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What is a protocol?

What is a protocol? What does a protocol do?

A Human Analogy

It is probably easiest to understand the notion of a computer network protocol by first considering some human analogies, since we humans execute protocols all of the time. Consider what you do when you want to ask someone for the time of day. A typical exchange is shown in Figure 1.2. Human protocol (or good manners, at least) dictates that one first offer a greeting to initiate communication with someone else. The typical response to a “Hi” is a returned “Hi” message. Implicitly, one then takes a cordial “Hi” response as an indication that one can proceed and ask for the time of day. A different response to the initial “Hi” (such as “Don’t bother me!” or “I don’t speak English,” or some unprintable reply) might indicate an unwillingness or inability to communicate. In this case, the human protocol would be not to ask for the time of day. Sometimes one gets no response at all to a question, in which case one typically gives up asking that person for the time. Note that in our human protocol, there are specific messages we send, and specific actions we take in response to the received reply messages or other events (such as no reply within some given amount of time). Clearly, trans- mitted and received messages, and actions taken when these messages are sent or received or other events occur, play a central role in a human protocol. If people run different protocols (for example, if one person has manners but the other does not, or if one understands the concept of time and the other does not) the protocols do not interoperate and no useful work can be accomplished. The same is true in networking—it takes two (or more) communicating entities running the same pro- tocol in order to accomplish a task.

Let’s consider a second human analogy. Suppose you’re in a college class (a computer networking class, for example!). The teacher is droning on about protocols and you’re confused. The teacher stops to ask, “Are there any questions?” (a message that is transmitted to, and received by, all students who are not sleeping). You raise your hand (transmitting an implicit message to the teacher). Your teacher acknowledges you with a smile, saying “Yes . . .” (a transmitted message encourag- ing you to ask your question—teachers love to be asked questions), and you then ask your question (that is, transmit your message to your teacher). Your teacher hears your question (receives your question message) and answers (transmits a reply to you). Once again, we see that the transmission and receipt of messages, and a set of conventional actions taken when these messages are sent and received, are at the heart of this question-and-answer protocol.

Network Protocols

A network protocol is similar to a human protocol, except that the entities exchang- ing messages and taking actions are hardware or software components of some device (for example, computer, smartphone, tablet, router, or other network-capable device). All activity in the Internet that involves two or more communicating remote entities is governed by a protocol. For example, hardware-implemented protocols in two physically connected computers control the flow of bits on the “wire” between the two network interface cards; congestion-control protocols in end systems con- trol the rate at which packets are transmitted between sender and receiver; protocols in routers determine a packet’s path from source to destination.

As an example of a computer network protocol with which you are probably familiar, consider what happens when you make a request to a Web server, that is, when you type the URL of a Web page into your Web browser. First, your computer will send a connection request message to the Web server and wait for a reply. The Web server will eventu- ally receive your connection request message and return a connection reply mes- sage. Knowing that it is now OK to request the Web document, your computer then sends the name of the Web page it wants to fetch from that Web server in a GET message. Finally, the Web server returns the Web page (file) to your computer.

Given the human and networking examples above, the exchange of messages and the actions taken when these messages are sent and received are the key defining elements of a protocol:

A protocol defines the format and the order of messages exchanged between two or more communicating entities, as well as the actions taken on the trans- mission and/or receipt of a message or other event.

The Internet, and computer networks in general, make extensive use of protocols. Different protocols are used to accomplish different communication tasks. Some protocols are simple and straightforward, while others are complex and intellectually deep. Mastering the field of computer networking is equivalent to understanding the what, why, and how of networking protocols.

Published on Thu 22 March 2012 by Dale Hampton in Computer Science with tag(s): protocol