TCP Connection Establishment

As you read this section, be able to describe the three-way handshake used by TCP to establish a connection.

4.3.1 TCP connection establishment

A TCP connection is established by using a three-way handshake. The connection establishment phase uses the sequence number, the acknowledgment number and the SYN flag. When a TCP connection is established, the two communicating hosts negotiate the initial sequence number to be used in both directions of the connection. For this, each TCP entity maintains a 32 bits counter, which is supposed to be incremented by one at least every 4 microseconds and after each connection establishment. When a client host wants to open a TCP connection with a server host, it creates a TCP segment with:

  • the SYN flag set
  • the sequence number set to the current value of the 32 bits counter of the client host’s TCP entity

Figure 4.37: Utilization of the TCP source and destination ports

Upon reception of this segment (which is often called a SYN segment), the server host replies with a segment containing:

  • the SYN flag set
  • the sequence number set to the current value of the 32 bits counter of the server host’s TCP entity
  • the ACK flag set
  • the acknowledgment number set to the sequence number of the received SYN segment incremented by 1 ( mod 232 ). When a TCP entity sends a segment having x+1 as acknowledgment number, this indicates that it has received all data up to and including sequence number x and that it is expecting data having sequence number x+1. As the SYN flag was set in a segment having sequence number x, this implies that setting the SYN flag in a segment consumes one sequence number.

This segment is often called a SYN+ACK segment. The acknowledgment confirms to the client that the server has correctly received the SYN segment. The sequence number of the SYN+ACK segment is used by the server host to verify that the client has received the segment. Upon reception of the SYN+ACK segment, the client host replies with a segment containing:

  • the ACK flag set
  • the acknowledgment number set to the sequence number of the received SYN+ACK segment incremented by 1 ( mod 232 )

At this point, the TCP connection is open and both the client and the server are allowed to send TCP segments containing data. This is illustrated in the figure below.

In the figure above, the connection is considered to be established by the client once it has received the SYN+ACK segment, while the server considers the connection to be established upon reception of the ACK segment. The first data segment sent by the client (server) has its sequence number set to x+1 (resp. y+1).

Note: Computing TCP’s initial sequence number

In the original TCP specification RFC 793, each TCP entity maintained a clock to compute the initial sequence number (ISN) placed in the SYN and SYN+ACK segments. This made the ISN predictable and caused a security issue. The typical security problem was the following. Consider a server that trusts a host based on its IP address

Figure 4.38: Establishment of a TCP connection

and allows the system administrator to login from this host without giving a password 12. Consider now an attacker who knows this particular configuration and is able to send IP packets having the client’s address as source. He can send fake TCP segments to the server, but does not receive the server’s answers. If he can predict the ISN that is chosen by the server, he can send a fake SYN segment and shortly after the fake ACK segment confirming the reception of the SYN+ACK segment sent by the server. Once the TCP connection is open, he can use it to send any command to the server. To counter this attack, current TCP implementations add randomness to the ISN. One of the solutions, proposed in RFC 1948 is to compute the ISN as

ISN = M + H(localhost, localport, remotehost, remoteport, secret).

where M is the current value of the TCP clock and H‘is a cryptographic hash function. ‘localhost and remotehost (resp. localport and remoteport ) are the IP addresses (port numbers) of the local and remote host and secret is a random number only known by the server. This method allows the server to use different ISNs for different clients at the same time. Measurements performed with the first implementations of this technique showed that it was difficult to implement it correctly, but today’s TCP implementation now generate good ISNs.

A server could, of course, refuse to open a TCP connection upon reception of a SYN segment. This refusal may be due to various reasons. There may be no server process that is listening on the destination port of the SYN segment. The server could always refuse connection establishments from this particular client (e.g. due to security reasons) or the server may not have enough resources to accept a new TCP connection at that time. In this case, the server would reply with a TCP segment having its RST flag set and containing the sequence number of the received SYN segment as its acknowledgment number. This is illustrated in the figure below. We discuss the other utilizations of the TCP RST flag later (see TCP connection release).

Figure 4.39: TCP connection establishment rejected by peer

TCP connection establishment can be described as the four state Finite State Machine shown below. In this FSM, !X (resp.?Y) indicates the transmission of segment X (resp. reception of segment Y ) during the corresponding transition. Init is the initial state.

A client host starts in the Init state. It then sends a SYN segment and enters the SYN Sent state where it waits for a SYN+ACK segment. Then, it replies with an ACK segment and enters the Established state where data can be exchanged. On the other hand, a server host starts in the Init state. When a server process starts to listen to a destination port, the underlying TCP entity creates a TCP control block and a queue to process incoming SYN segments. Upon reception of a SYN segment, the server’s TCP entity replies with a SYN+ACK and enters the SYN RCVD state. It remains in this state until it receives an ACK segment that acknowledges its SYN+ACK segment, with this it then enters the Established state.

Figure 4.40: TCP FSM for connection establishment

Apart from these two paths in the TCP connection establishment FSM, there is a third path that corresponds to the case when both the client and the server send a SYN segment to open a TCP connection 13. In this case, the client and the server send a SYN segment and enter the SYN Sent state. Upon reception of the SYN segment sent by the other host, they reply by sending a SYN+ACK segment and enter the SYN RCVD state. The SYN+ACK that arrives from the other host allows it to transition to the Established state. The figure below illustrates such a simultaneous establishment of a TCP connection.

