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2.7 TIME_WAIT State

Undoubtedly, one of the most misunderstood aspects of TCP with regard to network programming is its TIME_WAIT state. We can see in Figure 2.4 that the end that performs the active close goes through this state. The duration that this endpoint remains in this state is twice the maximum segment lifetime (MSL), sometimes called 2MSL.

Every implementation of TCP must choose a value for the MSL. The recommended value in RFC 1122 [Braden 1989] is 2 minutes, although Berkeley-derived implementations have traditionally used a value of 30 seconds instead. This means the duration of the TIME_WAIT state is between 1 and 4 minutes. The MSL is the maximum amount of time that any given IP datagram can live in a network. We know this time is bounded because every datagram contains an 8-bit hop limit (the IPv4 TTL field in Figure A.1 and the IPv6 hop limit field in Figure A.2) with a maximum value of 255. Although this is a hop limit and not a true time limit, the assumption is made that a packet with the maximum hop limit of 255 cannot exist in a network for more than MSL seconds.

The way in which a packet gets "lost" in a network is usually the result of routing anomalies. A router crashes or a link between two routers goes down and it takes the routing protocols seconds or minutes to stabilize and find an alternate path. During that time period, routing loops can occur (router A sends packets to router B, and B sends them back to A) and packets can get caught in these loops. In the meantime, assuming the lost packet is a TCP segment, the sending TCP times out and retransmits the packet, and the retransmitted packet gets to the final destination by some alternate path. But sometime later (up to MSL seconds after the lost packet started on its journey), the routing loop is corrected and the packet that was lost in the loop is sent to the final destination. This original packet is called a lost duplicate or a wandering duplicate. TCP must handle these duplicates.

There are two reasons for the TIME_WAIT state:

  1. To implement TCP's full-duplex connection termination reliably

  2. To allow old duplicate segments to expire in the network

The first reason can be explained by looking at Figure 2.5 and assuming that the final ACK is lost. The server will resend its final FIN, so the client must maintain state information, allowing it to resend the final ACK. If it did not maintain this information, it would respond with an RST (a different type of TCP segment), which would be interpreted by the server as an error. If TCP is performing all the work necessary to terminate both directions of data flow cleanly for a connection (its full-duplex close), then it must correctly handle the loss of any of these four segments. This example also shows why the end that performs the active close is the end that remains in the TIME_WAIT state: because that end is the one that might have to retransmit the final ACK.

To understand the second reason for the TIME_WAIT state, assume we have a TCP connection between port 1500 and port 21. This connection is closed and then sometime later, we establish another connection between the same IP addresses and ports: port 1500 and port 21. This latter connection is called an incarnation of the previous connection since the IP addresses and ports are the same. TCP must prevent old duplicates from a connection from reappearing at some later time and being misinterpreted as belonging to a new incarnation of the same connection. To do this, TCP will not initiate a new incarnation of a connection that is currently in the TIME_WAIT state. Since the duration of the TIME_WAIT state is twice the MSL, this allows MSL seconds for a packet in one direction to be lost, and another MSL seconds for the reply to be lost. By enforcing this rule, we are guaranteed that when we successfully establish a TCP connection, all old duplicates from previous incarnations of the connection have expired in the network.

There is an exception to this rule. Berkeley-derived implementations will initiate a new incarnation of a connection that is currently in the TIME_WAIT state if the arriving SYN has a sequence number that is "greater than" the ending sequence number from the previous incarnation. Pages 958959 of TCPv2 talk about this in more detail. This requires the server to perform the active close, since the TIME_WAIT state must exist on the end that receives the next SYN. This capability is used by the rsh command. RFC 1185 [Jacobson, Braden, and Zhang 1990] talks about some pitfalls in doing this.

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