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Networking Primer

Data Transmission

Although we routinely use the terms "data" and "information" interchangeably, they are not technically the same thing. Computer data is a series of electrical charges arranged in patterns to represent information. In other words, the term "data" refers to the form of the information (the electrical patterns), not the information itself.

Conversely, the term "information" refers to data that has been decoded. In other words, information is the real-world, useful form of data. For example, the data in an electronic file can be decoded and displayed on a computer screen or printed onto paper as a business letter.

Encoding and Decoding Data

To store meaningful information as data and to retrieve the information, computers use encoding schemes: series of electrical patterns that represent each of the discrete pieces of information to be stored and retrieved. For example, a particular series of electrical patterns represents the alphabetic character "A." There are many encoding schemes in use. One common data-encoding scheme is American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII).

To encode information into data and later decode that data back into information, we use electronic devices, such as the computer, that generate electronic signals. Signals are simply the electric or electromagnetic encoding of data. Various components in a computer enable it to generate signals to perform encoding and decoding tasks.

To guarantee reliable transmission of this data across a network, there must be an agreed-on method that governs how data is sent, received, and decoded. That method must address questions such as: How does a sending computer indicate to which computer it is sending data? If the data will be passed through intervening devices, how are these devices to understand how to handle the data so that it will get to the intended destination? What if the sending and receiving computers use different data formats and data exchange conventions—how will data be translated to allow its exchange?

In response to these questions, a communication model known as the OSI model was developed. It is the basis for controlling data transmission on computer networks. Understanding the OSI model will allow you to understand how data can be transferred between two networked computers.

ISO and the OSI Model

The OSI model was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as a guideline for developing standards to enable the interconnection of dissimilar computing devices. It is important to understand that the OSI model is not itself a communication standard. In other words, it is not an agreed-on method that governs how data is sent and received; it is only a guideline for developing such standards.

The Importance of the OSI Model

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the OSI model. Virtually all networking vendors and users understand how important it is that network computing products adhere to and fully support the networking standards this model has generated.

When a vendor's products adhere to the standards the OSI model has generated, connecting those products to other vendors' products is relatively simple. Conversely, the further a vendor departs from those standards, the more difficult it becomes to connect that vendor's products to those of other vendors.

In addition, if a vendor were to depart from the communication standards the model has engendered, software development efforts would be very difficult because the vendor would have to build every part of all necessary software, rather than being able to build on the existing work of other vendors.

The first two problems give rise to a third significant problem for vendors: a vendor's products become less marketable as they become more difficult to connect with other vendors' products.

The Seven Layers of the OSI Model

Because the task of controlling communications across a computer network is too complex to be defined by one standard, the ISO divided the task into seven subtasks. Thus, the OSI model contains seven layers, each named to correspond to one of the seven defined subtasks.

Each layer of the OSI model contains a logically grouped subset of the functions required for controlling network communications. The seven layers of the OSI model and the general purpose of each are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The OSI model

Network Communications through the OSI Model

Using the seven layers of the OSI model, we can explore more fully how data can be transferred between two networked computers. Figure 3 uses the OSI model to illustrate how such communications are accomplished.

Figure 3: Networked computers communicating through the OSI model

The figure represents two networked computers. They are running identical operating systems and applications and are using identical protocols (or rules) at all OSI layers. Working in conjunction, the applications, the OS, and the hardware implement the seven functions described in the OSI model.

Each computer is also running an e-mail program that is independent of the OSI layers. The e-mail program enables the users of the two computers to exchange messages. Our figure represents the transmission of one brief message from Sam to Charlie.

The transmission starts when Sam types in a message to Charlie and presses the "send" key. Sam's operating system appends to the message (or "encapsulates") a set of application-layer instructions (OSI Layer 7) that will be read and executed by the application layer on Charlie's computer. The message with its Layer 7 header is then transferred to the part of the operating system that deals with presentation issues (OSI Layer 6) where a Layer 6 header is appended to the message. The process repeats through all the layers until each layer has appended a header. The headers function as an escort for the message so that it can successfully negotiate the software and hardware in the network and arrive intact at its destination.

