TCP Maintenance & Minor Extensions (tcpm) B. Briscoe
Internet-Draft Simula Research Laboratory
Intended status: Experimental M. Kühlewind
Expires: June 16, 2016 ETH Zurich
R. Scheffenegger
NetApp, Inc.
December 14, 2015

More Accurate ECN Feedback in TCP


Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) is a mechanism where network nodes can mark IP packets instead of dropping them to indicate incipient congestion to the end-points. Receivers with an ECN-capable transport protocol feed back this information to the sender. ECN is specified for TCP in such a way that only one feedback signal can be transmitted per Round-Trip Time (RTT). Recently, new TCP mechanisms like Congestion Exposure (ConEx) or Data Center TCP (DCTCP) need more accurate ECN feedback information whenever more than one marking is received in one RTT. This document specifies an experimental scheme to provide more than one feedback signal per RTT in the TCP header. Given TCP header space is scarce, it overloads the three existing ECN-related flags in the TCP header and provides additional information in a new TCP option.

Status of This Memo

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This Internet-Draft will expire on June 16, 2016.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) [RFC3168] is a mechanism where network nodes can mark IP packets instead of dropping them to indicate incipient congestion to the end-points. Receivers with an ECN-capable transport protocol feed back this information to the sender. ECN is specified for TCP in such a way that only one feedback signal can be transmitted per Round-Trip Time (RTT). Recently, proposed mechanisms like Congestion Exposure (ConEx [I-D.ietf-conex-abstract-mech]) or DCTCP [I-D.bensley-tcpm-dctcp] need more accurate ECN feedback information whenever more than one marking is received in one RTT. A fuller treatment of the motivation for this specification is given in the associated requirements document [RFC7560].

This documents specifies an experimental scheme for ECN feedback in the TCP header to provide more than one feedback signal per RTT. It will be called the more accurate ECN feedback scheme, or AccECN for short. If AccECN progresses from experimental to the standards track, it is intended to be a complete replacement for classic ECN feedback, not a fork in the design of TCP. Thus, the applicability of AccECN is intended to include all public and private IP networks (and even any non-IP networks over which TCP is used today). Until the AccECN experiment succeeds, [RFC3168] will remain as the standards track specification for adding ECN to TCP. To avoid confusion, in this document we use the term 'classic ECN' for the pre-existing ECN specification [RFC3168].

AccECN is solely an (experimental) change to the TCP wire protocol. It is completely independent of how TCP might respond to congestion feedback. This specification overloads flags and fields in the main TCP header with new definitions, so both ends have to support the new wire protocol before it can be used. Therefore during the TCP handshake the two ends use the three ECN-related flags in the TCP header to negotiate the most advanced feedback protocol that they can both support.

It is likely (but not required) that the AccECN protocol will be implemented along with the following experimental additions to the TCP-ECN protocol: ECN-capable SYN/ACK [RFC5562], ECN path-probing and fall-back [I-D.kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback] and testing receiver non-compliance [I-D.moncaster-tcpm-rcv-cheat].

1.1. Document Roadmap

The following introductory sections outline the goals of AccECN (Section 1.2) and the goal of experiments with ECN (Section 1.3) so that it is clear what success would look like. Then terminology is defined (Section 1.4) and a recap of existing prerequisite technology is given (Section 1.5).

Section 2 gives an informative overview of the AccECN protocol. Then Section 3 gives the normative protocol specification. Section 4 assesses the interaction of AccECN with commonly used variants of TCP, whether standardised or not. Section 5 summarises the features and properties of AccECN.

Section 6 summarises the protocol fields and numbers that IANA will need to assign and Section 7 points to the aspects of the protocol that will be of interest to the security community.

Appendix A gives pseudocode examples for the various algorithms that AccECN uses.

1.2. Goals

[RFC7560] enumerates requirements that a candidate feedback scheme will need to satisfy, under the headings: resilience, timeliness, integrity, accuracy (including ordering and lack of bias), complexity, overhead and compatibility (both backward and forward). It recognises that a perfect scheme that fully satisfies all the requirements is unlikely and trade-offs between requirements are likely. Section 5 presents the properties of AccECN against these requirements and discusses the trade-offs made.

The requirements document recognises that a protocol as ubiquitous as TCP needs to be able to serve as-yet-unspecified requirements. Therefore an AccECN receiver aims to act as a generic (dumb) reflector of congestion information so that in future new sender behaviours can be deployed unilaterally.

1.3. Experiment Goals

TCP is critical to the robust functioning of the Internet, therefore any proposed modifications to TCP need to be thoroughly tested. The present specification describes an experimental protocol that adds more accurate ECN feedback to the TCP protocol. The intention is to specify the protocol sufficiently so that more than one implementation can be built in order to test its function, robustness and interoperability (with itself and with previous version of ECN and TCP).

The experimental protocol will be considered successful if it satisfies the requirements of [RFC7560] in the consensus opinion of the IETF tcpm working group. In short, this requires that it improves the accuracy and timeliness of TCP's ECN feedback, as claimed in Section 5, while striking a balance between the conflicting requirements of resilience, integrity and minimisation of overhead. It also requires that it is not unduly complex, and that it is compatible with prevalent equipment behaviours in the current Internet, whether or not they comply with standards.

