What is TCP/IP?

Copyright (C) 1987, Charles L. Hedrick. Anyone may reproduce this document, in whole or in part, provided that: (1) any copy or republication of the entire document must show Rutgers University as the source, and must include this notice; and (2) any other use of this material must reference this manual and Rutgers University, and the fact that the material is copyright by Charles Hedrick and is used by permission.

TCP/IP is a set of protocols developed to allow cooperating computers to share resources across a network. It was developed by a community of researchers centered around the ARPAnet. Certainly the ARPAnet is the best-known TCP/IP network. However as of June, 87, at least 130 different vendors had products that support TCP/IP, and thousands of networks of all kinds use it.

First some basic definitions. The most accurate name for the set of protocols we are describing is the "Internet protocol suite". TCP and IP are two of the protocols in this suite. (They will be described below.) Because TCP and IP are the best known of the protocols, it has become common to use the term TCP/IP or IP/TCP to refer to the whole family. It is probably not worth fighting this habit. However this can lead to some oddities. For example, I find myself talking about NFS as being based on TCP/IP, even though it doesn't use TCP at all. (It does use IP. But it uses an alternative protocol, UDP, instead of TCP. All of this alphabet soup will be unscrambled in the following pages.)

The Internet is a collection of networks, including the Arpanet, NSFnet, regional networks such as NYsernet, local networks at a number of University and research institutions, and a number of military networks. The term "Internet" applies to this entire set of networks. The subset of them that is managed by the Department of Defense is referred to as the "DDN" (Defense Data Network). This includes some research-oriented networks, such as the Arpanet, as well as more strictly military ones. (Because much of the funding for Internet protocol developments is done via the DDN organization, the terms Internet and DDN can sometimes seem equivalent.) All of these networks are connected to each other. Users can send messages from any of them to any other, except where there are security or other policy restrictions on access. Officially speaking, the Internet protocol documents are simply standards adopted by the Internet community for its own use. More recently, the Department of Defense issued a MILSPEC definition of TCP/IP. This was intended to be a more formal definition, appropriate for use in purchasing specifications. However most of the TCP/IP community continues to use the Internet standards. The MILSPEC version is intended to be consistent with it.

Whatever it is called, TCP/IP is a family of protocols. A few provide "low-level" functions needed for many applications. These include IP, TCP, and UDP. (These will be described in a bit more detail later.) Others are protocols for doing specific tasks, e.g. transferring files between computers, sending mail, or finding out who is logged in on another computer. Initially TCP/IP was used mostly between minicomputers or mainframes. These machines had their own disks, and generally were self-contained. Thus the most important "traditional" TCP/IP services are:

  • file transfer. The file transfer protocol (FTP) allows a user on any computer to get files from another computer, or to send files to another computer. Security is handled by requiring the user to specify a user name and password for the other computer. Provisions are made for handling file transfer between machines with different character set, end of line conventions, etc. This is not quite the same thing as more recent "network file system" or "netbios" protocols, which will be described below. Rather, FTP is a utility that you run any time you want to access a file on another system. You use it to copy the file to your own system. You then work with the local copy. (See RFC 959 for specifications for FTP.)
  • remote login. The network terminal protocol (TELNET) allows a user to log in on any other computer on the network. You start a remote session by specifying a computer to connect to. From that time until you finish the session, anything you type is sent to the other computer. Note that you are really still talking to your own computer. But the telnet program effectively makes your computer invisible while it is running. Every character you type is sent directly to the other system. Generally, the connection to the remote computer behaves much like a dialup connection. That is, the remote system will ask you to log in and give a password, in whatever manner it would normally ask a user who had just dialed it up. When you log off of the other computer, the telnet program exits, and you will find yourself talking to your own computer. Microcomputer implementations of telnet generally include a terminal emulator for some common type of terminal. (See RFC's 854 and 855 for specifications for telnet. By the way, the telnet protocol should not be confused with Telenet, a vendor of commercial network services.)
  • computer mail. This allows you to send messages to users on other computers. Originally, people tended to use only one or two specific computers. They would maintain "mail files" on those machines. The computer mail system is simply a way for you to add a message to another user's mail file. There are some problems with this in an environment where microcomputers are used. The most serious is that a micro is not well suited to receive computer mail. When you send mail, the mail software expects to be able to open a connection to the addressee's computer, in order to send the mail. If this is a microcomputer, it may be turned off, or it may be running an application other than the mail system. For this reason, mail is normally handled by a larger system, where it is practical to have a mail server running all the time. Microcomputer mail software then becomes a user interface that retrieves mail from the mail server. (See RFC 821 and 822 for specifications for computer mail. See RFC 937 for a protocol designed for microcomputers to use in reading mail from a mail server.)

These services should be present in any implementation of TCP/IP, except that micro-oriented implementations may not support computer mail. These traditional applications still play a very important role in TCP/IP-based networks. However more recently, the way in which networks are used has been changing. The older model of a number of large, self-sufficient computers is beginning to change. Now many installations have several kinds of computers, including microcomputers, workstations, minicomputers, and mainframes. These computers are likely to be configured to perform specialized tasks. Although people are still likely to work with one specific computer, that computer will call on other systems on the net for specialized services. This has led to the "server/client" model of network services. A server is a system that provides a specific service for the rest of the network. A client is another system that uses that service. (Note that the server and client need not be on different computers. They could be different programs running on the same computer.) Here are the kinds of servers typically present in a modern computer setup. Note that these computer services can all be provided within the framework of TCP/IP.