When the data-link-layer header is added at Layer 2, the data unit is known as a "frame". The final header, the physical-layer header (OSI Layer 1) tells the hardware in Sam's computer the electrical specifics of how the message will be sent (which medium, at which voltage, at which speed, etc.). Although it is the final header to be added, the Layer 1 header is the first in line when the message travels through the medium to the receiving computer.

When the message with its seven headers arrives at Charlie's computer, the hardware in his computer is the first to handle the message. It reads the instructions in the Layer 1 header, executes them, and strips off the header before passing the message to the Layer 2 components. These Layer 2 components execute those instructions, strip off the header, and pass the message to Layer 3, and so on. Each layer's header is successively stripped off after its instructions have been read so that by the time the message arrives at Charlie's e-mail application, the message has been properly received, authenticated, decoded, and presented.

Commonly Used Standards and Protocols

National and international standards organizations have developed standards for each of the seven OSI layers. These standards define methods for controlling the communication functions of one or more layers of the OSI model and, if necessary, for interfacing those functions with the layers above and below.

A standard for any layer of the OSI model specifies the communication services to be provided and a protocol that will be used as a means to provide those services. A protocol is a set of rules network devices must follow (at any OSI layer) to communicate. A protocol consists of the control functions, control codes, and procedures necessary for the successful transfer of data.

More than one protocol standard exists for every layer of the OSI model. This is because a number of standards were proposed for each layer, and because the various organizations that defined those standards—specifically, the standards committees inside these organizations—decided that more than one of the proposed standards had real merit. Thus, they allowed for the use of different standards to satisfy different networking needs. As technologies develop and change, some standards win a larger share of the market than others, and some dominate to the point of becoming "de facto" standards.

To understand the capabilities of computer networking products, it will help to know the OSI layer at which particular protocols operate and why the standard for each layer is important. By converting protocols or using multiple protocols at different layers of the OSI model, it becomes possible for different computer systems to share data, even if they use different software applications, operating systems, and data-encoding techniques.

Figure 4 shows some commonly used standards and the OSI layer at which they operate.

Figure 4: Important standards at various OSI layers

Layer 7 and Layer 6 Standards: Application and Presentation

The application layer performs high-level services such as making sure necessary resources are present (such as a modem on the receiving computer) and authenticating users when appropriate (to authenticate is to grant access after verifying that the you are who you say you are). The presentation layer, usually part of an operating system, converts incoming and outgoing data from one presentation format to another. Presentation-layer services include data encryption and text compression. Most standards at this level specify Layer 7 and Layer 6 functions in one standard.

The predominant standards at Layer 7 and Layer 6 were developed by the Department of Defense (DoD) as part of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite. This suite consists of the following protocols, among others: File Transfer Protocol (FTP), the protocol most often used to download files from the Internet; Telnet, which enables you to connect to mainframe computers over the Internet; HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which delivers Web pages; and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), which is used to send e-mail messages. These are all Layer 7 protocols; the TCP/IP suite consists of more than 40 protocols at several layers of the OSI model.

X.400 is an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standard that encompasses both the presentation and application layers. X.400 provides message handling and e-mail services. It is the basis for a number of e-mail applications (primarily in Europe and Canada) as well as for other messaging products. Another ITU standard in the presentation layer is the X.500 protocol, which provides directory access and management.

