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Versions: 00 01 02 03 04 rfc2736                                        
Internet Engineering Task Force                                      AVT WG
INTERNET-DRAFT                                       M. Handley, C. Perkins
draft-ietf-avt-rtp-format-guidelines-02                          ACIRI, UCL
                                                            26th April 1999
                                                          Expires: Oct 1999

      Guidelines for Writers of RTP Payload Format Specifications


This document provides general guidelines aimed at assisting the authors
of RTP Payload Format specifications in deciding on good formats.  These
guidelines attempt to capture some of the experience gained with RTP  as
it evolved during its development.

Status of this Memo

This document is an Internet-Draft and is in full conformance  with  all
provisions  of Section 10 of RFC2026.  Internet-Drafts are working docu-
ments of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), its areas, and  its
working  groups.   Note  that  other  groups may also distribute working
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Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum  of  six  months
and  may  be  updated,  replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
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or to cite them other than as ``work in progress.''

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1.  Introduction

This document provides general guidelines aimed at assisting the authors
of  RTP  [9]  Payload Format specifications in deciding on good formats.
These guidelines attempt to capture some of the experience  gained  with
RTP as it evolved during its development.

2.  Background

RTP was designed around the concept of Application Level Framing  (ALF),

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 1]

INTERNET-DRAFT                                           26th April 1999

first described by Clark and Tennenhouse[2]. The key argument underlying
ALF is that there are many different ways an application might  be  able
to  cope with misordered or lost packets.  These range from ignoring the
loss, to re-sending the missing data (either from a buffer or by  regen-
erating  it), and to sending new data which supersedes the missing data.
The application only has this choice if transport  protocol  is  dealing
with  data  in  ``Application  Data Units'' (ADUs). An ADU contains data
that can be processed out-of-order with respect to other ADUs.  Thus the
ADU is the minimum unit of error recovery.

The key property of a transport protocol for ADUs is that each ADU  con-
tains  sufficient  information  to  be processed by the receiver immedi-
ately.  An example is a video stream, wherein the compressed video  data
in  an  ADU  must be capable of being decompressed regardless of whether
previous ADUs have been received.  Additionally  the  ADU  must  contain
``header'' information detailing its position in the video image and the
frame from which it came.

Although an ADU need not be a packet, there are  many  applications  for
which  a  packet is a natural ADU.  Such ALF applications have the great
advantage that all packets that are received can  be  processed  by  the
application immediately.

RTP was designed around an ALF philosophy.  In the context of  a  stream
of  RTP data, an RTP packet header provides sufficient information to be
able to identify and decode the packet irrespective of  whether  it  was
received  in  order,  or whether preceding packets have been lost.  How-
ever, these arguments only hold good if the RTP payload formats are also
designed using an ALF philosophy.

Note that this also implies smart, network aware, end-points. An  appli-
cation  using  RTP  should be aware of the limitations of the underlying
network, and should adapt its transmission to match  those  limitations.
Our experience is that a smart end-point implementation can achieve sig-
nificantly better performance on real IP-based  networks  than  a  naive

3.  Channel Characteristics

We identify the following channel  characteristics  that  influence  the
best-effort transport of RTP over UDP/IP in the Internet:

o   Packets may be lost

o   Packets may be duplicated

o   Packets may be reordered in transit

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o   Packets will be fragmented if they exceed the MTU of the  underlying

The loss characteristics of a link  may  vary  widely  over  short  time

Although fragmentation is not a disastrous phenomena if  it  is  a  rare
occurrence,  relying  on IP fragmentation is a bad design strategy as it
significantly increases  the  effective  loss  rate  of  a  network  and
decreases goodput.  This is because if one fragment is lost, the remain-
ing fragments (which have used up bottleneck bandwidth) will  then  need
to  be  discarded  by the receiver.  It also puts additional load on the
routers performing fragmentation and on  the  end-systems  re-assembling
the fragments.

In addition, it is noted that the transit time between two hosts on  the
Internet  will  not  be  constant.   This is due to two effects - jitter
caused by being queued behind cross-traffic, and routing  changes.   The
former is possible to characterise and compensate for by using a playout
buffer, but the latter is impossible to predict and difficult to  accom-
modate gracefully.