1.4. Terminology

The more accurate ECN feedback scheme will be called AccECN for short.
Classic ECN:
the ECN protocol specified in [RFC3168].
Classic ECN feedback:
the feedback aspect of the ECN protocol specified in [RFC3168], including generation, encoding, transmission and decoding of feedback, but not the Data Sender's subsequent response to that feedback.
A TCP acknowledgement, with or without a data payload.
Pure ACK:
A TCP acknowledgement without a data payload.
TCP client:
The TCP stack that originates a connection.
TCP server:
The TCP stack that responds to a connection request.
Data Receiver:
The endpoint of a TCP half-connection that receives data and sends AccECN feedback.
Data Sender:
The endpoint of a TCP half-connection that sends data and receives AccECN feedback.

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [RFC2119].

1.5. Recap of Existing ECN feedback in IP/TCP

ECN [RFC3168] uses two bits in the IP header. Once ECN has been negotiated with the receiver at the transport layer, an ECN sender can set two possible codepoints (ECT(0) or ECT(1)) in the IP header to indicate an ECN-capable transport (ECT). If both ECN bits are zero, the packet is considered to have been sent by a Not-ECN-capable Transport (Not-ECT). When a network node experiences congestion, it will occasionally either drop or mark a packet, with the choice depending on the packet's ECN codepoint. If the codepoint is Not-ECT, only drop is appropriate. If the codepoint is ECT(0) or ECT(1), the node can mark the packet by setting both ECN bits, which is termed 'Congestion Experienced' (CE), or loosely a 'congestion mark'. Table 1 summarises these codepoints.

The ECN Field in the IP Header
IP-ECN codepoint (binary) Codepoint name Description
00 Not-ECT Not ECN-Capable Transport
01 ECT(1) ECN-Capable Transport (1)
10 ECT(0) ECN-Capable Transport (0)
11 CE Congestion Experienced

In the TCP header the first two bits in byte 14 are defined as flags for the use of ECN (CWR and ECE in Figure 1 [RFC3168]). A TCP client indicates it supports ECN by setting ECE=CWR=1 in the SYN, and an ECN-enabled server confirms ECN support by setting ECE=1 and CWR=0 in the SYN/ACK. On reception of a CE-marked packet at the IP layer, the Data Receiver starts to set the Echo Congestion Experienced (ECE) flag continuously in the TCP header of ACKs, which ensures the signal is received reliably even if ACKs are lost. The TCP sender confirms that it has received at least one ECE signal by responding with the congestion window reduced (CWR) flag, which allows the TCP receiver to stop repeating the ECN-Echo flag. This always leads to a full RTT of ACKs with ECE set. Thus any additional CE markings arriving within this RTT cannot be fed back.

The ECN Nonce [RFC3540] is an optional experimental addition to ECN that the TCP sender can use to protect against accidental or malicious concealment of marked or dropped packets. The sender can send an ECN nonce, which is a continuous pseudo-random pattern of ECT(0) and ECT(1) codepoints in the ECN field. The receiver is required to feed back a 1-bit nonce sum that counts the occurrence of ECT(1) packets using the last bit of byte 13 in the TCP header, which is defined as the Nonce Sum (NS) flag.

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15
|               |           | N | C | E | U | A | P | R | S | F |
| Header Length | Reserved  | S | W | C | R | C | S | S | Y | I |
|               |           |   | R | E | G | K | H | T | N | N |

Figure 1: The (post-ECN Nonce) definition of the TCP header flags

2. AccECN Protocol Overview and Rationale

This section provides an informative overview of the AccECN protocol that will be normatively specified in Section 3

Like the original TCP approach, the Data Receiver of each TCP half-connection sends AccECN feedback to the Data Sender on TCP acknowledgements, reusing data packets of the other half-connection whenever possible.

The AccECN protocol has had to be designed in two parts:

  • an essential part that re-uses ECN TCP header bits to feed back the number of arriving CE marked packets. This provides more accuracy than classic ECN feedback, but limited resilience against ACK loss;
  • a supplementary part using a new AccECN TCP Option that provides additional feedback on the number of bytes that arrive marked with each of the three ECN codepoints (not just CE marks). This provides greater resilience against ACK loss than the essential feedback, but it is more likely to suffer from middlebox interference.

The two part design was necessary, given limitations on the space available for TCP options and given the possibility that certain incorrectly designed middleboxes prevent TCP using any new options.

The essential part overloads the previous definition of the three flags in the TCP header that had been assigned for use by ECN. This design choice deliberately replaces the classic ECN feedback protocol, rather than leaving classic ECN feedback intact and adding more accurate feedback separately because:

  • this efficiently reuses scarce TCP header space, given TCP option space is approaching saturation;
  • a single upgrade path for the TCP protocol is preferable to a fork in the design;
  • otherwise classic and accurate ECN feedback could give conflicting feedback on the same segment, which could open up new security concerns and make implementations unnecessarily complex;
  • middleboxes are more likely to faithfully forward the TCP ECN flags than newly defined areas of the TCP header.

AccECN is designed to work even if the supplementary part is removed or zeroed out, as long as the essential part gets through.

2.1. Capability Negotiation

AccECN is a change to the wire protocol of the main TCP header, therefore it can only be used if both endpoints have been upgraded to understand it. The TCP client signals support for AccECN on the initial SYN of a connection and the TCP server signals whether it supports AccECN on the SYN/ACK. The TCP flags on the SYN that the client uses to signal AccECN support have been carefully chosen so that a TCP server will interpret them as a request to support the most recent variant of ECN feedback that it supports. Then the client falls back to the same variant of ECN feedback.

An AccECN TCP client does not send the new AccECN Option on the SYN as SYN option space is limited and successful negotiation using the flags in the main header is taken as sufficient evidence that both ends also support the AccECN Option. The TCP server sends the AccECN Option on the SYN/ACK and the client sends it on the first ACK to test whether the network path forwards the option correctly.

