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Versions: 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 rfc2488                                  
Internet Engineering Task Force                              Mark Allman
INTERNET DRAFT                              NASA Lewis/Sterling Software
File: draft-ietf-tcpsat-stand-mech-00.txt                     Dan Glover
                                                              NASA Lewis
                                                         October 2, 1997
                                                  Expires: April 2, 1998

                 Enhancing TCP Over Satellite Channels
                       using Standard Mechanisms

Status of this Memo

    This document is an Internet-Draft.  Internet-Drafts are working
    documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), its areas,
    and its working groups.  Note that other groups may also distribute
    working documents 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

    To learn the current status of any Internet-Draft, please check the
    ``1id-abstracts.txt'' listing contained in the Internet- Drafts
    Shadow Directories on ftp.is.co.za (Africa), nic.nordu.net (Europe),
    munnari.oz.au (Pacific Rim), ds.internic.net (US East Coast), or
    ftp.isi.edu (US West Coast).


    This draft is not to be taken as a complete work.  In the future
    this draft will be extended (or another draft written) to discuss
    TCP mechanisms that are not yet on the IETF standards track.  These
    mechanisms either need further research or have been determined to
    be inappropriate for general purpose use on a shared network, but
    may be beneficial for private satellite networks.


    The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) provides reliable delivery
    of data across any network path, including network paths containing
    satellite channels.  While TCP works over satellite channels there
    are several mechanisms that enable TCP to more effectively utilize
    the available capacity of the network path.  This draft outlines
    some of these TCP mitigations.  At this time, all mitigations
    discussed in this draft are IETF standards track mechanisms.

1.  Introduction

    Satellite channel characteristics have an effect on the way
    transport protocols, such as the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)

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    [Pos81], behave.  When protocols such as TCP perform poorly, channel
    utilization is low.  This draft is divided up as follows: Section 2
    provides a brief outline of the characteristics of satellite
    networks.  Section 3 outlines two non-TCP mechanisms that enable TCP
    to more effectively utilize the available bandwidth.  Section 4
    outlines the TCP mechanisms defined by the IETF that benefit
    satellite networks.  Finally, Section 5 provides a summary of what
    modern TCP implementations should include to be considered
    "satellite friendly".

2.  Satellite Characteristics

    There is an inherent delay in the delivery of a message over a
    satellite link due to the finite speed of light and the altitude of
    communications satellites.

    Many communications satellites are located at Geostationary Orbit
    (GSO) with an altitude of approximately 36,000 km [Sta94].  At this
    altitude the orbit period is the same as the Earth's rotation
    period.  Therefore, each ground station is always able to "see" the
    orbiting satellite.  The propagation time for a radio signal to
    travel twice that distance (corresponding to a ground station
    directly below the satellite) is 239.6 milliseconds (ms) [Mar78].
    For ground stations at the edge of the view area of the satellite,
    the distance traveled is 2 x 41,756 km for a total propagation delay
    of 279.0 ms [Mar78].  These delays are for one ground
    station-to-satellite-to-ground station route (or "hop").  Therefore,
    the propagation delay for a message and its reply (one round-trip
    time or RTT) would be no more than 558 ms.  The delay will be
    proportionately longer if the link includes multiple hops or if
    intersatellite links are used.  As satellites become more complex
    and include on-board processing of signals, additional delay may be

    Other orbits are possible for use by communications satellites
    including Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)
    [Mar78].  The lower orbits require the use of constellations of
    satellites for constant coverage.  In other words, as one satellite
    leaves the ground station's sight, another satellite appears on the
    horizon and the channel is switched to it.  The propagation delay to
    a LEO orbit ranges from several milliseconds when communicating with
    a satellite directly overhead, to as much as 80 ms when the
    satellite is on the horizon.  These systems are more likely to use
    intersatellite links and have variable path delay depending on
    routing through the network.