4.  Guidelines

We identify the following requirements of RTP payload format  specifica-

o   A payload format should be devised so that the  stream  being  tran-
    sported is still useful even in the presence of a moderate amount of
    packet loss.

o   Ideally all the contents of every packet should be  possible  to  be
    decoded  and  played  out  irrespective of whether preceding packets
    have been lost or arrive late.

The first of these requirements is based on the nature of the  internet.
Although it may be possible to engineer parts of the internet to produce
low loss rates through careful provisioning  or  the  use  of  non-best-
effort  services,  as  a rule payload formats should not be designed for
these special purpose environments.  Payload formats should be  designed
to  be  used  in  the public internet with best effort service, and thus
should expect to see moderate loss rates.  For example, a 5%  loss  rate
is not uncommon.  We note that TCP steady state models[3][4][6] indicate
that a 5% loss rate with a 1KByte packet size and 200ms round-trip  time
will  result  in  TCP  achieving a throughput of around 180Kb/s.  Higher
loss rates, smaller packet sizes, or a larger RTT are required  to  con-
strain  TCP  to  lower  data  rates.   For the most part, it is such TCP

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traffic that is producing the background loss that many RTP  flows  must
co-exist  with.  Without explicit congestion notification (ECN)[8], loss
must be considered an intrinsic property of  best-effort  parts  of  the

Where payload formats do not assume packet loss will occur, they  should
state this explicitly up front, and they will be considered special pur-
pose payload formats, unsuitable for use on the public internet  without
special support from the network infrastructure.

The second of these requirements is more explicit about how  RTP  should
cope  with  loss.   If an RTP payload format is properly designed, every
packet that is actually  received  should  be  useful.   Typically  this
implies the following guidelines are adhered to:

o   Packet boundaries should coincide with codec frame boundaries.  Thus
    a  packet  should  normally  consist  of  one or more complete codec

o   A codec's minimum unit of data should never be packetised so that it
    crossed a packet boundary unless it is larger than the MTU.

o   If a codec's frame size is larger than the MTU, the  payload  format
    must  not  rely on IP fragmentation.  Instead it must define its own
    fragmentation mechanism.  Such mechanisms may involve codec-specific
    information  that  allows decoding of fragments.  Alternatively they
    might allow codec-independent  packet-level  forward  error  correc-
    tion[5]  to  be applied that cannot be used with IP-level fragmenta-

In the abstract, a codec frame (i.e., the ADU or the minimum  size  unit
that  has semantic meaning when handed to the codec) can be of arbitrary
size.  For  PCM  audio,  it  is  one  byte.   For  GSM  audio,  a  frame
corresponds  to 20ms of audio.  For H.261 video, it is a Group of Blocks
(GOB), or one twelfth of a CIF video frame.

For PCM, it does not matter how audio is packetised, as the ADU size  is
one  byte.   For  GSM  audio, arbitrary packetisation would split a 20ms
frame over two packets, which would mean that if one packet  were  lost,
partial  frames  in  packets  before and after the loss are meaningless.
This means that not only were the bits in the missing packet  lost,  but
also  that  additional bits in neighbouring packets that used bottleneck
bandwidth were effectively also lost because  the  receiver  must  throw
them  away.   Instead,  we would packetise GSM by including several com-
plete GSM frames in a packet; typically four GSM frames are included  in
current  implementations.   Thus  every  packet  received can be decoded
because even in the presence of loss, no incomplete frames are received.