Figure 4.41: Simultaneous establishment of a TCP connection

Denial of Service attacks

When a TCP entity opens a TCP connection, it creates a Transmission Control Block (TCB). The TCB contains the entire state that is maintained by the TCP entity for each TCP connection. During connection establishment, the TCB contains the local IP address, the remote IP address, the local port number, the remote port number, the current local sequence number, the last sequence number received from the remote entity. Until the mid 1990s, TCP implementations had a limit on the number of TCP connections that could be in the SYN RCVD state at a given time. Many implementations set this limit to about 100 TCBs. This limit was considered sufficient even for heavily load http servers given the small delay between the reception of a SYN segment and the reception of the ACK segment that terminates the establishment of the TCP connection. When the limit of 100 TCBs in the SYN Rcvd state is reached, the TCP entity discards all received TCP SYN segments that do not correspond to an existing TCB.

This limit of 100 TCBs in the SYN Rcvd state was chosen to protect the TCP entity from the risk of overload- ing its memory with too many TCBs in the SYN Rcvd state. However, it was also the reason for a new type of Denial of Service (DoS) attack RFC 4987. A DoS attack is defined as an attack where an attacker can render a resource unavailable in the network. For example, an attacker may cause a DoS attack on a 2 Mbps link used by a company by sending more than 2 Mbps of packets through this link. In this case, the DoS attack was more subtle. As a TCP entity discards all received SYN segments as soon as it has 100 TCBs in the SYN Rcvd state, an attacker simply had to send a few 100 SYN segments every second to a server and never reply to the received SYN+ACK segments. To avoid being caught, attackers were of course sending these SYN segments with a different address than their own IP address a. On most TCP implementations, once a TCB entered the SYN Rcvd state, it remained in this state for several seconds, waiting for a retransmission of the initial SYN segment. This attack was later called a SYN flood attack and the servers of the ISP named panix were among the first to be affected by this attack.

To avoid the SYN flood attacks, recent TCP implementations no longer enter the SYN Rcvd state upon recep- tion of a SYN segment. Instead, they reply directly with a SYN+ACK segment and wait until the reception of a valid ACK. This implementation trick is only possible if the TCP implementation is able to verify that the received ACK segment acknowledges the SYN+ACK segment sent earlier without storing the initial se- quence number of this SYN+ACK segment in a TCB. The solution to solve this problem, which is known as SYN cookies is to compute the 32 bits of the ISN as follows:

  • the high order bits contain the low order bits of a counter that is incremented slowly
  • the low order bits contain a hash value computed over the local and remote IP addresses and ports and a random secret only known to the server

The advantage of the SYN cookies is that by using them, the server does not need to create a TCB upon reception of the SYN segment and can still check the returned ACK segment by recomputing the SYN cookie.

Retransmitting the first SYN segment

As IP provides an unreliable connectionless service, the SYN and SYN+ACK segments sent to open a TCP connection could be lost. Current TCP implementations start a retransmission timer when they send the first SYN segment. This timer is often set to three seconds for the first retransmission and then doubles after each retransmission RFC 2988. TCP implementations also enforce a maximum number of retransmissions for the initial SYN segment.

As explained earlier, TCP segments may contain an optional header extension. In the SYN and SYN+ACK seg- ments, these options are used to negotiate some parameters and the utilisation of extensions to the basic TCP specification.

The first parameter which is negotiated during the establishment of a TCP connection is the Maximum Segment Size (MSS). The MSS is the size of the largest segment that a TCP entity is able to process. According to RFC  879, all TCP implementations must be able to receive TCP segments containing 536 bytes of payload. However, most TCP implementations are able to process larger segments. Such TCP implementations use the TCP MSS Option in the SYN/SYN+ACK segment to indicate the largest segment they are able to process. The MSS value indicates the maximum size of the payload of the TCP segments. The client (resp. server) stores in its TCB the MSS value announced by the server (resp. the client).Another utilisation of TCP options during connection establishment is to enable TCP extensions. For example, consider RFC 1323 (which is discussed in TCP reliable data transfer). RFC 1323 defines TCP extensions to support timestamps and larger windows. If the client supports RFC 1323, it adds a RFC 1323 option to its SYN segment. If the server understands this RFC 1323 option and wishes to use it, it replies with an RFC 1323 option in the SYN+ACK segment and the extension defined in RFC 1323 is used throughout the TCP connection. Otherwise, if the server’s SYN+ACK does not contain the RFC 1323 option, the client is not allowed to use this extension and the corresponding TCP header options throughout the TCP connection. TCP’s option mechanism is flexible and it allows the extension of TCP while maintaining compatibility with older implementations.

The TCP options are encoded by using a Type Length Value format where:

  • the first byte indicates the type of the option.
  • the second byte indicates the total length of the option (including the first two bytes) in bytes
  • the last bytes are specific for each type of option

RFC 793 defines the Maximum Segment Size (MSS) TCP option that must be understood by all TCP implemen- tations. This option (type 2) has a length of 4 bytes and contains a 16 bits word that indicates the MSS supported by the sender of the SYN segment. The MSS option can only be used in TCP segments having the SYN flag set.

RFC 793 also defines two special options that must be supported by all TCP implementations. The first option is End of option. It is encoded as a single byte having value 0x00 and can be used to ensure that the TCP header extension ends on a 32 bits boundary. The No-Operation option, encoded as a single byte having value 0x01, can be used when the TCP header extension contains several TCP options that should be aligned on 32 bit boundaries. All other options 14 are encoded by using the TLV format.

Note: The robustness principle

The handling of the TCP options by TCP implementations is one of the many applications of the robustness principle which is usually attributed to Jon Postel and is often quoted as “Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send” RFC 1122

Concerning the TCP options, the robustness principle implies that a TCP implementation should be able to accept TCP options that it does not understand, in particular in received SYN segments, and that it should be able to parse any received segment without crashing, even if the segment contains an unknown TCP option. Furthermore, a server should not send in the SYN+ACK segment or later, options that have not been proposed by the client in the SYN segment.

Source: Olivier Bonaventure,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2020, 9:12 PM