File Transfer, Access, and Management (FTAM) and Virtual Terminal Protocol (VTP) are ISO standards that encompass the application layer. FTAM provides user applications with useful file transfer and management functions. VTP is similar to Telnet; it specifies how to connect to a mainframe over the Internet via a "virtual terminal" or terminal emulation. In other words, you can see and use a mainframe's terminal display on your own PC. These two standards have been largely eclipsed by the DoD standards.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is a suite developed by the WAP Forum, whose members include many wireless device manufacturers and computer software and hardware companies, including us. WAP is for handheld devices such as cellular phones, pagers, and other wireless terminals that have limited bandwidth, screen size, memory, battery life, CPU, and user-interface controls. At the application and presentation layers is the Wireless Application Environment (WAE). WAE contains the Wireless Markup Language (WML), WMLScript—a scripting microlanguage similar to JavaScript—and the Wireless Telephony Application (WTA). Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML) and Handheld Device Transfer Protocol (HDTP) are also part of the WAP suite.

Compact HTML is defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and is a subset of HTML protocols. Like WAP, it addresses small-client limitations by excluding functions such as JPEG images, tables, image maps, multiple character fonts and styles, background colors and images, and frame style sheets.

Layer 5 Standards: Session

As its name implies, the session layer establishes, manages, and terminates sessions between applications. Sessions consist of dialogue between the presentation layer (OSI Layer 6) of the sending computer and the presentation layer of the receiving computer. The session layer synchronizes dialogue between these presentation layer entities and manages their data exchange. In addition to basic regulation of conversations (sessions), the session layer offers provisions for data expedition, class of service, and exception reporting of problems in the session, presentation, and application layers.

Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)—part of the TCP/IP suite—performs important functions at this layer as does the ISO session standard, named simply "session." In a NetWare environment the NCP provides most of the necessary session-layer functions. The Service Advertising Protocol (SAP) also provides functions at this layer. Both NCP and SAP are discussed in greater detail in the "Internetworking" section of this primer.

Wireless Session Protocol (WSP), part of the WAP suite, provides WAE with two session services: a connection-oriented session over Wireless Transaction Protocol (WTP) and a connectionless session over Wireless Datagram Protocol (WDP).

Wireless Transaction Protocol (WTP), also part of the WAP suite, runs on top of UDP and performs many of the same tasks as TCP but in a way optimized for wireless devices. For example, WTP does not include a provision for rearranging out-of-order packets; because there is only one route between the WAP proxy and the handset, packets will not arrive out of order as they might on a wired network.

Layer 4 Standards: Transport

Standards at this OSI layer work to ensure that all packets have arrived. This layer also isolates the upper three layers—which handle user and application requirements—from the details that are required to manage the end-to-end connection.

IBM's Network Basic Input/Output System (NetBIOS) protocol is an important protocol at this layer and at the session layer. However, designed specifically for a single network, this protocol does not support a routing mechanism to allow messages to travel from one network to another. For routing to take place, NetBIOS must be used in conjunction with another "transport mechanism" such as TCP. TCP provides all functions required for the transport layer.

WDP is the transport-layer protocol for WAP that allows WAP to be bearer-independent; that is, regardless of which protocol is used for Layer 3—USSD, SMS, FLEX, or CDMA—WDP adapts the transport-layer protocols so that WAP can operate on top of them.

Layer 3 Standards: Network

The function of the network layer is to manage communications: principally, the routing and relaying of data between nodes. (A node is a device such as a workstation or a server that is connected to a network and is capable of communicating with other network devices.) Probably the most important network-layer standard is Internet Protocol (IP), another part of the TCP/IP suite. This protocol is the basis for the Internet and for all intranet technology. IP has also become the standard for many LANs.

The ITU X.25 standard has been a common fixture in the network layer, but newer, faster standards are quickly replacing it, especially in the United States. It specifies the interface for connecting computers on different networks by means of an intermediate connection made through a packet-switched network (for example, a common carrier network such as Tymnet). The X.25 standard includes X.21, the physical-layer protocol and link access protocol balanced (LAPB), the data-link-layer protocol.