2.2. Feedback Mechanism

A Data Receiver maintains four counters initialised at the start of the half-connection. Three count the number of arriving payload bytes marked CE, ECT(1) and ECT(0) respectively. The fourth counts the number of packets arriving marked with a CE codepoint (including control packets without payload if they are CE-marked).

The Data Sender maintains four equivalent counters for the half connection, and the AccECN protocol is designed to ensure they will match the values in the Data Receiver's counters, albeit after a little delay.

Each ACK carries the three least significant bits (LSBs) of the packet-based CE counter using the ECN bits in the TCP header, now renamed the Accurate ECN (ACE) field. The LSBs of each of the three byte counters are carried in the AccECN Option.

2.3. Delayed ACKs and Resilience Against ACK Loss

With both the ACE and the AccECN Option mechanisms, the Data Receiver continually repeats the current LSBs of each of its respective counters. Then, even if some ACKs are lost, the Data Sender should be able to infer how much to increment its own counters, even if the protocol field has wrapped.

The 3-bit ACE field can wrap fairly frequently. Therefore, even if it appears to have incremented by one (say), the field might have actually cycled completely then incremented by one. The Data Receiver is required not to delay sending an ACK to such an extent that the ACE field would cycle. However cyling is still a possibility at the Data Sender because a whole sequence of ACKs carrying intervening values of the field might all be lost or delayed in transit.

The fields in the AccECN Option are larger, but they will increment in larger steps because they count bytes not packets. Nonetheless, their size has been chosen such that a whole cycle of the field would never occur between ACKs unless there had been an infeasibly long sequence of ACK losses. Therefore, as long as the AccECN Option is available, it can be treated as a dependable feedback channel.

If the AccECN Option is not available, e.g. it is being stripped by a middlebox, the AccECN protocol will only feed back information on CE markings (using the ACE field). Although not ideal, this will be sufficient, because it is envisaged that neither ECT(0) nor ECT(1) will ever indicate more severe congestion than CE, even though future uses for ECT(0) or ECT(1) are still unclear. Because the 3-bit ACE field is so small, when it is the only field available the Data Sender has to interpret it conservatively assuming the worst possible wrap.

Certain specified events trigger the Data Receiver to include an AccECN Option on an ACK. The rules are designed to ensure that the order in which different markings arrive at the receiver is communicated to the sender (as long as there is no ACK loss). Implementations are encouraged to send an AccECN Option more frequently, but this is left up to the implementer.

2.4. Feedback Metrics

The CE packet counter in the ACE field and the CE byte counter in the AccECN Option both provide feedback on received CE-marks. The CE packet counter includes control packets that do not have payload data, while the CE byte counter solely includes marked payload bytes. If both are present, the byte counter in the option will provide the more accurate information needed for modern congestion control and policing schemes, such as DCTCP or ConEx. If the option is stripped, a simple algorithm to estimate the number of marked bytes from the ACE field is given in Appendix A.3.

Feedback in bytes is recommended in order to protect against the receiver using attacks similar to 'ACK-Division' to artificially inflate the congestion window, which is why [RFC5681] now recommends that TCP counts acknowledged bytes not packets.

2.5. Generic (Dumb) Reflector

The ACE field provides information about CE markings on both data and control packets. According to [RFC3168] the Data Sender is meant to set control packets to Not-ECT. However, mechanisms in certain private networks (e.g. data centres) set control packets to be ECN capable because they are precisely the packets that performance depends on most.

For this reason, AccECN is designed to be a generic reflector of whatever ECN markings it sees, whether or not they are compliant with a current standard. Then as standards evolve, Data Senders can upgrade unilaterally without any need for receivers to upgrade too. It is also useful to be able to rely on generic reflection behaviour when senders need to test for unexpected interference with markings (for instance [I-D.kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback] and [I-D.moncaster-tcpm-rcv-cheat]).

The initial SYN is the most critical control packet, so AccECN provides feedback on whether it is CE marked, even though it is not allowed to be ECN-capable according to RFC 3168. However, middleboxes have been known to overwrite the ECN IP field as if it is still part of the old Type of Service (ToS) field. If a TCP client has set the SYN to Not-ECT, but receives CE feedback, it can detect such middlebox interference and send Not-ECT for the rest of the connection (see [I-D.kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback] for the detailed fall-back behaviour).

Today, if a TCP server receives CE on a SYN, it cannot know whether it is invalid (or valid) because only the TCP client knows whether it originally marked the SYN as Not-ECT (or ECT). Therefore, the server's only safe course of action is to disable ECN for the connection. Instead, the AccECN protocol allows the server to feed back the CE marking to the client, which then has all the information to decide whether the connection has to fall-back from supporting ECN (or not).

Providing feedback of CE marking on the SYN also supports future scenarios in which SYNs might be ECN-enabled (without prejudging whether they ought to be). For instance, in certain environments such as data centres, it might be appropriate to allow ECN-capable SYNs. Then, if feedback showed the SYN had been CE marked, the TCP client could reduce its initial window (IW). It could also reduce IW conservatively if feedback showed the receiver did not support ECN (because if there had been a CE marking, the receiver would not have understood it). Note that this text merely motivates dumb reflection of CE on a SYN, it does not judge whether a SYN ought to be ECN-capable.

3. AccECN Protocol Specification

3.1. Negotiation during the TCP handshake

During the TCP handshake at the start of a connection, to request more accurate ECN feedback the TCP client (host A) MUST set the TCP flags NS=1, CWR=1 and ECE=1 in the initial SYN segment.

