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Congestion control
In an internetwork, i.e. a networking composed of different types of networks (such as the Internet), congestion control could be implemented either in the network layer or the transport layer. The congestion problem was clearly identified in the later 1980s and the researchers who developed techniques to solve the problem opted for a solution in the transport layer. Adding congestion control to the transport layer makes sense since this layer provides a reliable data transfer and avoiding congestion is a factor in this reliable delivery. The transport layer already deals with heterogeneous networks thanks to its `self-clocking` property that we have already described. In this section, we explain how congestion control has been added to TCP and how this mechanism could be improved in the future.
The TCP congestion control scheme was initially proposed by `Van Jacobson`_ in [Jacobson1988]_. The current specification may be found in :rfc:`5681`. TCP relies on `Additive Increase and Multiplicative Decrease (AIMD)`. To implement :term:`AIMD`, a TCP host must be able to control its transmission rate. A first approach would be to use timers and adjust their expiration times in function of the rate imposed by :term:`AIMD`. Unfortunately, maintaining such timers for a large number of TCP connections can be difficult. Instead, `Van Jacobson`_ noted that the rate of TCP congestion can be artificially controlled by constraining its sending window. A TCP connection cannot send data faster than :math:`\frac{window}{rtt}` where :math:`window` is the maximum between the host's sending window and the window advertised by the receiver.
TCP's congestion control scheme is based on a `congestion window`. The current value of the congestion window (`cwnd`) is stored in the TCB of each TCP connection and the window that can be used by the sender is constrained by :math:`\min(cwnd,rwin,swin)` where :math:`swin` is the current sending window and :math:`rwin` the last received receive window. The `Additive Increase` part of the TCP congestion control increments the congestion window by :term:`MSS` bytes every round-trip-time. In the TCP literature, this phase is often called the `congestion avoidance` phase. The `Multiplicative Decrease` part of the TCP congestion control divides the current value of the congestion window once congestion has been detected.
When a TCP connection begins, the sending host does not know whether the part of the network that it uses to reach the destination is congested or not. To avoid causing too much congestion, it must start with a small congestion window. [Jacobson1988]_ recommends an initial window of MSS bytes. As the additive increase part of the TCP congestion control scheme increments the congestion window by MSS bytes every round-trip-time, the TCP connection may have to wait many round-trip-times before being able to efficiently use the available bandwidth. This is especially important in environments where the :math:`bandwidth \times rtt` product is high. To avoid waiting too many round-trip-times before reaching a congestion window that is large enough to efficiently utilize the network, the TCP congestion control scheme includes the `slow-start` algorithm. The objective of the TCP `slow-start` phase is to quickly reach an acceptable value for the `cwnd`. During `slow-start`, the congestion window is doubled every round-trip-time. The `slow-start` algorithm uses an additional variable in the TCB : `ssthresh` (`slow-start threshold`). The `ssthresh` is an estimation of the last value of the `cwnd` that did not cause congestion. It is initialized at the sending window and is updated after each congestion event.
A key question that must be answered by any congestion control scheme is how congestion is detected. The first implementations of the TCP congestion control scheme opted for a simple and pragmatic approach : packet losses indicate congestion. If the network is congested, router buffers are full and packets are discarded. In wired networks, packet losses are mainly caused by congestion. In wireless networks, packets can be lost due to transmission errors and for other reasons that are independent of congestion. TCP already detects segment losses to ensure a reliable delivery. The TCP congestion control scheme distinguishes between two types of congestion :
`mild congestion`. TCP considers that the network is lightly congested if it receives three duplicate acknowledgments and performs a fast retransmit. If the fast retransmit is successful, this implies that only one segment has been lost. In this case, TCP performs multiplicative decrease and the congestion window is divided by `2`. The slow-start threshold is set to the new value of the congestion window.
`severe congestion`. TCP considers that the network is severely congested when its retransmission timer expires. In this case, TCP retransmits the first segment, sets the slow-start threshold to 50% of the congestion window. The congestion window is reset to its initial value and TCP performs a slow-start.
The figure below illustrates the evolution of the congestion window when there is severe congestion. At the beginning of the connection, the sender performs `slow-start` until the first segments are lost and the retransmission timer expires. At this time, the `ssthresh` is set to half of the current congestion window and the congestion window is reset at one segment. The lost segments are retransmitted as the sender again performs slow-start until the congestion window reaches the `sshtresh`. It then switches to congestion avoidance and the congestion window increases linearly until segments are lost and the retransmission timer expires.
Evaluation of the TCP congestion window with severe congestion
The figure below illustrates the evolution of the congestion window when the network is lightly congested and all lost segments can be retransmitted using fast retransmit. The sender begins with a slow-start. A segment is lost but successfully retransmitted by a fast retransmit. The congestion window is divided by 2 and the sender immediately enters congestion avoidance as this was a mild congestion.
Evaluation of the TCP congestion window when the network is lightly congested
Most TCP implementations update the congestion window when they receive an acknowledgment. If we assume that the receiver acknowledges each received segment and the sender only sends MSS sized segments, the TCP congestion control scheme can be implemented using the simplified pseudo-code [#fwrap]_ below. This pseudocode includes the optimization proposed in :rfc:`3042` that allows a sender to send new unsent data upon reception of the first or second duplicate acknowledgment. The reception of each of these acknowledgment indicates that one segment has left the network and thus additional data can be sent without causing more congestion. Note that the congestion window is *not* increased upon reception of these first duplicate acknowledgments.
Furthermore when a TCP connection has been idle for more than its current retransmission timer, it should reset its congestion window to the congestion window size that it uses when the connection begins, as it no longer knows the current congestion state of the network.
Initial congestion window
The original TCP congestion control mechanism proposed in [Jacobson1988]_ recommended that each TCP connection should begin by setting :math:`cwnd=MSS`. However, in today's higher bandwidth networks, using such a small initial congestion window severely affects the performance for short TCP connections, such as those used by web servers. In 2002, :rfc:`3390` allowed an initial congestion window of about 4 KBytes, which corresponds to 3 segments in many environments. Recently, researchers from Google proposed to further increase the initial window up to 15 KBytes [DRC+2010]_. The measurements that they collected show that this increase would not significantly increase congestion but would significantly reduce the latency of short HTTP responses. Unsurprisingly, the chosen initial window corresponds to the average size of an HTTP response from a search engine. This proposed modification has been adopted in :rfc:`6928` and TCP implementations support it.
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