  • network file systems. This allows a system to access files on another computer in a somewhat more closely integrated fashion than FTP. A network file system provides the illusion that disks or other devices from one system are directly connected to other systems. There is no need to use a special network utility to access a file on another system. Your computer simply thinks it has some extra disk drives. These extra "virtual" drives refer to the other system's disks. This capability is useful for several different purposes. It lets you put large disks on a few computers, but still give others access to the disk space. Aside from the obvious economic benefits, this allows people working on several computers to share common files. It makes system maintenance and backup easier, because you don't have to worry about updating and backing up copies on lots of different machines. A number of vendors now offer high-performance diskless computers. These computers have no disk drives at all. They are entirely dependent upon disks attached to common "file servers". (See RFC's 1001 and 1002 for a description of PC-oriented NetBIOS over TCP. In the workstation and minicomputer area, Sun's Network File System is more likely to be used. Protocol specifications for it are available from Sun Microsystems.)
  • remote printing. This allows you to access printers on other computers as if they were directly attached to yours. (The most commonly used protocol is the remote lineprinter protocol from Berkeley Unix. Unfortunately, there is no protocol document for this. However the C code is easily obtained from Berkeley, so implementations are common.)
  • remote execution. This allows you to request that a particular program be run on a different computer. This is useful when you can do most of your work on a small computer, but a few tasks require the resources of a larger system. There are a number of different kinds of remote execution. Some operate on a command by command basis. That is, you request that a specific command or set of commands should run on some specific computer. (More sophisticated versions will choose a system that happens to be free.) However there are also "remote procedure call" systems that allow a program to call a subroutine that will run on another computer. (There are many protocols of this sort. Berkeley Unix contains two servers to execute commands remotely: rsh and rexec. The man pages describe the protocols that they use. The user-contributed software with Berkeley 4.3 contains a "distributed shell" that will distribute tasks among a set of systems, depending upon load. Remote procedure call mechanisms have been a topic for research for a number of years, so many organizations have implementations of such facilities. The most widespread commercially-supported remote procedure call protocols seem to be Xerox's Courier and Sun's RPC. Protocol documents are available from Xerox and Sun. There is a public implementation of Courier over TCP as part of the user-contributed software with Berkeley 4.3. An implementation of RPC was posted to Usenet by Sun, and also appears as part of the user-contributed software with Berkeley 4.3.)
  • name servers. In large installations, there are a number of different collections of names that have to be managed. This includes users and their passwords, names and network addresses for computers, and accounts. It becomes very tedious to keep this data up to date on all of the computers. Thus the databases are kept on a small number of systems. Other systems access the data over the network. (RFC 822 and 823 describe the name server protocol used to keep track of host names and Internet addresses on the Internet. This is now a required part of any TCP/IP implementation. IEN 116 describes an older name server protocol that is used by a few terminal servers and other products to look up host names. Sun's Yellow Pages system is designed as a general mechanism to handle user names, file sharing groups, and other databases commonly used by Unix systems. It is widely available commercially. Its protocol definition is available from Sun.)
  • terminal servers. Many installations no longer connect terminals directly to computers. Instead they connect them to terminal servers. A terminal server is simply a small computer that only knows how to run telnet (or some other protocol to do remote login). If your terminal is connected to one of these, you simply type the name of a computer, and you are connected to it. Generally it is possible to have active connections to more than one computer at the same time. The terminal server will have provisions to switch between connections rapidly, and to notify you when output is waiting for another connection. (Terminal servers use the telnet protocol, already mentioned. However any real terminal server will also have to support name service and a number of other protocols.)
  • network-oriented window systems. Until recently, high- performance graphics programs had to execute on a computer that had a bit-mapped graphics screen directly attached to it. Network window systems allow a program to use a display on a different computer. Full-scale network window systems provide an interface that lets you distribute jobs to the systems that are best suited to handle them, but still give you a single graphically-based user interface. (The most widely-implemented window system is X. A protocol description is available from MIT's Project Athena. A reference implementation is publically available from MIT. A number of vendors are also supporting NeWS, a window system defined by Sun. Both of these systems are designed to use TCP/IP.)

Note that some of the protocols described above were designed by Berkeley, Sun, or other organizations. Thus they are not officially part of the Internet protocol suite. However they are implemented using TCP/IP, just as normal TCP/IP application protocols are. Since the protocol definitions are not considered proprietary, and since commercially-support implementations are widely available, it is reasonable to think of these protocols as being effectively part of the Internet suite. Note that the list above is simply a sample of the sort of services available through TCP/IP. However it does contain the majority of the "major" applications. The other commonly-used protocols tend to be specialized facilities for getting information of various kinds, such as who is logged in, the time of day, etc. However if you need a facility that is not listed here, we encourage you to look through the current edition of Internet Protocols (currently RFC 1011), which lists all of the available protocols, and also to look at some of the major TCP/IP implementations to see what various vendors have added.


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Steven E. Newton / <snewton@oac.hsc.uth.tmc.edu> / 1-20-94