If a TCP server (B) that is AccECN enabled receives a SYN with the above three flags set, it MUST set both its half connections into AccECN mode. Then it MUST set the flags CWR=1 and ECE=0 on its response in the SYN/ACK segment to confirm that it supports AccECN. The TCP server MUST NOT set this combination of flags unless the preceding SYN requested support for AccECN as above.

A TCP server in AccECN mode MUST additionally set the flag NS=1 on the SYN/ACK if the SYN was CE-marked (see Section 2.5). If the received SYN was Not-ECT, ECT(0) or ECT(1), it MUST clear NS (NS=0) on the SYN/ACK.

Once a TCP client (A) has sent the above SYN to declare that it supports AccECN, and once it has received the above SYN/ACK segment that confirms that the TCP server supports AccECN, the TCP client MUST set both its half connections into AccECN mode.

If after the normal TCP timeout the TCP client has not received a SYN/ACK to acknowledge its SYN, the SYN might just have been lost, e.g. due to congestion, or a middlebox might be blocking segments with the AccECN flags. To expedite connection setup, the host SHOULD fall back to NS=CWR=ECE=0 on the retransmission of the SYN. It would make sense to also remove any other experimental fields or options on the SYN in case a middlebox might be blocking them, although the required behaviour will depend on the specification of the other option(s) and any attempt to co-ordinate fall-back between different modules of the stack. Implementers MAY use other fall-back strategies if they are found to be more effective (e.g. attempting to retransmit a second AccECN segment before fall-back, falling back to classic ECN feedback rather than non-ECN, and/or caching the result of a previous attempt to access the same host while negotiating AccECN).

The fall-back procedure if the TCP server receives no ACK to acknowledge a SYN/ACK that tried to negotiate AccECN is specified in Section 3.2.4.

The three flags set to 1 to indicate AccECN support on the SYN have been carefully chosen to enable natural fall-back to prior stages in the evolution of ECN. Table 2 tabulates all the negotiation possibilities for ECN-related capabilities that involve at least one AccECN-capable host. To compress the width of the table, the headings of the first four columns have been severely abbreviated, as follows:

More *Ac*curate ECN Feedback
ECN-*N*once [RFC3540]
*E*CN [RFC3168]
Not-ECN (*I*mplicit congestion notification using packet drop).
ECN capability negotiation between Originator (A) and Responder (B)
Ac N E I SYN A->B SYN/ACK B->A Feedback Mode
AB 1   1   1 0   1   0 AccECN
AB 1   1   1 1   1   0 AccECN (CE on SYN)
A B 1   1   1 1   0   1 classic ECN
A B 1   1   1 0   0   1 classic ECN
A B 1   1   1 0   0   0 Not ECN
B A 0   1   1 0   0   1 classic ECN
B A 0   1   1 0   0   1 classic ECN
B A 0   0   0 0   0   0 Not ECN
A B 1   1   1 1   1   1 Not ECN (broken)
A 1   1   1 0   1   1 Not ECN (see Appx B)
A 1   1   1 1   0   0 Not ECN (see Appx B)

Table 2 is divided into blocks each separated by an empty row.

  1. The top block shows the case already described where both endpoints support AccECN and how the TCP server (B) indicates congestion feedback.
  2. The second block shows the cases where the TCP client (A) supports AccECN but the TCP server (B) supports some earlier variant of TCP feedback, indicated in its SYN/ACK. Therefore, as soon as an AccECN-capable TCP client (A) receives the SYN/ACK shown it MUST set both its half connections into the feedback mode shown in the rightmost column.
  3. The third block shows the cases where the TCP server (B) supports AccECN but the TCP client (A) supports some earlier variant of TCP feedback, indicated in its SYN. Therefore, as soon as an AccECN-enabled TCP server (B) receives the SYN shown, it MUST set both its half connections into the feedback mode shown in the rightmost column.
  4. The fourth block displays combinations that are not valid or currently unused and therefore both ends MUST fall-back to Not ECN for both half connections. Especially the first case (marked `broken') where all bits set in the SYN are reflected by the receiver in the SYN/ACK, which happens quite often if the TCP connection is proxied.{ToDo: Consider using the last two cases for AccECN f/b of ECT(0) and ECT(1) on the SYN (Appendix B)}

The following exceptional cases need some explanation:

ECN Nonce:
An AccECN implementation, whether client or server, sender or receiver, does not need to implement the ECN Nonce behaviour [RFC3540]. AccECN is compatible with an alternative ECN feedback integrity approach that does not use up the ECT(1) codepoint and can be implemented solely at the sender (see Section 4.3).
Simultaneous Open:
An originating AccECN Host (A), having sent a SYN with NS=1, CWR=1 and ECE=1, might receive another SYN from host B. Host A MUST then enter the same feedback mode as it would have entered had it been a responding host and received the same SYN. Then host A MUST send the same SYN/ACK as it would have sent had it been a responding host (see the third block above).

3.2. AccECN Feedback

Each Data Receiver maintains four counters, r.cep,, r.e0b and r.e1b. The CE packet counter (r.cep), counts the number of packets the host receives with the CE code point in the IP ECN field, including CE marks on control packets without data., r.e0b and r.e1b count the number of TCP payload bytes in packets marked respectively with the CE, ECT(0) and ECT(1) codepoint in their IP-ECN field. When a host first enters AccECN mode, it initialises its counters to r.cep = 6, r.e0b = 1 and = r.e1b.= 0 (see Appendix A.5). Non-zero initial values are used to be distinct from cases where the fields are incorrectly zeroed (e.g. by middleboxes).

