Reworking the TCP/IP stack for use on embedded IoT devices

Christian Legare, Micrium

April 12, 2014

Christian Legare, MicriumApril 12, 2014

Developers often believe that since a communication protocol stack is called a TCP/IP stack, porting it to an embedded target provides the target with all TCP/IP functionalities and performance. This is far from true.

A TCP/IP stack requires such resources as sockets and buffers to achieve its goal. These resources, however, consume RAM--a scarce resource on an embedded target. Deprived of sufficient resources, a TCP/IP stack will not work better than a RS-232 connection.

When performance is not an issue and the primary requirements are connectivity and functionality, implementing TCP/IP on a target with scarce resources (RAM and CPU) is an option. Today, however, when an Ethernet port is available on a device, expectations are that performance will be in the order of Megabits per second. This is achievable on small embedded devices, although certain design rules need to be observed.

By using a Transport Control Protocol (TCP) example, this article demonstrates design rules to be considered when porting a TCP/IP stack to an embedded device.

Network buffers
A TCP/IP stack places received packets in network buffers to be processed by the upper protocol layers and also places data to send in network buffers for transmission. Network buffers are data structure defined in RAM.

A buffer contains a header portion used by the protocol stack. This header provides information regarding the contents of the buffer. The data portion contains data that has either been received by the Network Interface Card (NIC) and thus will be processed by the stack, or data that is destined for transmission by the NIC.

Figure 1 – Network buffer

The data portion of the network buffer contains the protocol data and protocol headers. For example:

Figure 2 – Encapsulation process

The maximum network buffer size is determined by the maximum size of the data that can be transported by the networking technology used. Today, Ethernet is the ubiquitous networking technology used for Local Area Networks (LANs).

Originally, Ethernet standards defined the maximum frame size as 1518 bytes. Removing the Ethernet, IP and TCP encapsulation data, this leaves a maximum of 1460 bytes for the TCP segment. A segment is the data structure used to encapsulate TCP data. Carrying an Ethernet frame in one of the TCP/IP stack network buffers requires network buffers of approximately 1600 bytes each. The difference between the Ethernet maximum frame size and the network buffer size is the space required for the network buffer metadata.

It is possible to use smaller Network buffers. For example, if the application is not streaming multimedia data but rather transferring small sensor data periodically, it is possible to use smaller network buffers than the maximum allowed.

TCP segment size is negotiated between the two devices that are establishing a logical connection. It is known as the Maximum Segment Size (MSS). An embedded system could take advantage of this protocol capability. On an embedded target with 32K RAM, when you account for the all the middleware RAM usage, there is not much left for network buffers!

Network operations
Many networking operations affect system performance. For example, network buffers are not released as soon as their task is completed. Within the TCP acknowledgment process, a TCP segment is kept until its reception is acknowledged by the receiving device. If it is not acknowledged within a certain timeframe, the segment is retransmitted and kept again.

If a system has a limited number of network buffers, network congestion (packets being dropped) will affect the usage of these buffers and the total system performance. When all the network buffers are assigned to packets (being transmitted, retransmitted or acknowledging received packets), the TCP/IP stack will slow down while it waits for available resources before resuming a specific function.

The advantage of defining smaller network buffers is that more buffers exist that allow TCP (and UDP) to have more protocol exchanges between the two devices. This is ideal for applications where the information exchanged be in smaller packets such as a data logging device sending periodic sensor data.

A disadvantage is that each packet carries less data. For streaming applications, this is less than desirable. HTTP, FTP and other such protocols will not perform well with this configuration model.

Ultimately, if there is insufficient RAM to define a few network buffers, the TCP/IP stack will crawl.

TCP Performance
Windowing. TCP has a flow control mechanism called Windowing that is used for Transmit and Receive. A field in the TCP header is used for the Windowing mechanism so that:
  1. The Window field indicates the quantity of information (in terms of bytes) that the recipient is able to accept. This enables TCP to control the flow of data.
  2. Data receiving capacity is related to memory and to the hardware’s processing capacity (network buffers).
  3. The maximum size of the window is 65,535 bytes (a 16-bit field).
  4. A value of 0 (zero) halts the transmission.
  5. The source host sends a series of bytes to the destination host.

Figure 3 – TCP Windowing

Within Figure 3, the following occurs:
  1. Bytes 1 through 512 have been transmitted (and pushed to the application using the TCP PSH flag) and have been acknowledged by the destination host.
  2. The window is 2,048 bytes long.
  3. Bytes 513 through 1,536 have been transmitted but have not been acknowledged.
  4. Bytes 1,537 through 2,560 can be transmitted immediately.
  5. Once an acknowledgement is received for bytes 513 through 1,536, the window will move 1,024 bytes to the right, and bytes 2,561 through 3,584 may then be sent.

On an embedded device, the window size should be configured in terms of the network buffers available. For example, with an embedded device that has eight network buffers with an MSS of 1460, let’s reserve 4 buffers for transmission and 4 buffers for reception. Transmit and receive window sizes will be 4 times 1460 (4 * 1460 = 5840 bytes).

On every packet receive, TCP decreases the Receive Window size by 1460 and advertise the newly calculated Receive Window Size to the transmitting device. Once the stack has processed the packet, the Receive Window Size will be increased by 1460, the network buffer will be released and the Receive Window Size will be advertised with the next packet transmitted.

Typically, the network can transport packets faster than the embedded target can process them. If the Receiving device has received four packets without being able to process them, the Receive Window Size will be decreased to zero. A zero Receive Window Size advertised to the Transmitting device tells that device to stop transmitting until the Receiving device is able to process and free at least one network buffer. On the transmit side, the stack will stop if network buffers are not available. Depending how the stack is designed/configured, the transmitting function will retry, time-out or exit (Blocking/Non-blocking sockets).

UDP does not have such a mechanism. If there are insufficient network buffers to receive the transmitted data, packets are dropped. The Application needs to handle these situations.

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