Internet Engineering Task Force                            Greg Minshall
INTERNET-DRAFT                                             Siara Systems
draft-minshall-nagle-01.txt                                    June 17, 1999

             A Proposed Modification to Nagle's Algorithm

Status of This Memo

   This document is an Internet-Draft and is in full conformance with
   all provisions of Section 10 of RFC2026.

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   This draft proposes a modification to Nagle's algorithm (as
   specified in RFC896) to allow TCP, under certain conditions, to
   send a small sized packet immediately after one or more maximum
   segment sized packet.


   The Nagle algorithm is one of the primary mechanisms which protects
   the internet from poorly designed and/or poorly implemented
   applications.  However, for a certain class of applications
   (notably, request-response protocols) the Nagle algorithm interacts
   poorly with delayed acknowledgements to give these applications
   poorer performance.

   This draft is NOT suggesting that these applications should disable
   the Nagle algorithm.

   This draft suggests a fairly small and simple modification to the
   Nagle algorithm which preserves the Nagle algorithm as a means of
   protecting the internet while at the same time giving better
   performance to a wider class of applications.

Introduction to the Nagle algorithm

   The Nagle algorithm [RFC896] protects the internet from
   applications (most notably Telnet [RFC854], at the time the
   algorithm was developed) which tend to dribble small amounts of
   data to TCP.  Without the Nagle algorithm, TCP would transmit a
   packet, with a small amount of data, in response to each of the
   application's writes to TCP.  With the Nagle algorithm, a first
   small packet will be transmitted, then subsequent writes from the
   application will be buffered at the sending TCP until either i)
   enough application data has accumulated to enable TCP to transmit a
   maximum sized packet, or ii) the initial small packet is
   acknowledged by the receiving TCP.  This limits the number of small
   packets to one per round trip time.

   While the current Nagle algorithm does a very good job of
   protecting the internet from such applications, there are other
   applications, such as request-response protocols (with HTTP
   [RFC2068]  being a topical example) in which the current Nagle
   algorithm interacts with TCP's ``delayed ACK'' policy [RFC1122]
   to produce non-optimal results.

Delayed ACKs

   A receiving TCP tries to avoid acknowledging every received data
   packet in the hope of ``piggy-backing'' the acknowledgement on a
   data packet flowing in the reverse direction or combining the
   acknowledgement with a window update flowing in the reverse
   direction.  This process, known as ``delayed ACKing'' [RFC1122],
   typically causes an ACK to be generated for every other received
   (full-sized) data packet.  In the case of an ``isolated'' TCP
   packet (i.e., where a second TCP packet is not going to arrive
   anytime soon), the delayed ACK policy causes an acknowledgement for
   the data in the isolated packet to be delayed up to 200
   milliseconds of the receipt of the isolated packet (the actual
   maximum time the acknowledgement can be delayed is 500ms [RFC1122],
   but most systems implement a maximum of 200ms, and we shall assume
   that number in this document).  The way delayed ACKs are
   implemented in some systems causes the delayed ACK to be generated
   anytime between 0ms and 200ms; in this case, the average amount of
   time before the delayed ACK is generated is 100ms.

The interaction of delayed ACKs and Nagle

   If a TCP has more application data to transmit than will fit in one
   packet, but less than two full-sized packets' worth of data, it
   will transmit the first packet.  As a result of Nagle, it will not
   transmit the second packet until the first packet has been
   acknowledged.  On the other hand, the receiving TCP will delay
   acknowledging the first packet until either i) a second packet
   arrives (which, in this case, won't arrive), or ii) approximately
   100ms (and a maximum of 200ms) has elapsed.

   When the sending TCP receives the delayed ACK, it can then transmit
   its second packet.

   In a request-response protocol, this second packet will complete
   either a request or a response, which then enables a succeeding
   response or request.

   Note two (related) bad results of the interaction of delayed ACKs
   and the Nagle algorithm in this case: the request-response time may
   be increased by up to 400ms (if both the request and the response
   are delayed); and, consequently, the number of transactions per
   second is substantially reduced.