    Satellite channels are dominated by two fundamental characteristics,
    as described below:

        NOISE - The strength of a radio signal falls in proportion to
        the square of the distance traveled.  For a satellite link the
        distance is large and so the signal becomes weak before reaching
        it's destination.  This results in a low signal-to-noise ratio.
        Typical bit error rates for a satellite link today are on the

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        order of 10-7.  Satellite error performance equivalent to fiber
        will become common as advanced error control coding is used in
        new systems.  However, many current satellite systems do not
        provide error free service.

        BANDWIDTH - The radio spectrum is a limited natural resource,
        hence the bandwidth available to satellite systems is limited.
        Typical carrier frequencies for current, point-to-point,
        commercial, satellite services are 6 GHz (uplink) and 4 GHz
        (downlink), also known as C band, and 14/12 GHz (Ku band).  A
        new service at 30/20 GHz (Ka band) will be emerging over the
        next few years.  Traditional C band transponder bandwidth is
        typically 36 MHz to accommodate one color television channel (or
        1200 voice channels).  Ku band transponders are typically around
        50 MHz.  Furthermore, one satellite may carry a few dozen

    Not only is bandwidth limited by nature, but the allocations for
    commercial communications are limited by international agreements so
    that this scarce resource can be used fairly by many different

    Although satellites have certain disadvantages when compared to
    fiber channels, they also have certain advantages over terrestrial
    links.  First, satellites have a natural broadcast capability.
    Next, satellites can reach geographically remote areas or countries
    that have little terrestrial infrastructure.

    Satellite channels have several characteristics that differ from
    most terrestrial channels.  These characteristics can degrade the
    performance of TCP.  These characteristics include:

    Long feedback loop

        Due to the propagation delay of some satellite channels (e.g.,
        approximately 250 ms over a geosynchronous satellite) it takes a
        large amount of time for a TCP sender to determine whether or
        not a packet has been successfully received at the final
        destination.  This delay hurts interactive applications such as
        telnet, as well as some of the TCP congestion control algorithms
        (see section 4).

    Large delay*bandwidth product

        The delay*bandwidth product (DBP) defines the amount of data a
        protocol should have "in flight" (data that has been
        transmitted, but not yet acknowledged) at any one time to fully
        utilize the available channel capacity.  Because the delay in
        some satellite environments is large, TCP will need to keep a
        large amount of data "in flight".

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    Transmission errors

        Some satellite channels exhibit a higher bit-error rate (BER)
        than typical terrestrial networks.  TCP uses all packet drops as
        signals of congestion and reduces the sending rate.  Packets
        dropped due to corruption do not indicate that the network is
        congested.  However, the TCP sender cannot determine why a
        packet was dropped and therefore will reduce the transmission
        rate for all packet drops.

    Asymmetric use

        Due to the expense of the equipment used to send data to
        satellites, asymmetric satellite networks are often constructed.
        For example, a host connected to such a network will send all
        outgoing traffic over a slow terrestrial link (such as a dialup
        modem channel) and receive incoming traffic via the satellite
        channel.  Another common situation arises when both the incoming
        and outgoing traffic are sent using a satellite link, but the
        uplink has less available capacity than the downlink.  This
        asymmetry can have a large impact on TCP performance.

    Variable Round Trip Times

        In some satellite environments, such as low-Earth orbit (LEO)
        constellations, the propagation delay to and from the satellite
        varies over time.  This can have a negative impact on TCP's
        ability to accurately set retransmission timeouts and determine
        the appropriate window size.

    Intermittent connectivity

        In satellite orbit configurations, TCP connections must be
        transfered from one satellite to another or from one ground
        station to another from time to time.  This handoff can cause
        packet loss.

        Most satellite channels only exhibit a subset of the above
        characteristics.  In addition, some terrestrial networks exhibit
        some of the above characteristics, as well.  The mechanisms
        outlined in this document should benefits most networks,
        especially those with one of the above characteristics.

