Network Working Group R. Braden
Request for Comments: 955 UCLA OAC
September 1985 Towards a Transport Service for
Transaction Processing Applications
STATUS OF THIS MEMO
This RFC is concerned with the possible design of one or more new
protocols for the ARPA-Internet, to support kinds of applications
which are not well supported at present. The RFC is intended to spur
discussion in the Internet research community towards the development
of new protocols and/or concepts, in order to meet these unmet
application requirements. It does not represent a standard, nor even
a concrete protocol proposal. Distribution of this memo is
The DoD Internet protocol suite includes two alternative transport
service  protocols, TCP and UDP, which provide virtual circuit and
datagram service, respectively [RFC-793, RFC-768]. These two
protocols represent points in the space of possible transport service
attributes which are quite "far apart". We want to examine an
important class of applications, those which perform what is often
called "transaction processing". We will see that the communication
needs for these applications fall into the gap "between" TCP and UDP
-- neither protocol is very appropriate.
We will then characterize the attributes of a possible new
transport-level protocol, appropriate for these ill-served
In writing this memo, the author had in mind several assumptions
about Internet protocol development.
* Assumption 1: The members of the Internet research community
now understand a great deal about protocols, and given a list
of consistent attributes we can probably generate a reasonable
protocol to meet that specification.
This is not to suggest that design of good protocols is easy.
It does reflect an assumption (perhaps wrong) that the set of
basic protocol techniques we have invented so far is sufficient
to give a good solution for any point in the attribute space,
and that we can forsee (at least in a general way) many of the
consequences of particular protocol design choices.
* Assumption 2: We need to develop appropriate service
requirements for a "transaction processing protocol".
The classifications "virtual circuit" and "datagram"
immediately define in our minds the most important attributes
of TCP and UDP. We have no such immediate agreement about the
services to be provided for transaction processing. The
existing and proposed transaction-oriented protocols show a
number of alternative choices [e.g., Cour81, BiNe84, Coop84,
Cher85, Crow85, Gurw85, Mill85].
Many of the ideas discussed here are not new. For example, Birrell
and Nelson [BiNe84] and Watson [Wats81] have described
transport-level protocols appropriate for transactions. Our purpose
here is to urge the solution of this problem within the Internet
2. TRANSACTION PROCESSING COMMUNICATIONS
We begin by listing the characteristics of the communication patterns
typical in "transaction processing" applications.
* Unsymmetrical Model
The two end points of the communication typically take
different roles, generally called "client" and "server". This
leads to an unsymmetrical communication pattern.
For example, the client always initiates a communication
sequence or "transaction". Furthermore, an important subclass
of applications uses only a simple exchange of messages, a
"request" to the server followed by a "reply" to the client.
Other applications may require a continuing exchange of
messages, a dialog or "conversation". For example, a request
to read a file from a file server might result in a series of
messages, one per file block, in reply. More complex patterns
* Simplex Transfers
Regardless of the pattern, it always consists of a series of
SIMPLEX data transfers; at no time is it necessary to send data
in both directions simultaneously.
* Short Duration
Transaction communication sequences generally have short
duration, typically 100's of milliseconds up to 10's of
seconds, but never hours.
* Low Delay
Some applications require minimal communication delay.
* Few Data Packets
In many applications, the data to be sent can be compressed
into one or a few IP packets. Applications which have been
designed with LAN's in mind are typically very careful to
minimize the number of data packets for each request/reply
* Message Orientation
The natural unit of data which is passed in a transaction is an
entire message ("record"), not a stream of bytes.
3. EXAMPLE: NAME SERVERS
To focus our ideas, we will now discuss several particular types of
distributed applications which are of pressing concern to members of
the Internet research community, and which require
First, consider the name server/name resolver system [RFC-882,
RFC-883] which is currently being introduced into the (research)
Internet. Name servers must use TCP and/or UDP as their transport
protocol. TCP is appropriate for the bulk transfers needed to update
a name server's data base. For this case, reliability is essential,
and virtual-circuit setup overhead is negligible compared to the data
transfer itself. However, the choice of a transport protocol for the
transaction traffic -- queries and responses -- is problematic.
* TCP would provide reliable and flow-controlled transfer of
arbitrary-sized queries and responses. However, TCP exacts a
high cost as a result of its circuit setup and teardown phases.
* UDP avoids the overhead of TCP connection setup. However, UDP
has two potentially-serious problems -- (1) unreliable
communication, so that packets may be lost, duplicated, and/or
reordered; and (2) the limitation of a data object
(query/response) to the 548-byte maximum in a single UDP
At present, name servers are being operated using UDP for transaction
communication. Note that name server requests have a special
property, idempotency; as a result, lost, duplicated, or reordered
queries do not prevent the name-server system from working. This
would seem to favor the use of UDP.
However, it seems quite likely that the defects of UDP will make it
unusable for an increasing fraction of queries.
