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Versions: 02 01 RFC 2075

End-To-End Research Group                                   C. Partridge
Request for Comments: DRAFT                             BBN Technologies
Category: Informational                                         Sep 1998

 ACK Spacing for High Delay-Bandwidth Paths with Insufficient Buffering

                          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
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   An argument is made that the correct way to solve buffering shortages
   in routers on high delay-bandwidth paths is for routers to space out
   the TCP acks.

   This memo presents thoughts from a discussion held at the July 1997
   meeting of the End-To-End (E2E) Research Group.  The material
   presented is a half-baked suggestion and should not be interpreted as
   an official recommendation of the Research Group.  Comments are
   solicited and should be addressed to the author.

1. Introduction

   Suppose you want TCP implementations to be able to fill a 155 Mb/s
   path.  Further suppose that the path includes a satellite in a
   geosynchronous orbit, so the round trip delay through the path is at
   least 500 ms, and the delay-bandwidth product is 9.7 megabytes or

   If we further assume the TCP implementations support TCP Large
   Windows and PAWS (many do), so they can manage 9.7 MB TCP window,
   then we can be sure the TCP will eventually start sending at full
   path rate (unless the satellite channel is very lossy).  But it may
   take a long time to get the TCP up to full speed.

   One (of several) possible causes of the delay is a shortage of
   buffering in routers.  To understand this particular problem,
   consider the following idealized behavior of TCP during slow start.
   During slow start, for every segment ACKed, the sender transmits two
   new segments.  In effect, this behavior means the sender is
   transmitting at *twice* the data rate of the segments being ACKed.
   Keep in mind the separation between ACKs represents (in an ideal
   world) the rate segments can flow through the bottleneck router in
   the path.  So the sender is bursting data at twice the bottleneck
   rate, and a queue must be forming during the burst.  In the simplest
   case, the queue is entirely at the bottleneck router, and at the end
   of the burst, the queue is storing half the data in the burst.  (Why

Partridge                                               [Page 1]

RFC DRAFT                                                       Sep 1998

   half?  During the burst, the sender transmitted at twice the
   bottleneck rate.  Suppose it takes one time unit to send a segment on
   the bottlenecked link.  During the burst the bottleneck will receive
   two segments in every time unit, but only be able to transmit one
   segment.  The result is a net of one new segment queued every time
   unit, for the life of the burst.)

   TCP will end the slow start phase in response to the first lost
   datagram.  Assuming good quality transmission links, the first lost
   datagram will be lost because the bottleneck queue overflowed.  We
   would like that loss to occur in the round-trip after the slow start
   congestion window has reached the delay-bandwidth product.  Now
   consider the buffering required in the bottleneck link during the
   next to last round trip.  The sender will send an entire delay-
   bandwidth worth of data in one-half a round-trip time (because it
   sends at twice the channel rate).   So for half the round-trip time,
   the bottleneck router is in the mode of forwarding one segment while
   receiving two. (For the second half of the round-trip, the router is
   draining its queue).  That means, to avoid losing any segments, the
   router must have buffering equal to half the delay-bandwidth product,
   or nearly 5 MB.

   Most routers do not have anywhere near 5 MB of buffering for a single
   link.  Or, to express this problem another way, because routers do
   not have this much buffering, the slow start stage will end
   prematurely, when router buffering is exhausted.  The consequence of
   ending slow start prematurely is severe.  At the end of slow start,
   TCP goes into congestion avoidance, in which the window size is
   increased much more slowly.  So even though the channel is free,
   because we did not have enough router buffering, we will transmit
   slowly for a period of time (until the more conservative congestion
   avoidance algorithm sends enough data to fill the channel).

2. What to Do?

   So how to get around the shortage of router buffering?

   One solution has been proposed, cascading TCPs.  We would like to
   suggest another solution, ACK spacing.  Both schemes involve layer
   violations because they require the router to examine the TCP header.