3.  Lower Level Mitigations

    It is recommended that those utilizing satellite channels in their
    networks should use the following two non-TCP mechanisms which can
    increase TCP performance.  These mechanisms are Path MTU Discovery
    and forward error correction (FEC) and are outlined in the following
    two sections.

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3.1 Path MTU Discovery

    Path MTU discovery [MD90] is used to determine the maximum packet
    size a connection can use on a given network path without being
    subjected to IP packet fragmentation.  The sender transmits a packet
    that is the appropriate size for the local network with which it is
    connected (e.g., 1500 bytes on an Ethernet) and sets the IP "don't
    fragment" (DF) bit.  If the packet is too large for a channel along
    the network path, the gateway that would normally fragment the
    packet and forward the fragments will return an ICMP message to the
    originator of the packet.  The ICMP message will indicate that the
    original segment could not be transmitted without being fragmented
    and will also contain the maximum size that can be forwarded by the

    This allows TCP to use the largest possible packet size, without
    incurring the cost of fragmentation and reassembly.  Large packets
    reduce the packet overhead by sending more data bytes per overhead
    byte.  Also, larger packets allow the slow start and congestion
    avoidance algorithms to increase the congestion window more rapidly
    (as outlined in section 4).

    The disadvantage of Path MTU Discovery is that it may cause a long
    pause before TCP is able to start sending data.  For example, assume
    a packet is sent with the DF bit set and one of the intervening
    gateway (G1) returns an ICMP message indicating that it cannot
    forward the segment.  At this point, the sending host reduces the
    packet size to the size returned by G1 and sends another packet with
    the DF bit set.  The packet will be forwarded by G1, however this
    does not ensure all subsequent gateways in the network path will be
    able to forward the segment.  If a second gateway (G2) can not
    forward the segment it will return an ICMP message to the
    transmitting host and the process will be repeated.  Therefore, path
    MTU discovery can waste a large amount of time determining the
    maximum allowable packet size on the network path and the network
    topology.  However, in practice, Path MTU Discovery is not that

3.2 Forward Error Correction

    A loss event in TCP is always interpreted as an indication of
    congestion and always causes TCP to reduce the window size.  When
    loss occurs during slow start, then slow start is terminated and TCP
    enters congestion avoidance.  Premature termination of slow start
    and entry into congestion avoidance due to losses other than
    congestion losses will cause needless inefficiency in channel
    utilization.  Furthermore, drops due to corruption causes TCP to
    needlessly reduce the amount of data being injected into the

    For TCP to operate efficiently, the channel characteristics should be
    such that nearly all loss is due to network congestion.  The use of
    forward error correction coding (FEC) on a satellite link should be
    used to bring the performance of the link to at least fiber quality.

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    Because of the effect of long RTT, errors on a satellite link have
    more severe repercussions than on a lower RTT terrestrial channel
    [PS97].  There are some applications, such as military jamming,
    where FEC cannot be expected to solve the noise problem.

4.  Standard TCP Mechanisms

    This section includes an outline of the mechanisms that may be
    necessary in satellite or hybrid satellite/terrestrial networks to
    better utilize the available capacity of the link.  These mechanisms
    may also be needed to fully utilize fast terrestrial channels.
    Furthermore, these mechanisms do not fundamentally hurt performance
    in a shared terrestrial network.  Each of the following sections
    outlines one mechanism and why that mechanism may be needed.

4.1 Congestion Control

    To avoid generating an inappropriate amount of network traffic for
    the current network conditions TCP employs four congestion control
    mechanisms [JK88] [Jac90] [Ste97].  These algorithms are slow start,
    congestion avoidance, fast retransmit and fast recovery.  These
    algorithms are used to adjust the amount of unacknowledged data that
    can be injected into the network and to retransmit segments dropped
    by the network.