* The average size of individual replies will certainly increase,
as the more esoteric mail lookup features are used, as the host
population explodes (resulting in a logarithmic increase in
domain name sizes), and as the number of alternate acceptable
answers increases. As a result, a single response will more
often overflow a single UDP packet.
* The average end-to-end reliability will decrease as some of the
flakier paths of the Internet are brought into use by name
This will lead to a serious problem of choosing an appropriate
retransmission timeout. A name resolver using UDP cannot
distinguish packet loss in the Internet from queueing delay in
the server. As a result, name servers we have seen have chosen
long fixed timeouts (e.g., 30 seconds or more). This will
result in long delays in name resolution when packets are lost.
One might think that delays in name resolution might not be an
issue since most name lookups are done by a mailer daemon.
However, ARPANET experience with user mail interfaces has shown
that it is always desirable to verify the correctness of each
host name as the user enters the "To:" and "CC:" addresses for
a message. Hence, delays due to lost UDP packets will be
directly visible to users.
More generally, the use of UDP violates sound communication system
design in two important ways:
* The name resolver/server applications have to provide timeouts
and retransmissions to protect against "errors" (losses) in the
communication system. This certainly violates network
transparency, and requires the application to make decisions
for which it is not well-equipped.
As a general design principle, it seems that (Inter-) network
properties, especially bad properties, ought to a large extent
to be hidden below the transport-service boundary .
* The name resolver/server applications must know the maximum
size of a UDP datagram.
It is clearly wrong for an application program to contain
knowledge of the number 576 or 548! This does not imply that
there cannot be a limitation on the size of a message, but any
such limitation should be imposed by the particular
application-level protocol, not the transport or internetwork
It seems that the TCP/UDP choice for name servers presents an ugly
dilemma. We suggest that the solution should be a new
transaction-oriented transport protocol with the following features:
* Reliable ("at-least-once") Delivery of Data;
* No Explicit Connection Setup or Teardown Phases;
* Fragmentation and Reassembly of Messages;
* Minimal Idle State in both Client and Server.
4. ANOTHER EXAMPLE: DISTRIBUTED OPERATING SYSTEMS
Distributed operating systems represent another potential application
for a transaction-oriented transport service. A number of examples
of distributed operating systems have been built using high-speed
local area networks (LAN's) for communication (e.g, Cronus, Locus,
V-System). Typically, these systems use private communication
protocols above the network layer, and the private transport-level
protocol is carefully designed to minimize latency across the LAN.
They make use of the inherent reliability of the LAN and of simple
transactions using single-packet exchanges.
Recently there have been efforts to extend these systems to operate
across the Internet [Cher85, Shel85]. Since these are not "open"
systems, there is no requirement that they use a standard transport
protocol. However, the availability of a suitable transport protocol
for transactions could considerably simplify development of future
The essential requirement here seems to be packet economy. The same
minimal two-packet exchange used over the LAN should be possible
across the Internet. This leads to two requirements for supporting
distributed operating systems:
* No Explicit Connection Setup or Teardown Phases;
* Implicit ("piggy-backed") Acknowledgments Whenever Possible.
This implies that the response packet will serve as an implicit
acknowledgment to the request packet (when timing makes this
possible). Similarly, a new request (for the same pair of
addressable entities) would implicitly acknowledge the previous
response, if it came soon enough.
The nature of the application imposes two other requirements:
* Reliable ("at-most-once"), Ordered Delivery
However, it should be possible to relax the reliability to take
advantage of special cases like an idempotent request.
* Multicast Capability
The transport service should mesh cleanly with the proposed
Internet multicast facility, using host groups [ChDe85].
5. OBJECTIVES FOR A PROTOCOL
We believe that it is possible to design a new transport protocol for
the Internet which is suitable for a wide variety of
transaction-oriented applications. Such a transport protocol would
have the following attributes:
* Reliable Delivery
Data will be delivered reliably, i.e., exactly once, or the
sender will be informed. The protocol must be able to handle
loss, duplication, and reordering of request and response
packets. In particular, old duplicate request packets must not
cause erroneous actions.
It should also be possible for the application programs to
request that the reliability be relaxed for particular
transactions. This would allow communication economies in the
case of idempotent requests or of notification without reply.
* Minimum Number of Packets in Simple Cases
In the simplest case (small messages, no packet losses, and the
interval between requests and replies between the same pair of
addressable entities shorter than applicable timeouts), a
simple two-packet exchange should result.
* No Explicit Connection Setup or Teardown Phases
The protocol will not create virtual circuits, but will provide
what is sometimes (confusingly) called "reliable datagram"
However, in order to provide a minimum two-packet exchange,
there must be some implicit state or "soft" virtual circuit
between a pair of addressable entities. In recent discussions
this has been dubbed a "conversation", to distinguish it from a
* Minimal Idle State
When a server is not processing a transaction, there will be no
state kept (except enough to recognize old duplicate packets
and to suppress unneeded ACK packets).
