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22.4 When to Use UDP Instead of TCP

In Sections 2.3 and 2.4, we described the major differences between UDP and TCP. Given that TCP is reliable while UDP is not, the question arises: When should we use UDP instead of TCP, and why? We first list the advantages of UDP:

  • As we show in Figure 20.1, UDP supports broadcasting and multicasting. Indeed, UDP must be used if the application uses broadcasting or multicasting. We discussed these two addressing modes in Chapters 20 and 21.

  • UDP has no connection setup or teardown. With regard to Figure 2.5, UDP requires only two packets to exchange a request and a reply (assuming the size of each is less than the minimum MTU between the two end-systems). TCP requires about 10 packets, assuming that a new TCP connection is established for each request-reply exchange.

    Also important in this number-of-packet analysis is the number of packet round trips required to obtain the reply. This becomes important if the latency exceeds the bandwidth, as described in Appendix A of TCPv3. That text shows that the minimum transaction time for a UDP request-reply is RTT + server processing time (SPT). With TCP, however, if a new TCP connection is used for the request-reply, the minimum transaction time is 2 x RTT + SPT, one RTT greater than the UDP time.

It should be obvious with regard to the second point that if a TCP connection is used for multiple request-reply exchanges, then the cost of the connection's establishment and teardown is amortized across all the requests and replies, and this is normally a better design than using a new connection for each request-reply. Nevertheless, there are applications that use a new TCP connection for each request-reply (e.g., the older versions of HTTP), and there are applications in which the client and server exchange one request-reply (e.g., the DNS) and then might not talk to each other for hours or days.

We now list the features of TCP that are not provided by UDP, which means that an application must provide these features itself, if they are necessary to the application. We use the qualifier "necessary" because not all features are needed by all applications. For example, dropped segments might not need to be retransmitted for a real-time audio application, if the receiver can interpolate the missing data. Also, for simple request-reply transactions, windowed flow control might not be needed if the two ends agree ahead of time on the size of the largest request and reply.

  • Positive acknowledgments, retransmission of lost packets, duplicate detection, and sequencing of packets reordered by the network—TCP acknowledges all data, allowing lost packets to be detected. The implementation of these two features requires that every TCP data segment contain a sequence number that can then be acknowledged. It also requires that TCP estimate a retransmission timeout value for the connection and that this value be updated continually as network traffic between the two end-systems changes.

  • Windowed flow control—A receiving TCP tells the sender how much buffer space it has allocated for receiving data, and the sender cannot exceed this. That is, the amount of unacknowledged data at the sender can never exceed the receiver's advertised window.

  • Slow start and congestion avoidance—This is a form of flow control imposed by the sender to determine the current network capacity and to handle periods of congestion. All current TCPs must support these two features and we know from experience (before these algorithms were implemented in the late 1980s) that protocols that do not "back off" in the face of congestion just make the congestion worse (e.g., [Jacobson 1988]).

In summary, we can state the following recommendations:

  • UDP must be used for broadcast or multicast applications. Any form of desired error control must be added to the clients and servers, but applications often use broadcasting or multicasting when some (assumed small) amount of error is acceptable (such as lost packets for audio or video). Multicast applications requiring reliable delivery have been built (e.g., multicast file transfer), but we must decide whether the performance gain in using multicasting (sending one packet to N destinations versus sending N copies of the packet across N TCP connections) outweighs the added complexity required within the application to provide reliable communications.

  • UDP can be used for simple request-reply applications, but error detection must then be built into the application. Minimally, this involves acknowledgments, timeouts, and retransmission. Flow control is often not an issue for reasonably sized requests and responses. We will provide an example of these features in a UDP application in Section 22.5. The factors to consider here are how often the client and server communicate (Could a TCP connection be left up between the two?) and how much data is exchanged (if multiple packets are normally required, then the cost of the TCP connection's establishment and teardown becomes less of a factor).

  • UDP should not be used for bulk data transfer (e.g., file transfer). The reason is that windowed flow control, congestion avoidance, and slow-start must all be built into the application, along with the features from the previous bullet point, which means we are reinventing TCP within the application. We should let the vendors focus on better TCP performance and concentrate our efforts on the application itself.

There are exceptions to these rules, especially in existing applications. TFTP, for example, uses UDP for bulk data transfer. UDP was chosen for TFTP because it is simpler to implement than TCP in bootstrap code (800 lines of C code for UDP versus 4500 lines for TCP in TCPv2, for example), and because TFTP is used only to bootstrap systems on a LAN, not for bulk data transfer across WANs. But this requires that TFTP include its own sequence number field for acknowledgments, along with a timeout and retransmission capability.

NFS is another exception to the rule: It also uses UDP for bulk data transfer (although some might claim it is really a request-reply application, albeit using large requests and replies). This is partly historical, because in the mid-1980s when it was designed, UDP implementations were faster than TCP, and NFS was used only on LANs, where packet loss is often orders of magnitude less than on WANs. But as NFS started being used across WANs in the early 1990s, and as TCP implementations passed UDP in terms of bulk data transfer performance, NFS version 3 was designed to support TCP, and most vendors are now providing NFS over both UDP and TCP. Similar reasoning (UDP being faster than TCP in the mid-1980s along with a predominance of LANs over WANs) led the precursor of the DCE RPC package (the Apollo NCS package) to also choose UDP over TCP, although current implementations support both UDP and TCP.

We might be tempted to say that UDP usage is decreasing compared to TCP, with good TCP implementations being as fast as the network today, and with fewer application designers wanting to reinvent TCP within their UDP application. But the predicted increase in multimedia applications over the next decade will see an increase in UDP usage, since multimedia usually implies multicasting, which requires UDP.

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