the user might make an inquiry, or he might abort the transfer. Thus the designers felt it was best to use a separate connection for the data and leave the original command connection for commands. (It is also possible to open command connections to two different computers, and tell them to send a file from one to the other. In that case, the data couldn't go over the command connection.)

Remote terminal connections use another mechanism still. For remote logins, there is just one connection. It normally sends data. When it is necessary to send a command (e.g. to set the terminal type or to change some mode), a special character is used to indicate that the next character is a command. If the user happens to type that special character as data, two of them are sent.

We are not going to describe the application protocols in detail in this document. It's better to read the RFC's yourself. However there are a couple of common conventions used by applications that will be described here. First, the common network representation: TCP/IP is intended to be usable on any computer. Unfortunately, not all computers agree on how data is represented. There are differences in character codes (ASCII vs. EBCDIC), in end of line conventions (carriage return, line feed, or a representation using counts), and in whether terminals expect characters to be sent individually or a line at a time. In order to allow computers of different kinds to communicate, each applications protocol defines a standard representation. Note that TCP and IP do not care about the representation. TCP simply sends octets. However the programs at both ends have to agree on how the octets are to be interpreted. The RFC for each application specifies the standard representation for that application. Normally it is net ASCII. This uses ASCII characters, with end of line denoted by a carriage return followed by a line feed. For remote login, there is also a definition of a standard terminal, which turns out to be a half-duplex terminal with echoing happening on the local machine. Most applications also make provisions for the two computers to agree on other representations that they may find more convenient. For example, PDP-10's have 36-bit words. There is a way that two PDP-10's can agree to send a 36-bit binary file. Similarly, two systems that prefer full-duplex terminal conversations can agree on that. However each application has a standard representation, which every machine must support.

(For more details about the protocols mentioned in this section, see rfc821.txt and rfc822.txt for mail, rfc959.txt for file transfer, and rfc854.txt and rfc855.txt for remote logins. For the well-known port numbers, see the current edition of Assigned Numbers, and possible rfc814.txt.)