    TCP uses two variables to accomplish congestion control.  The first
    variable is the congestion window (cwnd).  This is an upper bound on
    the amount of data the sender can inject into the network before
    receiving an acknowledgment (ACK).  The value of cwnd is limited to
    the receiver's advertised window.  The congestion window is
    increased or decreased during the transfer based on the inferred
    amount of congestion present in the network.  The second variable is
    the slow start threshold (ssthresh).  This variable determines which
    algorithm is being used to increase the value of cwnd.  If cwnd is
    less than ssthresh the slow start algorithm is used to increase the
    value of cwnd.  However, if cwnd is greater than or equal to
    ssthresh the congestion avoidance algorithm is used.  The initial
    value of ssthresh is the receiver's advertised window size.
    Furthermore, the value of ssthresh is reduced when congestion is

    The four congestion control algorithms are outlined below, followed
    by a brief discussion of the impact of satellite environments on
    these algorithms.

4.1.1 Slow Start and Congestion Avoidance

    When a host begins sending data on a TCP connection the host has no
    knowledge of the current state of the network between itself and the
    data receiver.  In order to avoid transmitting an inappropriately
    large burst of traffic, the data sender is required to use the slow
    start algorithm at the beginning of a transfer [JK88] [Bra89]
    [Ste97].  Slow start begins by initializing cwnd to 1 segment.  This
    forces TCP to transmit one segment and wait for the corresponding

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    ACK.  For each ACK that is received, the value of cwnd is increased
    by 1 segment.  For example, after the first ACK is received cwnd
    will be 2 segments and the sender will be allowed to transmit 2 data
    packets.  This continues until cwnd meets or exceeds ssthresh, or
    loss is detected.

    When the value of cwnd is greater than or equal to ssthresh the
    congestion avoidance algorithm is used to increase cwnd [JK88]
    [Bra89] [Ste97].  This algorithm increases the size of cwnd more
    slowly than does slow start.  Congestion avoidance is used to probe
    the network for any additional capacity.  During congestion
    avoidance, cwnd is increased by 1/cwnd for each incoming ACK.
    Therefore, if one ACK is received for every data segment, cwnd will
    increase by 1 segment per round-trip time (RTT).

    Long-delay satellite networks force poor utilization of the
    available channel bandwidth when using the slow start and congestion
    control algorithms [All97].  For example, transmission begins with
    the transmission of one segment.  After the first segment is
    transmitted the data sender is forced to wait for the corresponding
    ACK.  When using a GSO satellite this leads to an idle time of
    roughly 500 ms when no useful work is being accomplished.
    Therefore, slow start takes more real time over GSO satellites than
    on typical terrestrial channels.  This holds for congestion
    avoidance, as well [All97].  This is precisely why Path MTU Discovery
    is an important algorithm.  While the number of segments we transmit
    is determined by the congestion control algorithms, the size of
    these segments is not.  Therefore, using larger packets will enable
    TCP to send more data per segment which yields better channel

4.1.2 Fast Retransmit and Fast Recovery

    TCP's default mechanism to detect dropped segments is a timeout
    [Pos81].  In other words, if the sender does not receive an ACK for
    a given packet within the expected amount of time the segment will
    be retransmitted.  The retransmission timeout (RTO) is based on
    observations of the RTT.  In addition to retransmitting a segment
    when the RTO expires, TCP also uses the lost segment as an
    indication of congestion in the network.  In response to the
    congestion, the value of ssthresh is set to half of the cwnd and the
    value of cwnd is then reduced to 1 segment.  This triggers the use
    of the slow start algorithm to increase cwnd until the value of cwnd
    reaches half of its value when congestion was detected.  After the
    slow start phase, the congestion avoidance algorithm is used to
    probe the network for additional capacity.

    TCP ACKs always acknowledge the highest in-order segment that has
    arrived.  Therefore an ACK for segment X also effectively ACKs all
    segments < X.  Furthermore, if a segment arrives out-of-order the
    ACK triggered will be for the highest in-order segment, rather than
    the segment that just arrived.  For example, assume segment 11 has
    been dropped somewhere in the network and segment 12 arrives at the

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    receiver.  The receiver is going to send a duplicate ACK covering
    segment 10 (and all previous segments).