A proposed modification to the Nagle algorithm

   In the following discussion we make use of the following variables
   defined in the TCP RFC [RFC793] and in the host requirements RFC
   [RFC1122]: ``snd.nxt'' is a TCP variable which names the next byte
   of data to be transmitted; ``snd.una'' is a TCP variable which
   names the next byte of data to be acknowledged (if snd.nxt equals
   snd.una, then all previous packets have been acknowledged);
   Eff.snd.MSS is the largest TCP payload (user data) that can be
   transmitted in one packet.

   The current Nagle algorithm does not require any other state to be
   kept by TCP on a system.

   The proposed modification to the Nagle algorithm does,
   unfortunately, require one new state variable to be kept by TCP:
   ``snd.sml'' is a TCP variable which names the last byte of data in
   the most recently transmitted small packet.

   The current Nagle algorithm can be described as follows:

        "If a TCP has less than a full-sized packet to transmit,
        and if any previous packet has not yet been acknowledged,
        do not transmit a packet."

   and in pseudo-code:

        if ((packet.size < Eff.snd.MSS) && (snd.nxt > snd.una)) {
                do not send the packet;

   The proposed Nagle algorithm modifies this as follows:

        "If a TCP has less than a full-sized packet to transmit,
        and if any previously transmitted less than full-sized
        packet has not yet been acknowledged, do not transmit
        a packet."

   and in pseudo-code:

        if (packet.size < Eff.snd.MSS) {
                if (snd.sml > snd.una)) {
                        do not send the packet;
                } else {
                        snd.sml = snd.nxt+packet.size;
                        send the packet;

   In other words, when running Nagle, only look at the recent
   transmission (and acknowledgement) of small packets (rather than
   all packets, as in the current Nagle).

   (In writing the above, I am aware that TCP acknowledges bytes, not
   packets.  However, expressing the algorithm in terms of packets
   seems to make the explanation a bit clearer.)

Implementing Nagle at Send

   The above description of the current Nagle algorithm and of the
   proposed modification assumes that the Nagle algorithm is being
   implemented just as TCP is about to hand a packet to IP to be
   transmitted, i.e., the algorithm is looking at the sizes of the
   packets it transmits.

   In reality, many TCPs essentially implement Nagle at the interface
   where applications present data to TCP to be transmitted (i.e., in
   the call to ``SEND'', as defined in section 3.8 of the TCP
   specification [RFC793]).  The motivation for this is to not
   penalize applications that provide data to TCP in large chunks
   (ideally a multiple of Eff.snd.MSS).

   This allows a single application send to be broken into zero or
   more full-sized packets, possibly followed by one small packet,
   without forcing any delay on the trailing small packet.  For
   example, one implementation with which the author is familiar first
   captures the boolean ``snd.nxt > snd.una'' in a temporary variable

        busy = (snd.nxt > snd.una);

   then goes into a loop transmitting packets out of the data which
   has been presented to TCP by the application; the loop contains the
   following code to implement the current Nagle algorithm:

        if ((packet.size < Eff.snd.MSS) && busy) {
                do not send the packet;

   Since ``busy'' is a constant in the loop transmitting packets, a
   trailing small packet will be transmitted (after zero or more large
   packets transmitted by the same call to send) if the connection had
   no outstanding data at the time the application presented data to
   TCP for transmission (assuming the TCP window allows this).

   To implement the modified Nagle algorithm in such a system, we
   replace snd.sml with two variables: ``snd.sml.add'' is a TCP
   variable which names the last byte presented to TCP by the
   application with a ``small'' send (i.e., the application called
   SEND with fewer than Eff.snd.MSS bytes of data); and
   ``snd.sml.snt'' is a TCP variable which names the highest value of
   snd.sml.add which has, in fact, been transmitted.  The send routine
   contains the following code:

        if (byte.count < Eff.snd.MSS) {
                snd.sml.add = snd.una + snd.bytes.queued;

   (where ``snd.bytes.queued'' is the number of bytes queued for
   transmission, and has already been updated with ``byte.count'', the
   number of bytes being presented to TCP in this call to SEND).

