Networking Primer – Part 2: Defining Networking with OSI and TCP/IP Suite

Previous: Networking Primer – Part 1: Introduction

What is a network?

This may sound like a very basic question, but I’ll assume the lowest common denominator here and define this briefly.

A network is set of two or more computing entities (nodes) that are configured to communicate with each other by passing information across an interconnecting media.

Ok, now we got that out of the way, we can talk about how exactly those nodes communicate with each other in a way that makes sense and achieves our objective of passing information between them.

A Little History

It is easy to imagine how the first baby steps of networking which occurred in the mid-20th century. As with all technology we start with the simplest goal and see how we can use what tools we available to use to achieve that goal. I’m not going to go into sending signals down telegraph wires, etc. but we can assume that the first step was to send a simple signal across a wire between to locally sited computers. Beyond this, more milestones were surpassed to enable us to send over greater distances and with more complex topologies. This resulted in the creation of a number of protocols, which specified things like how two nodes would set up a communication session and what format the data sent should be in. As technologies are researched, more often than not they diverge into multiple streams of activity with different camps developing different ideas on how to progress. This ultimately results in a bunch of disparate and non-compatible technologies.  Whereas in other areas this might be palatable, workable and have little impact.. clearly in networking this is not viable. The whole point of networking is that the entities involved can speak the same language.  There must be standardisation and the first and overarching grandfather of network standardised is the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model.

The OSI model

The OSI model is a set of specifications, rules, guidelines, instructions and protocols that describe how networking should work. It is important to understand how this is used today. As you might guess from the above description, the model is large, complex and in some ways all encompassing. Back in the early 80′s and 90′s many companies implemented technologies that strictly adhered to the OSI standards. In fact, I worked directly with one of those related to email messaging (the X.400 protocol suite) in a previous role.  The OSI specifications are quite complex and difficult to implement. It takes a lot of specialist knowledge and effort and as a result the detailed elements of the model were soon ditched in favour of more agile standards which could be delivered quickly with ease. For example, SMTP is now the defacto standard for email messaging and X.400 is only used in some specialist areas in the military and other area. (Read more about SMTP for military email here:  Command Email Whitepaper).

That being said, the OSI model is still widely used today. Although the detailed implementations have been ditched, the model is used at a conceptual level in day to day networking conversations. It breaks down the elements of network communication into seven logical layers, and by understanding these it is very easy for network engineers to gain a common frame of reference to quickly isolate the crux of an issue during a discussion.

The Seven OSI Layers

The seven layers of the OSI model are as follows:

OSI Stack

As we can see these are stacked one on top of another, which is why we commonly refer to the multiple layers as a “network stack”.  All of the nodes in a network will have similar stacks.  A common method to aide in remembering the (Application, Presentation, Session, Transport, Network, Data Link and Physical) sequence of the layers is to use a mnemonic. “All People Seem To Need Data Processing” is  good example of one of these, but there are many and you could make up your own.

OSITwoNode

During a network communication, we start at the top of the stack with application level semantics and gradually process down through the layers. Through each layer we use the mechanism of encapsulation, until we reach the physical layer, which is responsible for sending the actual bits and bytes from the source node across the interconnecting media to the destination node(s). At the destination node(s) the physical bits are then pushed up through the stack using decapsulation at each layer until the destination application or service receives it’s intended information.  This can be thought of like nested Russian dolls, with a different doll representing a different layer of the stack but instead of Russian dolls, it might be easier to visualise by thinking of a envelope, within an envelope, within an envelope and so on.  Well discuss these with a practical example in upcoming blogs.

The TCP/IP Suite

I’m not going to cover the TCP/IP suite in depth, but it is worth understanding what it is and how it relates to the OSI model.

TCP/IP Suite to OSI Mapping

As we saw above, although we still use the OSI model as a conceptual frame of reference. We no longer use it’s detailed implementation specifications. The TCP/IP suite was loosely developed as an alternative to the OSI model, with a view to creating a simplified four layer model and implementation mechanism. The TCP/IP suite contains a much smaller set of protocols and is actually used in the bulk of network implementations today.  We do however need to be careful in the use of our terminology. If we’re referring to layer 4 in a discussion, it is most likely that we are talking about the Transport Layer of the OSI stack and not the Application Layer of the TCP/IP suite.

Next:  Networking Primer – Part 3: Application, Presentation and Session Layers

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