Layer 2 Standards: Data-Link (Media Access Control and Logical Link Control)

The most commonly used Layer 2 protocols are those specified in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE): 802.2 Logical Link Control, 802.3 Ethernet, 802.4 Token Bus, and 802.5 Token Ring. Most PC networking products use one of these standards. A few Layer 2 standards under development or that have recently been proposed to IEEE are 802.1P Generic Attribute Registration Protocol (GARP) for virtual bridge LANs, 802.1Q Virtual LAN (VLAN), and 802.15 Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN), which will define standards used to link mobile computers, mobile phones, and other portable handheld devices, and to provide connectivity to the Internet. Another Layer 2 standard is Cells In Frames (CIF), which provides a way to send Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) cells over legacy LAN frames.

ATM is another important technology at Layer 2, as are 100Base-T (IEEE 802.2u), and frame relay. These technologies are treated in greater detail in the "Important WAN and High-Speed Technologies" section.

Layer 2 standards encompass two sublayers: media access control (MAC) and logical link control.

Media Access Control

The media access control protocol specifies how workstations cooperatively share the transmission medium. Within the MAC sublayer there are several standards governing how data accesses the transmission medium.

The IEEE 802.3 standard specifies a media access method known as "carrier sense multiple access with collision detection" (CSMA/CD), and the IEEE 802.4, 802.5, and fiber distributed data interface (FDDI) standards all specify some form of token passing as the MAC method. These standards are discussed in greater detail in the "Network Topologies" section.

The token-ring MAC method is not as prominent in computer networks as it once was: Ethernet, which uses CSMA/CD, has become the more popular networking protocol for linking workstations and servers. The token-ring technology of ARCnet (Attached Resource Computer network), however, has become the preferred method for embedded and real-time systems such as automobiles, factory control systems, casino games, and heating, ventilation, and cooling systems.

Logical Link Control

The function of the logical link control sublayer is to ensure the reliability of the physical connection. The IEEE 802.2 standard (also called Logical Link Control or LLC) is the most commonly used logical link control standard because it works with either the CSMA/CD or token-ring standards. The Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) is another standard at this OSI level. This protocol is typically used to connect two computers through a serial interface, such as when connecting a personal computer to a server through a phone line or a T1 or T3 line. PPP encapsulates TCP/IP packets and forwards them to a server, which then forwards them to the Internet. The advantage to using PPP is that it is a "full-duplex" protocol, which means that it can carry a sending and a receiving signal simultaneously over the same line. It can also be used over twisted-pair wiring, fiber optic cable, and satellite transmissions.

Layer 1 Standards: Physical

Standards at the physical layer include protocols for transmitting a bitstream over media such as baseband coaxial cable, unshielded twisted-pair wiring, optical fiber cable, or through the air. The most commonly used are those specified in the IEEE 802.3, 802.4, and 802.5 standards. Use of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) FDDI standard has declined as Ethernet has replaced token-ring technologies. Much of the FDDI market has largely been replaced by Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). The different types of network cable and other network hardware will be discussed in greater detail in the "Hardware Technology" section.

Further Perspective: Standards and Open Systems

You probably noticed from looking at Figure 4 that most accepted standards do not include all (and only) those services specified for any OSI layer. In fact, most common standards encompass parts of multiple OSI layers.

Product vendors' actual implementation of OSI layers is divided less neatly. Vendors implement accepted standards—which already include mixed services from multiple layers—in different ways.

The OSI model was never intended to foster a rigid, unbreakable set of rules: it was expected that networking vendors would be free to use whichever standard for each layer they deemed most appropriate. They would also be free to implement each standard in the manner best suited to the purposes of their products.

However, it is clearly in a vendor's best interest to manufacture products that conform to the intentions behind the OSI model. To do this, a vendor must provide the services required at each OSI model layer in a manner that will enable the vendor's system to be connected to the systems of other vendors easily. Systems that conform to these standards and offer a high degree of interoperability with heterogeneous environments are called open systems. Systems that provide interoperability with components from only one vendor are called proprietary systems. These systems use standards created or modified by the vendor and are designed to operate in a homogeneous or single-vendor environment.

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