   The loop that transmits packets contains the following code:

        if (packet.size < Eff.snd.MSS) {
                if ( > snd.una) {
                        do not send the packet;
                } else {
                        if ((snd.nxt + packet.size) <= {
                        send the packet;

   (In most implementations, the most deeply nested ``if'' statement
   above is unnecessary, as a small-sized packet will contain all the
   data available to be transmitted, and so will include, or be
   beyond,  In this case, the modified Nagle algorithm
   adds one test, one addition, and one assignment in the send
   routine, and one assignment in the output routine.)

A Failure Mode

   If an application sends a large amount of data, followed by a small
   amount of data, followed by a large amount of data, the current
   Nagle algorithm would perform better than the proposed
   modification.  The current Nagle algorithm would send at most one
   small packet (possibly the last packet), delaying the middle
   (small) amount of data which would allow the application to send
   the following large amount of data; the modified Nagle algorithm
   would send as many as two small packets (the middle packet, plus
   possibly a last packet).

A separate, but desirable, system facility

   In addition to the Nagle algorithm (or the modification proposed by
   this draft), it would be desirable for a system providing TCP
   service to applications to allow the application to set TCP into a
   mode in which the TCP would only transmit small packets at the
   explicit direction of the application.  For example, a system based
   on BSD might implement a socket option (using setsockopt(2))
   SO_EXPLICITPUSH, as well as a flag to sendto(2) (possibly
   overloading the semantics of an existing flag, such as MSG_EOF).

   In this scenario, an application would set a socket into
   SO_EXPLICITPUSH mode, then enter a mode of writing data to the
   socket and, at the last write, using send(2) with the MSG_EOF flag.
   The underlying TCP would recognize the MSG_EOF flag as an indicator
   to transmit the (possibly) small packet.

   Like the proposed modification to the Nagle algorithm, this is
   fairly simple to implement.

   If a system were to implement this interface, it would be important
   to NOT disable Nagle when using this interface.  In other words,
   when using this interface, the default mode for TCP would be to NOT
   transmit a small packet (even in the presence of MSG_EOF) if a
   previously transmitted small packet was as yet unacknowledged.

   Note, also, that implementing this interface does not eliminate the
   desirability of using the modification of the Nagle as the default
   for applications.  More sophisticated networking applications might
   well use the new interface, but naive applications will often be
   adequately served by the modified Nagle algorithm.

Application scenarios that will not be helped by this modification

   The proposed modification helps applications which do not need to
   transmit more than one small packet in a single round-trip time.
   This characterizes one way file transfer applications (such as FTP
   [RFC959]) and request/response protocols (such as NNTP [RFC977] and
   HTTP [RFC2068] without pipelining).

   However, applications that need to transmit more than one small
   packet in a single round-trip time are not served by this
   modification.  An example of such an application is HTTP [RFC2068]
   using ``pipelining'', in which multiple requests (responses) are
   transmitted asynchronously.

   Applications needing to transmit more than one small packet in a
   single round-trip time will need other mechanisms to satisfy their
   requirements.  (One possible such mechanism would be to use more
   than one TCP connection.)

   If an application developer is considering disabling the Nagle
   algorithm, they should be very careful to ensure that their
   application will generally provide data to TCP in chunks larger
   than two full-sized segments (> 2*Eff.snd.MSS), and they should
   verify after their development that this is, in fact, true.  With
   Nagle disabled, many writes of small blocks of data can add
   significant load to the network, reducing the network's performance.


