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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-03.txt                          ACIRI, UCL
                                                             24th June 1999
                                                          Expires: Dec 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 doc-
uments as Internet-Drafts.

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum  of  six  months
and  may  be  updated,  replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet- Drafts as reference material
or to cite them other than as ``work in progress.''

The    list    of   current   Internet-Drafts   can   be   accessed   at

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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),
first described by Clark and Tennenhouse[2]. The key argument underlying

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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  trans-
    ported  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  corre-
sponds  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 neighboring 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 mac-
roblocks, 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  nor-
mally  be  found by parsing from the start of the GOB, and we can packe-
tise 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.

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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-ses-
    sion.   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 envi-

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 sacri-
ficing 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.

6.  Security Considerations

The  guidelines  in this document result in RTP payload formats that are
robust in the presence of real world network conditions.  Designing pay-
load  formats  for  special purpose networks that assume negligable loss

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rates will normally result in slightly better compression,  but  produce
formats  that  are  more fragile, thus rendering them easier targets for
denial-of-service attacks.

Designers of payload formats should  pay  close  attention  to  possible
security issues that might arise from poor implementations of their for-
mats, and should be careful to specify the correct behaviour when anoma-
lous  conditions  arise.   Examples include how to process illegal field
values, and conditions when there are mismatches between  length  fields
and  actual data.  Whilst the correct action will normally be to discard
the packet, possible such conditions should be brought to the  attention
of the implementor to ensure that they are trapped properly.

The  RTP  specification  covers  encryption  of the payload.  This issue
SHOULD NOT normally be dealt with by payload formats  themselves.   How-
ever,  certain  payload  formats  spread  information about a particular
application data unit over a number of packets, or rely on packets which
relate  to  a  number of application data units. Care must be taken when
changing the encryption of such streams, since such payload formats  may
constrain  the  places  in  a  stream where it is possible to change the
encryption key without exposing sensitive data.

Designers of payload formats which include FEC should be aware that  the
automatic  addition  of FEC in response to packet loss may increase net-
work congestion, leading to a worsening of the problem which the use  of
FEC  was  intended  to solve. Since this may, at its worst, constitute a
denial of service attack, designers of such payload formats should  take
care that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent abuse.

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.

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 8]

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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.

[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 Con-
     gestion  Notification  (ECN)  to  IP''  INTERNET  DRAFT,  Work   in

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

Handley/Perkins                                                 [Page 9]