Structured Data Over Stream Sockets

This article discusses several methods for exchanging structured messages over stream-based TCP sockets.

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The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is called a stream-oriented protocol because data is exchanged between the client and server as a stream of bytes. While TCP will guarantee that the data will arrive intact, with the bytes received in the same order that they were written, there is no guarantee that the amount of data received in a single read operation on the socket will match the amount of data written by the remote host.

For example, consider a server that sends data to a client in four separate operations, each containing 1024 bytes of data. While it is convenient to think of these as discrete blocks of data, TCP considers it to be a stream of 4096 bytes. The client may receive that data in a single read on the socket, returning all 4096 bytes. Alternatively, it may read the socket, and only receive the first 1460 bytes; subsequent reads may return another 1460 bytes, followed by the remaining 1176 bytes. Applications which make assumptions about the amount of data they can read or write in a single operation may work in some environments, such as on a local network, but fail on slower connections.

A general rule to use when designing an application using TCP is to consider how the program would handle the situation where reading n bytes of data only returns a single byte. If the application can correctly handle this kind of extreme case, then it should function correctly even under adverse network conditions.

In some situations it may be desirable to design the application to exchange information as discrete messages or blocks of data. While this isn’t directly supported by TCP, it can be implemented on top of the data stream. There are several methods that can be used to accomplish this, depending on the requirements of the application:

  1. Exchange the data as fixed length structures. This is the simplest approach, and has very little or no overhead. The client and server can either use predefined values, or negotiate the size of the data structures when the connection is established.
  2. Prefix variable-length data structures with the number of bytes being sent. The length value could expressed either as a native integer value, or as a fixed-length string that is converted to a numeric value by the application. This allows the receiver t read this fixed length value, and then use that value to determine how many additional bytes must be read to obtain the complete message or data structure.
  3. Prefix the data with a unique byte or byte sequence that would normally not be found in the data stream. This would be followed by the data itself, with a complete message received when another unique byte sequence is encountered. Alternatively, a unique byte sequence could be used to terminate a message. This is the approach that many Internet application protocols use, such as FTP, SMTP and POP3. Commands are sent as one or more printable characters, terminated with a carriage-return (CR) and linefeed (LF) byte sequence that tells the remote host that a complete command has been received.
  4. A combination of the above methods, using unique byte sequences, the message length and even additional information such as a CRC-32 checksum or MD5 hash to validate the integrity of the data. This would effectively create an “envelope” around the data being exchanged, and additional checks could be made to ensure that the data has been received and processed correctly.

Regardless of the method used, for best performance it is recommended that the application buffer the data received and then process the data out of that buffer. When using asynchronous (non-blocking) sockets, the application should read all of the data available on the socket, typically in a loop which adds the data to the buffer and exiting the loop when there is no more data available at that time. An example of how this can be implemented is demonstrated with the AsyncIO sample program that is included with the SocketWrench component.