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The H.261 specification allows GOBs to be up to 3KBytes  long,  although
most  of  the time they are smaller than this.  It might be thought that
we should insert a group of blocks into a packet when it fits, and arbi-
trarily  split the GOB over two or more packets when a GOB is large.  In
the first version of the H.261 payload format, this is  what  was  done.
However, this still means that there are circumstances where H.261 pack-
ets arrive at the receiver and must be discarded because  other  packets
were  lost  -  a  loss multiplier effect that we wish to avoid.  In fact
there are smaller units than GOBs in the H.261 bit-stream called macrob-
locks,  but  they are not identifiable without parsing from the start of
the GOB.  However, if we provide a little additional information at  the
start  of each packet, we can re-instate information that would normally
be found by parsing from the start of the  GOB,  and  we  can  packetise
H.261  by splitting the data stream on macroblock boundaries.  This is a
less obvious packetisation for H.261 than the GOB packetisation, but  it
does  mean  that  a  slightly  smarter  depacketiser at the receiver can
reconstruct a valid H.261 bitstream from a stream of  RTP  packets  that
has  experienced  loss,  and  not  have  to discard any of the data that

An additional guideline concerns codecs that require the  decoder  state
machine  to keep step with the encoder state machine.  Many audio codecs
such as LPC or GSM are of this form.  Typically they are loss  tolerant,
in  that after a loss, the predictor coefficients decay, so that after a
certain amount of time, the predictor error induced  by  the  loss  will
disappear.  Most codecs designed for telephony services are of this form
because they were designed to cope with bit errors without  the  decoder
remaining  in  permanent  error.  Just packetising these formats so that
packets consist of integer multiples of codec frames may not be optimal,
as  although  the packet received immediately after a packet loss can be
decoded, the start of the audio stream produced will be  incorrect  (and
hence  distort  the  signal) because the decoder predictor is now out of
step with the encoder.  In principle,  all  of  the  decoder's  internal
state  could  be  added  using  a  header attached to the start of every
packet, but for lower bit-rate encodings, this state is  so  substantial
that  the  bit rate is no longer low.  However, a compromise can usually
be found, where a greatly reduced form of decoder state is sent in every
packet,  which  does  not recreate the encoders predictor precisely, but
does reduce the magnitude and duration of the distortion  produced  when
the  previous  packet  is lost.  Such compressed state is by definition,
very dependent on the codec in question.  Thus we recommend:

o   Payload formats for encodings where the  decoder  contains  internal
    data-driven  state  that attempts to track encoder state should nor-
    mally consider including a small additional header that conveys  the
    most  critical  elements  of  this  state to reduce distortion after
    packet loss.

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 5]

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A similar issue arises with codec parameters, and whether  or  not  they
should  be  included  in  the payload format. An example is with a codec
that has a choice of huffman tables for compression.  The codec may  use
either huffman table 1 or table 2 for encoding and the receiver needs to
know this information for correct decoding. There are a number  of  ways
in which this kind of information can be conveyed:

o   Out of band signalling, prior to media transmission.

o   Out of band signalling,  but  the  parameter  can  be  changed  mid-
    session.   This  requires synchronization of the change in the media

o   The change is signaled through a change  in  the  RTP  payload  type
    field.  This  requires  mapping  the parameter space into particular
    payload type values and signalling this mapping out-of-band prior to
    media transmission.

o   Including the parameter in  the  payload  format.  This  allows  for
    adapting  the  parameter  in  a robust manner, but makes the payload
    format less efficient.

Which mechanism to use depends on the utility of changing the  parameter
in  mid-session to support application layer adaptation.  However, using
out-of-band signalling to change a parameter in mid-session is generally
to  be  discouraged  due to this problems of synchronizing the parameter
change with the media stream.

4.1.  RTP Header Extensions

Many RTP payload formats require some additional header  information  to
be  carried in addition to that included in the fixed RTP packet header.
The recommended way of conveying this information is in the payload sec-
tion  of the packet. The RTP header extension should not be used to con-
vey payload specific information ([9],section 5.3) since this is ineffi-
cient in its use of bandwidth; requires the definition of a new RTP pro-
file or profile extension; and makes it difficult to employ FEC  schemes
such  as,  for  example,  [7].   Use  of an RTP header extension is only
appropriate for cases where the extension in question applies  across  a
wide range of payload types.