A host feeds back the CE packet counter using the Accurate ECN (ACE) field, as explained in the next section. And it feeds back all the byte counters using the AccECN TCP Option, as specified in Section 3.2.3. Whenever a host feeds back the value of any counter, it MUST report the most recent value, no matter whether it is in a pure ACK, an ACK with new payload data or a retransmission.

3.2.1. The ACE Field

After AccECN has been negotiated on the SYN and SYN/ACK, both hosts overload the three TCP flags ECE, CWR and NS in the main TCP header as one 3-bit field. Then the field is given a new name, ACE, as shown in Figure 2.

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15
|               |           |           | U | A | P | R | S | F |
| Header Length | Reserved  |    ACE    | R | C | S | S | Y | I |
|               |           |           | G | K | H | T | N | N |

Figure 2: Definition of the ACE field within bytes 13 and 14 of the TCP Header (when AccECN has been negotiated and SYN=0).

The original definition of these three flags in the TCP header, including the addition of support for the ECN Nonce, is shown for comparison in Figure 1. This specification does not rename these three TCP flags, it merely overloads them with another name and definition once an AccECN connection has been established.

A host MUST interpret the ECE, CWR and NS flags as the 3-bit ACE counter on a segment with SYN=0 that it sends or receives if both of its half-connections are set into AccECN mode having successfully negotiated AccECN (see Section 3.1). A host MUST NOT interpret the 3 flags as a 3-bit ACE field on any segment with SYN=1 (whether ACK is 0 or 1), or if AccECN negotiation is incomplete or has not succeeded.

Both parts of each of these conditions are equally important. For instance, even if AccECN negotiation has been successful, the ACE field is not defined on any segments with SYN=1 (e.g. a retransmission of an unacknowledged SYN/ACK, or when both ends send SYN/ACKs after AccECN support has been successfully negotiated during a simultaneous open).

The ACE field encodes the three least significant bits of the r.cep counter, therefore its initial value will be 0b110 (decimal 6). This non-zero initialization allows a TCP server to use a stateless handshake (see Section 4.1) but still detect from the TCP client's first ACK that the client considers it has successfully negotiated AccECN. If the SYN/ACK was CE marked, the client MUST increase its r.cep counter before it sends its first ACK, therefore the initial value of the ACE field will be 0b111 (decimal 7). These values have deliberately been chosen such that they are distinct from [RFC5562] behaviour, where the TCP client would set ECE on the first ACK as feedback for a CE mark on the SYN/ACK.

If the value of the ACE field on the first segment with SYN=0 in either direction is anything other than 0b110 or 0b111, the Data Receiver MUST disable ECN for the remainder of the half-connection by marking all subsequent packets as Not-ECT.

3.2.2. Safety against Ambiguity of the ACE Field

If too many CE-marked segments are acknowledged at once, or if a long run of ACKs is lost, the 3-bit counter in the ACE field might have cycled between two ACKs arriving at the Data Sender.

Therefore an AccECN Data Receiver SHOULD immediately send an ACK once 'n' CE marks have arrived since the previous ACK, where 'n' SHOULD be 2 and MUST be no greater than 6.

If the Data Sender has not received AccECN TCP Options to give it more dependable information, and it detects that the ACE field could have cycled under the prevailing conditions, it SHOULD conservatively assume that the counter did cycle. It can detect if the counter could have cycled by using the jump in the acknowledgement number since the last ACK to calculate or estimate how many segments could have been acknowledged. An example algorithm to implement this policy is given in Appendix A.2. An implementer MAY develop an alternative algorithm as long as it satisfies these requirements.

If missing acknowledgement numbers arrive later (reordering) and prove that the counter did not cycle, the Data Sender MAY attempt to neutralise the effect of any action it took based on a conservative assumption that it later found to be incorrect.

3.2.3. The AccECN Option

The AccECN Option is defined as shown below in Figure 3. It consists of three 24-bit fields that provide the 24 least significant bits of the r.e0b, and r.e1b counters, respectively. The initial 'E' of each field name stands for 'Echo'.

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|  Kind = TBD1  |  Length = 11  |          EE0B field           |
| EE0B (cont'd) |           ECEB field                          |
|                  EE1B field                   |

Figure 3: The AccECN Option

The Data Receiver MUST set the Kind field to TBD1, which is registered in Section 6 as a new TCP option Kind called AccECN. An experimental TCP option with Kind=254 MAY be used for initial experiments, with magic number 0xACCE.

Appendix A.1 gives an example algorithm for the Data Receiver to encode its byte counters into the AccECN Option, and for the Data Sender to decode the AccECN Option fields into its byte counters.

Note that there is no field to feedback Not-ECT bytes. Nonetheless an algorithm for the Data Sender to calculate the number of payload bytes received as Not-ECT is given in Appendix A.5.

Whenever a Data Receiver sends an AccECN Option, the rules in Section 3.2.5 expect it to always send a full-length option. To cope with option space limitations, it can omit unchanged fields from the tail of the option, as long as it preserves the order of the remaining fields and includes any field that has changed. The length field MUST indicate which fields are present as follows:


The empty option of Length=2 is provided to allow for a case where an AccECN Option has to be sent (e.g. on the SYN/ACK to test the path), but there is very limited space for the option. For initial experiments, the Length field MUST be 2 greater to accommodate the 16-bit magic number.

All implementations of a Data Sender MUST be able to read in AccECN Options of any of the above lengths. They MUST ignore an AccECN Option of any other length.

3.2.4. Path Traversal of the AccECN Option

An AccECN host MUST NOT include the AccECN TCP Option on the SYN. Nonetheless, if the AccECN negotiation using the ECN flags in the main TCP header (Section 3.1) is successful, it implicitly declares that the endpoints also support the AccECN TCP Option.

