For many years, the technical literature on protocol architectures was dominated by discussions related to OSI and to the development of protocols and services at each layer. Throughout the 1980s, the belief was widespread that OSI would come to dominate commercially, both over architectures such as IBM’s SNA, as well as over competing multivendor schemes such as TCP/IP; this promise was never realized. In the 1990s, TCP/IP has become firmly established as the dominant commercial architecture and as the protocol suite upon which the bulk of new protocol development is to be done.

There are a number of reasons for the success of the TCP/IP protocols over OSI:

  1. TCP/IP protocols were specified, and enjoyed extensive use, prior to ISO standardization of alternative protocols. Thus, organizations in the 1980s with an immediate need were faced with the choice of waiting for the always promised, never-delivered complete OSI package, and the up-and-running, plug-and-play TCP/IP suite. Once the obvious choice of TCP/IP was made, the cost and technical risks of migrating from an installed base inhibited OSI acceptance.
  2. The TCP/IP protocols were initially developed as a U.S. military research effort funded by the Department of Defense (DOD). Although DOD, like the rest of the U.S. government, was committed to international standards, DOD had immediate operational needs that could not be met during the 1980s and early 1990s by off-the-shelf OSI-based products. Accordingly, DOD mandated the use of TCP/IP protocols for virtually all software purchases. Because DOD is the largest consumer of software products in the world, this policy created an enormous market, encouraging vendors to develop TCP/IP based products.
  3. The Internet is built on the foundation of the TCP/IP suite. The dramatic growth of the Internet, and especially the World Wide Web, has cemented the victory of TCP/IP over OSI.

The TCP/IP Approach

The TCP/IP protocol suite recognizes that the task of communications is too complex and too diverse to be accomplished by a single unit. Accordingly, the task is broken up into modules or entities that may communicate with peer entities in another system. On entity within a system provides services to other entities and, in turn, uses the services of other entities. Good software-design practice dictates that these entities be arranged in a modular and hierarchical fashion.

The OSI model is based on this system of communications, but takes it one step further, recognizing that, in many respects, protocols at the same level of the hierarchy have certain features in common. This thinking yields the concept of rows or layers, as well as the attempt to describe in an abstract fashion what features are held in common by the protocols with in a given row.

As an explanatory tool, a layered model has significant value and, indeed, the OSI model is used for precisely that purpose in many books on data communications and telecommunications. The objection sometimes raised by the by the designers of the TCP/IP protocol suite and its protocols is that the OSI model is prescriptive rather than descriptive. It dictates that protocols within a given layer perform certain functions, which may not be always desirable. It is possible to define more than one protocol at a given layer, and the functionality of those protocols may not be the same or even similar. Rather, what is common about a set of protocols at the same layer is that they share the same set of support protocols at the next lower layer.

Furthermore, there is the implication in the OSI model that, because interfaces between layers are well-defined, a new protocol can be substituted for an old one at a given layer with no impact on adjacent layers; this is not always desirable or even possible. For example, a LAN lends itself easily to multicast and broadcast addressing at the link level. If the IEEE 802 link level were inserted below a network protocol entity that did not support multicasting and broadcasting that service would be denied to upper layers of the hierarchy. To get broadcasting, that services would be denied to upper layers of the hierarchy. To get around some of these problems, OSI proponents talk of null layers and sub layers. It sometimes seems that these artifacts save the model at the expense of good protocol design.

In the TCP/IP model, as we shall see, the strict use of all layers is not mandated. For example, there are application-level protocols that operate directly on top of IP.

TCP/IP Protocol Architecture

As we pointed out, there is no official TCP/IP protocol model. However, it is useful to characterize the protocol suite as involving five layers. These layers are:

· Application layer: Provides communication between processes or applications on separate hosts.

· Host-to-host, or transport layer: Provides end-to-end, data-transfer service. This layer may include reliability mechanisms. It hides the details of the underlying network or networks from the application layer.

· Internet layer: Concerned with routing data from source to destination host through one or more networks connected by routers.

· Network layer: Concerned with the logical interface between an end system and sub network.

· Physical layer: Defines characteristics of the transmission medium, signaling rate, and signal-encoding scheme.