    The fast retransmit algorithm uses these duplicate ACKs to detect
    lost segments.  If 3 duplicate ACKs arrive at the data originator,
    TCP assumes that a segment has been lost and retransmits the missing
    segment without waiting for the RTO to expire.  After a segment is
    resent using fast retransmit, the fast recovery algorithm is used to
    adjust the congestion window.  First, the value of ssthresh is set
    to half of the value of cwnd.  Next, the value of cwnd is halved.
    Finally, the value of cwnd is artificially increased by 1 segment
    for each duplicate ACK that has arrived.  The artificial inflation
    can be done because each duplicate ACK represents 1 segment that has
    left the network.  When the cwnd permits, TCP is able to transmit
    new data.  This allows TCP to keep data flowing through the network
    at half the rate it was when loss was detected.  When an ACK for the
    retransmitted packet arrives, the value of cwnd is reduced back to
    ssthresh (half the value of cwnd when the congestion was detected).

    Fast retransmit can resend only one segment per window of data sent.
    When multiple segments are lost in a given window of data, one of
    the segments will be resent using fast retransmit and the rest of
    the dropped segments must wait for the RTO to expire, which causes
    TCP to revert to slow start.

    TCP's response to congestion differs based on the way the congestion
    was detected.  If the retransmission timer causes a packet to be
    resent, TCP drops ssthresh to half the current cwnd and reduces the
    value of cwnd to 1 segment (thus triggering slow start).  However,
    if a segment is resent via fast retransmit both ssthresh and cwnd
    are set to half the current value of cwnd and congestion avoidance
    is used to send new data.  The difference is that when
    retransmitting due to duplicate ACKs, TCP knows that packets are
    still flowing through the network and can therefore infer that the
    congestion is not that bad.  However, when resending a packet due to
    a the expiration of the retransmission timer, TCP cannot infer
    anything about the state of the network and therefore must proceed
    conservatively by sending new data using the slow start algorithm.

4.1.3 Congestion Control in Satellite Environment

    The above algorithms have a negative impact on the performance of
    individual TCP connection's performance, especially over long-delay
    satellite channels [All97] [AHKO97].  However, the algorithms are
    necessary to prevent congestive collapse in a shared network [JK88].
    Therefore, the negative impact on a given connection is more than
    offset by the benefit to the entire network.

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4.2 Large TCP Windows

    The standard TCP window size (65,535 bytes) is not adequate to allow
    a single TCP connection to utilize the entire bandwidth available on
    some satellite channels.  TCP throughput is limited by the following
    formula [Pos81]:

        throughput = window size / RTT

    Therefore, using the maximum window size of 65,535 bytes and a
    geosynchronous satellite channel RTT of 560 ms [Kru95] the maximum
    throughput is limited to:

        throughput = 65,535 bytes / 560 ms = 117,027 bytes/second

    Therefore, a single standard TCP connection cannot fully utilize,
    for example, T1 rate (192,000 bytes/second) GSO satellite channels.
    However, TCP has been extended to support larger windows [JBB92].
    The window scaling options outlined in [JBB92] should be used in
    satellite environments, as well as the companion algorithms PAWS
    (Protection Against Wrapped Sequence space) and RTTM (Round-Trip
    Time Measurements).