If the TCP client indicated AccECN support, a TCP server tha confirms its support for AccECN (as described in Section 3.1) SHOULD also include an AccECN TCP Option in the SYN/ACK. A TCP client that has successfully negotiated AccECN SHOULD include an AccECN Option in the first ACK at the end of the 3WHS. However, this first ACK is not delivered reliably, so the TCP client SHOULD also include an AccECN Option on the first data segment it sends (if it ever sends one). A host need not include an AccECN Option in any of these three cases if it has cached knowledge that the packet would be likely to be blocked on the path to the other host if it included an AccECN Option.

If the TCP client has successfully negotiated AccECN but does not receive an AccECN Option on the SYN/ACK, it switches into a mode that assumes that the AccECN Option is not available for this half connection. Similarly, if the TCP server has successfully negotiated AccECN but does not receive an AccECN Option on the first ACK or on the first data segment, it switches into a mode that assumes that the AccECN Option is not available for this half connection.

While a host is in the mode that assumes the AccECN Option is not available, it MUST adopt the conservative interpretation of the ACE field discussed in Section 3.2.2. However, it cannot make any assumption about support of the AccECN Option on the other half connection, so it MUST continue to send the AccECN Option itself.

If after the normal TCP timeout the TCP server has not received an ACK to acknowledge its SYN/ACK, the SYN/ACK might just have been lost, e.g. due to congestion, or a middlebox might be blocking the AccECN Option. To expedite connection setup, the host SHOULD fall back to NS=CWR=ECE=0 and no AccECN Option on the retransmission of the SYN/ACK. Implementers MAY use other fall-back strategies if they are found to be more effective (e.g. retransmitting a SYN/ACK with AccECN TCP flags but not the AccECN Option; attempting to retransmit a second AccECN segment before fall-back (most appropriate during high levels of congestion); or falling back to classic ECN feedback rather than non-ECN).

Similarly, if the TCP client detects that the first data segment it sent was lost, it SHOULD fall back to no AccECN Option on the retransmission. Again, implementers MAY use other fall-back strategies such as attempting to retransmit a second segment with the AccECN Option before fall-back, and/or caching the result of previous attempts.

Either host MAY include the AccECN Option in a subsequent segment to retest whether the AccECN Option can traverse the path.

Currently the Data Sender is not required to test whether the arriving byte counters in the AccECN Option have been correctly initialised. This allows different initial values to be used as an additional signalling channel in future. If any inappropriate zeroing of these fields is discovered during testing, this approach will need to be reviewed.

3.2.5. Usage of the AccECN TCP Option

The following rules determine when a Data Receiver in AccECN mode sends the AccECN TCP Option, and which fields to include:

Change-Triggered ACKs:
If an arriving packet increments a different byte counter to that incremented by the previous packet, the Data Receiver SHOULD immediately send an ACK with an AccECN Option, without waiting for the next delayed ACK. Certain offload hardware might not be able to support change-triggered ACKs, but otherwise it is important to keep exceptions to this rule to a minimum so that Data Senders can generally rely on this behaviour;
Continual Repetition:
Otherwise, if arriving packets continue to increment the same byte counter, the Data Receiver can include an AccECN Option on most or all (delayed) ACKs, but it does not have to. If option space is limited on a particular ACK, the Data Receiver MUST give precedence to SACK information about loss. It SHOULD include an AccECN Option if the counter has incremented and it MAY include an AccECN Option if r.ec0b or r.ec1b has incremented;
Full-Length Options Preferred:
It SHOULD always use full-length AccECN Options. It MAY use shorter AccECN Options if space is limited, but it MUST include the counter(s) that have incremented since the previous AccECN Option and it MUST only truncate fields from the right-hand tail of the option to preserve the order of the remaining fields (see Section 3.2.3);
Beaconing Full-Length Options:
Nonetheless, it MUST include a full-length AccECN TCP Option on at least three ACKs per RTT, or on all ACKs if there are less than three per RTT (see Appendix A.4 for an example algorithm that satisfies this requirement).

The following example series of arriving marks illustrates when a Data Receiver will emit an ACK if it is using a delayed ACK factor of 2 segments and change-triggered ACKs: 01 -> ACK, 01, 01 -> ACK, 10 -> ACK, 10, 01 -> ACK, 01, 11 -> ACK, 01 -> ACK.

For the avoidance of doubt, the change-triggered ACK mechanism ignores the arrival of a control packet with no payload, because it does not alter any byte counters. The change-triggered ACK approach will lead to some additional ACKs but it feeds back the timing and the order in which ECN marks are received with minimal additional complexity.

Implementation note: sending an AccECN Option each time a different counter changes and including a full-length AccECN Option on every delayed ACK will satisfy the requirements described above and might be the easiest implementation, as long as sufficient space is available in each ACK (in total and in the option space).

Appendix A.3 gives an example algorithm to estimate the number of marked bytes from the ACE field alone, if the AccECN Option is not available.

If a host has determined that segments with the AccECN Option always seem to be discarded somewhere along the path, it is no longer obliged to follow the above rules.

3.3. AccECN Compliance by TCP Proxies, Offload Engines and other Middleboxes

A large class of middleboxes split TCP connections. Such a middlebox would be compliant with the AccECN protocol if the TCP implementation on each side complied with the present AccECN specification and each side negotiated AccECN independently of the other side.