* Fragmentation/Reassembly of Large Messages
There is a range of possible objectives here. The minimum
requirement is that the application not have to know the number
576, 548, etc. For example, each application might establish
its own "natural" upper limit on the size of a message, and
always provide a buffer of that size .
At the other extreme, the protocol might allow very large
messages (e.g., a megabyte or more). In this case, the
proposed protocol would, in the large-message limit, be
performing the bulk data transfer function of TCP. It would be
interesting to know whether this is possible, although it is
not necessarily a requirement.
The introduction of multi-packet messages leads to the complex
issues of window sizes and flow control. The challenge is to
handle these efficiently in the absence of connection setup.
* Message Orientation
The basic unit of communication will be an entire message, not
a stream of bytes. If a message has to be segmented, it will
be delivered in units of segments or buffers, not bytes.
* Multicast Capability
Based on this discussion, we can suggest some of the key issues and
problems in design of this protocol.
* Choice of Addressable Entity
What will be the addressable entity? It must be unique in
space; must it be unique in time (even across system crashes) ?
* Timeout Dynamics
Timeouts must be the key to operation of this protocol.
Experience with TCP has shown the need for dynamic selection of
an appropriate timeout, since Internet delays range over four
decimal orders of magnitude.
However, the absence of connection setup and the
typically-short duration of a single interaction seem to
preclude the dynamic measurement of delays.
* Multi-Packet Messages
How can flow control be provided for multi-packet messages, to
provide reasonable throughput over long-delay paths without
overrun with short-delay paths, when there is no virtual
* Implementation Efficiency
The protocol should lend itself to efficient (which probably
implies simple) implementations, so that hosts will be willing
to use it over LAN's as well as for general Internet
We believe further study is needed on these questions.
The reader may wonder: how is the proposed protocol related to an RPC
(Remote Procedure Call) facility? The intent is that RPC facilities
and message-passing IPC facilities will be built on top of the
proposed transport layer. These higher-level mechanisms will need to
address a number of additional issues, which are not relevant to the
1. Application Interface
This includes binding and stub generators.
2. Structured Data Encoding
3. Server Location and Binding
4. Authentication and Access Control
Distributed processing and distributed data bases will underlie many
of the future computer system research projects and applications
based upon the Internet. As a result, transaction-based
communication will be an increasingly important activity on the
Internet. We claim that there is a pressing need for an appropriate
transport protocol for transaction processing. In this memo, we have
given examples to support this claim, and have outlined the service
which such a new transport protocol would provide.
This memo is based upon discussions within the New End-to-End
Protocols taskforce, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge the
participation and sagacity of the members of that group. I want to
thank Dave Clark, an ex officio taskforce member, for his
contribution to these discussions, and Robert Cole for very helpful
 For the purposes of this RFC, in fact, the reader may consider
"transport service" to be defined as that protocol layer which
contains TCP and UDP, as in Figure 1 of RFC-791. Alternatively,
we may use the ISO definition -- the transport service is the
lowest layer providing end-to-end service which is essentially
independent of the characteristics of the particular (Inter-)
network used to support the communication.
 This idea is implicit in the ISO definition of a transport
 It would be reasonable for the name server definition to specify
an upper bound on the size of a single query or response; e.g.,
2K bytes. This would imply (large) limits on the number of RR's
that could be returned per response. If that limit is exceeded,
we are doing something wrong!
BiNe84 Birrell, Andrew D. and Nelson, Bruce Jay, "Implementing
Remote Procedure Calls". ACM TOCS, Vol. 2, No. 1, February
ChDe85 Cheriton, David R. and Deering, Steven, "Host Groups: a
Multicast Extension for Datagram Networks". To be presented
to 9th Data Communication Symposium.
Cher85 Cheriton, David R., "V Message Transaction Protocol".
Private communication, July 1985.
Cour81 Xerox Corp., "Courier: The Remote Procedure Call Protocol".
XSIS 038112, Xerox Corp., Stamford, Conn., December 1981.
Coop84 Cooper, Eric C., "Circus: a Replicated Procedure Call
Facility". Proc. 4th Symposium on Reliability in
Distributed Software and Database Systems, October 1984.
Crow85 Crowcroft, Jon, "A Sequential Exchange Protocol". Internal
Note 1688, Computer Science Department, University College
London, June 1985.
Gurw85 Gurwitz, Robert F., "Object Oriented Interprocess
Communication in the Internet". Private communication,
Mill85 Miller, Trudy, "Internet Reliable Transaction Protocol --
Functional and Interface Specification". RFC-938, February
Shel85 Sheltzer, Alan B. , "Network Transparency in an Internetwork
Environment", PhD Thesis, UCLA Department of Computer
Science, July 1985.
Wats81 Watson, Richard W., "Timer-based Mechanisms in Reliable
Transport Protocol Connection Management". Computer
Networks, Vol. 5, pp47-56, 1981 (also distributed as