4.3 Selective Acknowledgments

    Selective acknowledgments (SACKs) [MMFR96] allow TCP receivers to
    inform TCP senders exactly which packets have arrived.  TCP senders
    that do not use SACKs must infer which segments have not arrived and
    retransmit accordingly.  This can lead to needless retransmissions,
    in the case when the sender infers incorrectly.  When utilizing
    SACKs, the sender does not need to guess which segments have not

    Some satellite channels require the use of large TCP windows to
    fully utilize the available capacity, as discussed above.  With the
    use of large windows, the likelihood of losing multiple segments in
    a given window of data increases.  When multiple segments are lost,
    SACKs will ensure the data sender retransmits only those segments
    that were dropped and not those that safely arrived at the

5.  Mitigation Summary

    Table 1 summarizes the mechanisms that have been discussed in this
    document.  Those mechanisms denoted "Recommended" are IETF standards
    track mechanisms that are recommended by the authors for use in
    networks containing satellite channels.  Those mechanisms marked
    "Required" have been defined by the IETF as required for hosts using
    the shared Internet [Bra89].

    Satellite users should check with their TCP vendors (implementors)
    to ensure the recommended mechanisms are supported in their stack in
    current and/or future versions.

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    Work on improving the efficiency of TCP over satellite channels is
    ongoing and will be summarized in a planned memo along with other
    considerations, such as network architectures.

         Mechanism                 Use          Section
        | Path-MTU Discovery     | Recommended | 3.1        |
        | FEC                    | Recommended | 3.2        |
        | TCP Congestion Control |             |            |
        |   Slow Start           | Required    | 4.1.1      |
        |   Congestion Avoidance | Required    | 4.1.1      |
        |   Fast Retransmit      | Recommended | 4.1.2      |
        |   Fast Recovery        | Recommended | 4.1.2      |
        | TCP Large Windows      |             |            |
        |   Window Scaling       | Recommended | 4.2        |
        |   PAWS                 | Recommended | 4.2        |
        |   RTTM                 | Recommended | 4.2        |
        | TCP SACKs              | Recommended | 4.3        |
                                Table 1

6.  Security

    The recommendations contained in this memo do not alter the security
    implications of TCP.


    [AHKO97] Mark Allman, Chris Hayes, Hans Kruse, and Shawn Ostermann.
        TCP Performance Over Satellite Links.  In Proceedings of the 5th
        International Conference on Telecommunication Systems, March

    [All97] Mark Allman.  Improving TCP Performance Over Satellite
        Channels.  Master's thesis, Ohio University, June 1997.

    [Bra89] Robert Braden.  Requirements for Internet Hosts --
        Communication Layers, October 1989.  RFC 1122.

    [Jac90] Van Jacobson.  Modified TCP Congestion Avoidance Algorithm.
        Technical Report, LBL, April 1990.

    [JBB92] Van Jacobson, Robert Braden, and David Borman.  TCP
        Extensions for High Performance, May 1992.  RFC 1323.

    [JK88] Van Jacobson and Michael Karels.  Congestion Avoidance and
        Control.  In ACM SIGCOMM, 1988.

    [Mar78] James Martin.  Communications Satellite Systems.  Prentice
        Hall, 1978.

    [MD90] Jeff Mogul and Steve Deering.  Path MTU Discovery, November
        1990.  RFC 1191.

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    [MMFR96] Matt Mathis, Jamshid Mahdavi, Sally Floyd, and Allyn
        Romanow.  TCP Selective Acknowledgment Options, October 1996.
        RFC 2018.

    [Pos81] Jon Postel.  Transmission Control Protocol, September 1981.
        RFC 793.

    [PS97] Craig Partridge and Tim Shepard.  TCP Performance Over
        Satellite Links.  IEEE Network, 11(5), September/October 1997.

    [Sta94] William Stallings.  Data and Computer Communications.
        MacMillian, 4th edition, 1994.

    [Ste97] W. Richard Stevens.  TCP Slow Start, Congestion Avoidance,
        Fast Retransmit, and Fast Recovery Algorithms, January 1997.
        RFC 2001.

Author's Addresses:

    Mark Allman
    NASA Lewis Research Center/Sterling Software
    21000 Brookpark Rd.  MS 54-2
    Cleveland, OH  44135

    Dan Glover
    NASA Lewis Research Center
    21000 Brookpark Rd.  MS 54-2
    Cleveland, OH  44135

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