Another large class of middleboxes intervene to some degree at the transport layer, but attempts to be transparent (invisible) to the end-to-end connection. A subset of this class of middleboxes attempts to `normalise' the TCP wire protocol by checking that all values in header fields comply with a rather narrow interpretation of the TCP specifications. To comply with the present AccECN specification, such a middlebox MUST NOT change the ACE field or the AccECN Option and it MUST attempt to preserve the timing of each ACK (for example, if it coalesced ACKs it would not be AccECN-compliant). A middlebox claiming to be transparent at the transport layer MUST forward the AccECN TCP Option unaltered, whether or not the length value matches one of those specified in Section 3.2.3, and whether or not the initial values of the byte-counter fields are correct. This is because blocking apparently invalid values does not improve security (because AccECN hosts are required to ignore invalid values anyway), while it prevents the standardised set of values being extended in future (because outdated normalisers would block updated hosts from using the extended AccECN standard).

Hardware to offload certain TCP processing represents another large class of middleboxes, even though it is often a function of a host's network interface and rarely in its own 'box'. Leeway has been allowed in the present AccECN specification in the expectation that offload hardware could comply and still serve its function. Nonetheless, such hardware MUST attempt to preserve the timing of each ACK (for example, if it coalesced ACKs it would not be AccECN-compliant).

4. Interaction with Other TCP Variants

This section is informative, not normative.

4.1. Compatibility with SYN Cookies

A TCP server can use SYN Cookies (see Appendix A of [RFC4987]) to protect itself from SYN flooding attacks. It places minimal commonly used connection state in the SYN/ACK, and deliberately does not hold any state while waiting for the subsequent ACK (e.g. it closes the thread). Therefore it cannot record the fact that it entered AccECN mode for both half-connections. Indeed, it cannot even remember whether it negotiated the use of classic ECN [RFC3168].

Nonetheless, such a server can determine that it negotiated AccECN as follows. If a TCP server using SYN Cookies supports AccECN and if the first ACK it receives contains an ACE field with the value 0b110 or 0b111, it can assume that:

  • the TCP client must have requested AccECN support on the SYN
  • it (the server) must have confirmed that it supported AccECN

Therefore the server can switch itself into AccECN mode, and continue as if it had never forgotten that it switched itself into AccECN mode earlier.

4.2. Compatibility with Other TCP Options and Experiments

AccECN is compatible (at least on paper) with the most commonly used TCP options: MSS, time-stamp, window scaling, SACK and TCP-AO. It is also compatible with the recent promising experimental TCP options TCP Fast Open (TFO [RFC7413]) and Multipath TCP (MPTCP [RFC6824]). AccECN is friendly to all these protocols, because space for TCP options is particularly scarce on the SYN, where AccECN consumes zero additional header space.

When option space is under pressure from other options, Section 3.2.5 provides guidance on how important it is to send an AccECN Option and whether it needs to be a full-length option.

4.3. Compatibility with Feedback Integrity Mechanisms

The ECN Nonce [RFC3540] is an experimental IETF specification intended to allow a sender to test whether ECN CE markings (or losses) introduced in one network are being suppressed by the receiver or anywhere else in the feedback loop, such as another network or a middlebox. The ECN nonce has not been deployed as far as can be ascertained. The nonce would now be nearly impossible to deploy retrospectively, because to catch a misbehaving receiver it relies on the receiver volunteering feedback information to incriminate itself. A receiver that has been modified to misbehave can simply claim that it does not support nonce feedback, which will seem unremarkable given so many other hosts do not support it either.

With minor changes AccECN could be optimised for the possibility that the ECT(1) codepoint might be used as a nonce. However, given the nonce is now probably undeployable, the AccECN design has been generalised so that it ought to be able to support other possible uses of the ECT(1) codepoint, such as a lower severity or a more instant congestion signal than CE.

Three alternative mechanisms are available to assure the integrity of ECN and/or loss signals. AccECN is compatible with any of these approaches:

  • The Data Sender can test the integrity of the receiver's ECN (or loss) feedback by occasionally setting the IP-ECN field to a value normally only set by the network (and/or deliberately leaving a sequence number gap). Then it can test whether the Data Receiver's feedback faithfully reports what it expects [I-D.moncaster-tcpm-rcv-cheat]. Unlike the ECN Nonce, this approach does not waste the ECT(1) codepoint in the IP header, it does not require standardisation and it does not rely on misbehaving receivers volunteering to reveal feedback information that allows them to be detected. However, setting the CE mark by the sender might conceal actual congestion feedback from the network and should therefore only be done sparsely.
  • Networks generate congestion signals when they are becoming congested, so they are more likely than Data Senders to be concerned about the integrity of the receiver's feedback of these signals. A network can enforce a congestion response to its ECN markings (or packet losses) using congestion exposure (ConEx) audit [I-D.ietf-conex-abstract-mech]. Whether the receiver or a downstream network is suppressing congestion feedback or the sender is unresponsive to the feedback, or both, ConEx audit can neutralise any advantage that any of these three parties would otherwise gain.

    ConEx is a change to the Data Sender that is most useful when combined with AccECN. Without AccECN, the ConEx behaviour of a Data Sender would have to be more conservative than would be necessary if it had the accurate feedback of AccECN.
  • The TCP authentication option (TCP-AO [RFC5925]) can be used to detect any tampering with AccECN feedback between the Data Receiver and the Data Sender (whether malicious or accidental). The AccECN fields are immutable end-to-end, so they are amenable to TCP-AO protection, which covers TCP options by default. However, TCP-AO is often too brittle to use on many end-to-end paths, where middleboxes can make verification fail in their attempts to improve performance or security, e.g. by resegmentation or shifting the sequence space.

5. Protocol Properties

This section is informative not normative. It describes how well the protocol satisfies the agreed requirements for a more accurate ECN feedback protocol [RFC7560].