4.2.  Header Compression

Designers of payload formats should also be aware of the  needs  of  RTP
header  compression  [1]. In particular, the compression algorithm func-
tions best when the RTP timestamp increments by a constant value between

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consecutive  packets.  Payload formats which rely on sending packets out
of order, such that the timestamp increment is not constant, are  likely
to  compress  less well than those which send packets in order. This has
most often been an issue when designing payload formats for FEC informa-
tion,  although some video codecs also rely on out-of-order transmission
of packets at the expense of  reduced  compression.   Although  in  some
cases  such  out-of-order transmission may be the best solution, payload
format designers are encourage to look for alternative  solutions  where

5.  Summary

Designing packet formats for RTP is not a  trivial  task.   Typically  a
detailed  knowledge  of  the  codec  involved  is required to be able to
design a format that is resilient to loss, does not introduce loss  mag-
nification  effects  due  to  inappropriate  packetisation, and does not
introduce unnecessary distortion after a packet loss.  We  believe  that
considerable effort should be put into designing packet formats that are
well tailored to the codec in question.  Typically this requires a  very
small  amount  of  processing at the sender and receiver, but the result
can be greatly improved  quality  when  operating  in  typical  internet

Designers of new codecs for use with RTP should consider making the out-
put of the codec ``naturally packetizable''. This implies that the codec
should be designed to produce a packet stream, rather than a bit-stream;
and  that  that  packet stream contains the minimal amount of redundancy
necessary to ensure that each packet  is  independently  decodable  with
minimal  loss  of decoder predictor tracking. It is recognised that sac-
rificing some small amount of bandwidth to ensure greater robustness  to
packet loss is often a worthwhile tradeoff.

It is hoped that, in the long run, new codecs should be  produced  which
can  be  directly  packetised, without the trouble of designing a codec-
specific payload format.

It is possible to design generic packetisation formats that do  not  pay
attention to the issues described in this document, but such formats are
only suitable for special purpose networks  where  packet  loss  can  be
avoided  by careful engineering at the network layer, and are not suited
to current best-effort networks.

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Authors Addresses

Mark Handley
AT&T Center for Internet Research at ICSI,
International Computer Science Institute,
1947 Center Street, Suite 600,
Berkeley, CA 94704, USA

Colin Perkins
Dept of Computer Science,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT, UK.


This document is based on experience gained over several years  by  many
people,  including  Van  Jacobson,  Steve McCanne, Steve Casner, Henning
Schulzrinne, Thierry Turletti, Jonathan Rosenberg and Christian  Huitema
amongst others.


[1]  S. Casner, V. Jacobson, ``Compressing IP/UDP/RTP Headers  for  Low-
     Speed Serial Links'', RFC 2508.

[2]  D. Clark, D. Tennenhouse, "Architectural Considerations for  a  New
     Generation of Network Protocols" Proc ACM Sigcomm 90.

[3]  J. Mahdavi and S. Floyd.  ``TCP-friendly  unicast  rate-based  flow
     control''. Note sent to end2end-interest mailing list, Jan 1997.

[4]  M. Mathis, J. Semske, J. Mahdavi, and T.  Ott.  ``The  macro-scopic
     behavior of the TCP congestion avoidance algorithm''. Computer Com-
     munication Review, 27(3), July 1997.

[5]  J. Nonnenmacher, E.  Biersack,  Don  Towsley,  ``Parity-Based  Loss
     Recovery  for  Reliable  Multicast Transmission'', Proc ACM Sigcomm
     '97, Cannes, France, 1997.

[6]  J. Padhye, V.  Firoiu,  D.  Towsley,  J.   Kurose,  ``Modeling  TCP
     Throughput:  A  Simple  Model and its Empirical Validation'', Proc.
     ACM Sigcomm 1998.

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 8]

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[7]  C. Perkins, I. Kouvelas, O. Hodson, V. Hardman,  M.  Handley,  J.C.
     Bolot,  A.  Vega-Garcia, S. Fosse-Parisis, ``RTP Payload for Redun-
     dant Audio Data'', RFC 2198.

[8]  K. K. Ramakrishnan, Sally  Floyd,  ``A  Proposal  to  add  Explicit
     Congestion  Notification (ECN) to IP'' INTERNET DRAFT, Work in Pro-

[9]  H.Schulzrinne, S.Casner, R.Frederick, V. Jacobson, "Real-Time Tran-
     sport Protocol", RFC1899.

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 9]