   Jim Gettys, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, Jeff Mogul, and Yasushi Saito,
   as well as a message forwarded to the end2end-interest list by Sean
   Doran, have motivated my current interest in the Nagle algorithm.
   John Heidemann's work related to the Nagle algorithm has informed
   some of the thinking in this draft; discussions with John have also
   been helpful.  Members of the End-to-End Research Group (under
   the direction of Bob Braden) patiently listened to my discussion of
   the current state of the Nagle algorithm and to the modifications
   proposed in this document.

   Members of the TCP implementors mailing list
   <> have been very helpful in refining this
   proposal.  In particular, Rick Jones, Neal Cardwell, Vernon
   Schryver, Bernie Volz, Sam Manthorpe, Art Shelest, David Borman,
   Kacheong Poon, Jon Snader, Eric Hall, Joe Touch, and Alan Cox.

Security Considerations

   The Nagle algorithm does not have major security consequences.

   Implementation of this algorithm should not negatively impact
   the performance of the internet.  The negative impact of
   implementation of this algorithm should be significantly less
   than disabling the Nagle algorithm.

Appendix -- Sample application code

   The following code is provided to give application developers a
   model for buffering.  We assume a BSD-style sockets API.

        #include <stdio.h>
        #include <stdlib.h>
        #include <sys/types.h>
        #include <sys/socket.h>
        #include <netinet/in.h>
        #include <netinet/tcp.h>

        #define SNDBUF_MULT 3     /* * 2 * TCP_MAXSEG -> SO_SNDBUF */

         * Given a connected socket (s), configure the socket
         * with good buffer size defaults, and return the
         * the size the application should use for issuing
         * writes to the socket.
         * Returns size to use for application buffering, or
         * zero (0) on error.
        getbufsize(int s)
                unsigned long bufsize, parm;
                int buflen;

                buflen = sizeof bufsize;
                if (getsockopt(s, IPPROTO_TCP, TCP_MAXSEG,
                                        &bufsize, &buflen) == -1) {
                        return 0;

                /* Set socket transmit buffer */
                parm = 2*SNDBUF_MULT*bufsize;
                if (setsockopt(s, SOL_SOCKET, SO_SNDBUF,
                                        &parm, sizeof parm) == -1) {
                        return 0;

                /* Now, set socket low water threshhold */
                parm = 2*bufsize;
                if (setsockopt(s, SOL_SOCKET, SO_SNDLOWAT,
                                        &parm, sizeof parm) == -1) {
                        return 0;

                return 2*bufsize;

        main(int argc, char *argv[])
                char *buffer = 0;
                int buflen;
                int sock;

                 * ... allocate a socket (sock) and get it connected
                 * via either connect(2) or listen(2)/accept(2).

                buflen = getbufsize(sock);
                if (buflen == 0) {
                        fprintf(stderr, "aborting\n");

                buffer = malloc(buflen);
                if (buffer == 0) {
                                "no room for buffer of size %d\n",

                 * ... loop generating ``buflen'' data in buffer
                 * and using send(2) to hand it to TCP.
                 * When there is no more data to send, call
                 * send(2) one last time with <= ``buflen''
                 * bytes.

                return 0;


[RFC793]        Postel, J. (ed), "Transmission Control Protocol",
[RFC854]        Postel, J., J. Reynolds, "Telnet Protocol
                        Specification", May-1983.
[RFC959]        Postel, J., J. Reynolds, "File Transfer Protocol
                        (FTP)", Oct-1985.
[RFC977]        Kantor, B., P. Lapsley, "Network News Transfer
                        Protocol", Feb-1986.
[RFC896]        Nagle, J., "Congestion control in IP/TCP internetworks",
[RFC1122]       Braden, R. T., "Requirements for Internet hosts -
                        communication layers", Oct-01-1989.
[RFC2068]       Fielding, R., J. Gettys, J. Mogul, H. Frystyk,
                        T. Berners-Lee, "Hypertext Transfer Protocol
                        -- HTTP/1.1".

Author's Address

   Greg Minshall
   Siara Systems
   300 Ferguson Drive, 2nd floor
   Mountain View, CA  94043