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Internetworking Technologies & Services
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Introduction to Internetworking


This chapter explains basic internetworking concepts. The information presented here helps readers who are new to internetworking comprehend the technical material that makes up the bulk of this publication. Sections on the Open System Interconnection (OSI) reference model, important terms and concepts, and key organizations are included.

OSI Reference Model: Introduction

Moving information between computers of diverse design is a formidable task. In the early 1980s, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recognized the need for a network model that would help vendors create interoperable network implementations. The OSI reference model, released in 1984, addresses this need.

The OSI reference model quickly became the primary architectural model for intercomputer communications. Although other architectural models (mostly proprietary) have been created, most network vendors relate their network products to the OSI reference model when they want to educate users about their products. Thus, the model is the best tool available to people hoping to learn about network technology.

Hierarchical Communication

The OSI reference model divides the problem of moving information between computers over a network medium into seven smaller and more manageable problems. Each of the seven smaller problems was chosen because it was reasonably self-contained and therefore more easily solved without excessive reliance on external information.

Each of the seven problem areas is solved by a layer of the model. Most network devices implement all seven layers. To streamline operations, however, some network implementations skip one or more layers. The lower two OSI layers are implemented with hardware and software; the upper five layers are generally implemented in software.

The OSI reference model describes how information makes its way from application programs (such as spreadsheets) through a network medium (such as wires) to another application program in another computer. As the information to be sent descends through the layers of a given system, it looks less and less like human language and more and more like the ones and zeros that a computer understands.

As an example of OSI-type communication, assume that System A in Figure 1-1 has information to send to System B. The application program in System A communicates with System A's Layer 7 (the top layer), which communicates with System A's Layer 6, which communicates with System A's

Layer 5, and so on until System A's Layer 1 is reached. Layer 1 is concerned with putting information on (and taking information off) the physical network medium. After the information has traversed the physical network medium and been absorbed into System B, it ascends through System B's layers in reverse order (first Layer 1, then Layer 2, and so on) until it finally reaches System B's application program.

Figure 1-1 Communication between Two Computer Systems

Although each of System A's layers communicates with its adjacent System A layers, its primary objective is to communicate with its peer layer in System B. That is, the primary objective of Layer 1 in System A is to communicate with Layer 1 in System B; Layer 2 in System A communicates with Layer 2 in System B, and so on. This is necessary because each layer in a system has certain tasks it must perform. To perform these tasks, it must communicate with its peer layer in the other system.

The OSI model's layering precludes direct communication between peer layers in different systems. Each layer in System A must therefore rely on services provided by adjacent System A layers to help achieve communication with its System B peer. The relationship between adjacent layers in a single system is shown in Figure 1-2.

Figure 1-2 Relationship between Adjacent Layers in a Single System

Assume Layer 4 in System A must communicate with Layer 4 in System B. To do this, Layer 4 in System A must use the services of Layer 3 in System A. Layer 4 is said to be the service user, while Layer 3 is the service provider. Layer 3 services are provided to Layer 4 at a service access point (SAP), which is simply a location at which Layer 4 can request Layer 3 services. As the figure shows, Layer 3 can provide its services to multiple Layer 4 entities.

Information Formats

How does Layer 4 in System B know what Layer 4 in System A wants? Layer 4's specific requests are stored as control information, which is passed between peer layers in a block called a header that is prepended to the actual application information. For example, assume System A wishes to send the following text (called data or information) to System B:

The small grey cat ran up the wall to try to catch the red bird.

This text is passed from the application program in System A to System A's top layer. System A's application layer must communicate certain information to System B's application layer, so it prepends that control information (in the form of a coded header) to the actual text to be moved. This information unit is passed to System A's Layer 6, which may prepend its own control information. The information unit grows in size as it descends through the layers until it reaches the network, where the original text and all associated control information travels to System B, where it is absorbed by System B's Layer 1. System B's Layer 1 strips the Layer 1 header, reads it, and then knows how to process the information unit. The slightly smaller information unit is passed to Layer 2, which strips the Layer 2 header, analyzes the header for actions Layer 2 must take, and so forth. When the information unit finally reaches the application program in System B, it simply contains the original text.

The concept of a header and data is relative, depending on the perspective of the layer currently analyzing the information unit. For example, to Layer 3, an information unit consists of a Layer 3 header and the data that follows. Layer 3's data, however, can potentially contain headers from Layers 4, 5, 6, and 7. Further, Layer 3's header is simply data to Layer 2. This concept is illustrated in Figure 1-3. Finally, not all layers need to append headers. Some layers simply perform a transformation on the actual data they receive to make the data more or less readable to their adjacent layers.

Figure 1-3 Headers and Data

Compatibility Issues

The OSI reference model is not a network implementation. Instead, it specifies the functions of each layer. In this way, it is like a blueprint for the building of a ship. After a ship blueprint is complete, the ship must still be built. Any number of shipbuilding companies can be contracted to do the actual work, just as any number of network vendors can build a protocol implementation from a protocol specification. And, unless the blueprint is extremely (impossibly) comprehensive, ships built by different shipbuilding companies using the same blueprint will differ from each other in at least minor ways. At the very least, for example, it is likely that the rivets will be in different places.

What accounts for the differences between implementations of the same ship blueprint (or protocol specification)? In part, the differences are due to the inability of any specification to consider every possible implementation detail. Also, different implementors will no doubt interpret the blueprint in slightly different ways. And, finally, the inevitable implementation errors will cause different implementations to differ in execution. This explains why one company's implementation of protocol X does not always interoperate with another company's implementation of that protocol.

OSI Layers

Now that the basic features of the OSI layered approach have been described, each individual OSI layer and its functions can be discussed. Each layer has a predetermined set of functions it must perform for communication to occur.

Application Layer

The application layer is the OSI layer closest to the user. It differs from the other layers in that it does not provide services to any other OSI layer, but rather to application processes lying outside the scope of the OSI model. Examples of such application processes include spreadsheet programs, word-processing programs, banking terminal programs, and so on.

The application layer identifies and establishes the availability of intended communication partners, synchronizes cooperating applications, and establishes agreement on procedures for error recovery and control of data integrity. Also, the application layer determines whether sufficient resources for the intended communication exist.

Presentation Layer

The presentation layer ensures that information sent by the application layer of one system will be readable by the application layer of another system. If necessary, the presentation layer translates between multiple data representation formats by using a common data representation format.

The presentation layer concerns itself not only with the format and representation of actual user data, but also with data structures used by programs. Therefore, in addition to actual data format transformation (if necessary), the presentation layer negotiates data transfer syntax for the application layer.

Session Layer

As its name implies, the session layer establishes, manages, and terminates sessions between applications. Sessions consist of dialogue between two or more presentation entities (recall that the session layer provides its services to the presentation layer). The session layer synchronizes dialogue between presentation layer entities and manages their data exchange. In addition to basic regulation of conversations (sessions), the session layer offers provisions for data expedition, class of service, and exception reporting of session-layer, presentation-layer, and application-layer problems.

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