2.1 Cascading TCPs

   One approach is to use cascading TCPs, in which we build a custom TCP
   for the satellite (or bottleneck) link and insert it between the
   sender's and receiver's TCPs, as shown below:

Partridge                                               [Page 2]

RFC DRAFT                                                       Sep 1998

     sender ---- Ground station -- satellite -- ground station -- receiver

       +---------------+   +------------------------+  +---------------+
       | loop 1        |   |       loop 2           |  | loop 3        |
       +---------------+   +------------------------+  +---------------+

   This approach can work but is awkward.  Among its limitations are:
   the buffering problem remains (at points of bandwidth mismatches,
   queues will form); the scheme violates end-to-end semantics of TCP
   (the sender will get ACKs for data that has not and may never reach
   the receiver); it constrains the reverse path of the TCP connection
   to pass through points at which the multiple TCP connections are
   spliced together (a problem if satellite links are unidirectional);
   and it doesn't work with end-to-end encryption (i.e. if data above
   the IP layer is encrypted).

2.2 ACK Spacing

   Another approach is to find some way to spread the bursts, either by
   having the sender spread out the segments, or having the network
   arrange for the ACKs to arrive at the sender with a two segment
   spacing (or larger).

   Changing the sender is feasible, although it requires very good
   operating system timers.  But it has the disadvantage that only
   upgraded senders get the performance improvement.

   Finding a way for the network to space the ACKs would allow TCP
   senders to transmit at the right rate, without modification.
   Furthermore, it can be done by a router.  The router simply has to
   snoop the returning TCP ACKs and spread them out.  (Note that if the
   transmissions are encrypted, in many scenarios the router can still
   figure out which segments are likely TCP ACKs and spread them out).

   There are some difficult issues with this approach.  The most notable
   ones are:

      1. What algorithm to use to determine the proper ACK spacing.

      2. Related to (1), it may be necessary to known when a TCP is in
      slow-start vs. congestion-avoidance, as the desired spacing
      between ACKs is likely to be different in the two phases.

      3. What to do about assymetric routes (if anything).  The scheme
      works so long as the router sees the ACKs (it does not have to see
      the related data).  However, if the ACKs do not return through the
      ACK-spacing router, it is not possible to do ACK spacing.

Partridge                                               [Page 3]

RFC DRAFT                                                       Sep 1998

      4. How much, if at all, does ack compression between the respacing
      point and the sender undo the effects of ack spacing?

      5. How much per-flow (soft) state is required in the ACK spacing

   Despite these challenges the approach has appeal.  Changing software
   in a few routers (particularly those at likely bottleneck links) on
   high delay-bandwidth paths could give a performance boost to lots of
   TCP connections.

Security Issues

   ACK spacing introduces no new security issues.  ACK spacing does not
   change the contents of any datagram.   It simply delays some
   datagrams in transit, just as a queue might.  TCP and other higher
   layer protocols are already required to work correctly with queueing
   delays, and indeed, work correctly when encountering far more serious
   transmission errors such as damage, loss, duplication and reordering

Credit and Disclaimer

   The particular idea of ACK spacing was developed by during the
   meeting by Mark Handley and Van Jacobson in response to an issue
   raised by the author, and was inspired, in part by ideas to enhance
   wireless routers to improve TCP performance [1].

Intellectual Property Issues

   The author has learned from the IETF that parties may be attempting
   to patent schemes similar to this one.   Readers are advised to check
   with the IETF to learn of any intellectual property rights issues.


   1. H. Balakrishnan, V.N. Padmanabhan, S. Seshan and R.H. Katz, "A
   Comparison of Mechanisms for Improving TCP Performance over Wireless
   Links", Proc. ACM SIGCOMM '96, pp. 256-269.
   2. J. Postel, ed. Transmission Control Protocol RFC-793, Internet
   Requests for Comments, No. 793, September 1981, p. 4.

Partridge                                               [Page 4]

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