From each ACK, the Data Sender can infer the number of new CE marked segments since the previous ACK. This provides better accuracy on CE feedback than classic ECN. In addition if the AccECN Option is present (not blocked by the network path) the number of bytes marked with CE, ECT(1) and ECT(0) are provided.
The AccECN scheme is divided into two parts. The essential part reuses the 3 flags already assigned to ECN in the IP header. The supplementary part adds an additional TCP option consuming up to 11 bytes. However, no TCP option is consumed in the SYN.
The order in which marks arrive at the Data Receiver is preserved in AccECN feedback, because the Data Receiver is expected to send an ACK immediately whenever a different mark arrives.
While the same ECN markings are arriving continually at the Data Receiver, it can defer ACKs as TCP does normally, but it will immediately send an ACK as soon as a different ECN marking arrives.
Timeliness vs Overhead:
Change-Triggered ACKs are intended to enable latency-sensitive uses of ECN feedback by capturing the timing of transitions but not wasting resources while the state of the signalling system is stable. The receiver can control how frequently it sends the AccECN TCP Option and therefore it can control the overhead induced by AccECN.
All information is provided based on counters. Therefore if ACKs are lost, the counters on the first ACK following the losses allows the Data Sender to immediately recover the number of the ECN markings that it missed.
Resilience against Bias:
Because feedback is based on repetition of counters, random losses do not remove any information, they only delay it. Therefore, even though some ACKs are change-triggered, random losses will not alter the proportions of the different ECN markings in the feedback.
Resilience vs Overhead:
If space is limited in some segments (e.g. because more option are need on some segments, such as the SACK option after loss), the Data Receiver can send AccECN Options less frequently or truncate fields that have not changed, usually down to as little as 5 bytes. However, it has to send a full-sized AccECN Option at least three times per RTT, which the Data Sender can rely on as a regular beacon or checkpoint.
Resilience vs Timeliness and Ordering:
Ordering information and the timing of transitions cannot be communicated in three cases: i) during ACK loss; ii) if something on the path strips the AccECN Option; or iii) if the Data Receiver is unable to support Change-Triggered ACKs.
An AccECN implementation solely involves simple counter increments, some modulo arithmetic to communicate the least significant bits and allow for wrap, and some heuristics for safety against fields cycling due to prolonged periods of ACK loss. Each host needs to maintain eight additional counters. The hosts have to apply some additional tests to detect tampering by middleboxes, but in general the protocol is simple to understand, simple to implement and requires few cycles per packet to execute.
AccECN is compatible with at least three approaches that can assure the integrity of ECN feedback. If the AccECN Option is stripped the resolution of the feedback is degraded, but the integrity of this degraded feedback can still be assured.
Backward Compatibility:
If only one endpoint supports the AccECN scheme, it will fall-back to the most advanced ECN feedback scheme supported by the other end.
Backward Compatibility:
If the AccECN Option is stripped by a middlebox, AccECN still provides basic congestion feedback in the ACE field. Further, AccECN can be used to detect mangling of the IP ECN field; mangling of the TCP ECN flags; blocking of ECT-marked segments; and blocking of segments carrying the AccECN Option. It can detect these conditions during TCP's 3WHS so that it can fall back to operation without ECN and/or operation without the AccECN Option.
Forward Compatibility:
The behaviour of endpoints and middleboxes is carefully defined for all reserved or currently unused codepoints in the scheme, to ensure that any blocking of anomalous values is always at least under reversible policy control.

6. IANA Considerations

This document defines a new TCP option for AccECN, assigned a value of TBD1 (decimal) from the TCP option space. This value is defined as:

Kind Length Meaning Reference

[TO BE REMOVED: This registration should take place at the following location:]

Early implementation before the IANA allocation MUST follow [RFC6994] and use experimental option 254 and magic number 0xACCE (16 bits) {ToDo register this with IANA}, then migrate to the new option after the allocation.

7. Security Considerations

If ever the supplementary part of AccECN based on the new AccECN TCP Option is unusable (due for example to middlebox interference) the essential part of AccECN's congestion feedback offers only limited resilience to long runs of ACK loss (see Section 3.2.2). These problems are unlikely to be due to malicious intervention (because if an attacker could strip a TCP option or discard a long run of ACKs it could wreak other arbitrary havoc). However, it would be of concern if AccECN's resilience could be indirectly compromised during a flooding attack. AccECN is still considered safe though, because if the option is not presented, the AccECN Data Sender is then required to switch to more conservative assumptions about wrap of congestion indication counters (see Section 3.2.2 and Appendix A.2).

Section 4.1 describes how a TCP server can negotiate AccECN and use the SYN cookie method for mitigating SYN flooding attacks.

There is concern that ECN markings could be altered or suppressed, particularly because a misbehaving Data Receiver could increase its own throughput at the expense of others. Given the experimental ECN nonce is now probably undeployable, AccECN has been generalised for other possible uses of the ECT(1) codepoint to avoid obsolescence of the codepoint even if the nonce mechanism is obsoleted. AccECN is compatible with the three other schemes known to assure the integrity of ECN feedback (see Section 4.3 for details). If the AccECN Option is stripped by an incorrectly implemented middlebox, the resolution of the feedback will be degraded, but the integrity of this degraded information can still be assured.

The AccECN protocol is not believed to introduce any new privacy concerns, because it merely counts and feeds back signals at the transport layer that had already been visible at the IP layer.

8. Acknowledgements

We want to thank Koen De Schepper, Praveen Balasubramanian and Michael Welzl for their input and discussion. The idea of using the three ECN-related TCP flags as one field for more accurate TCP-ECN feedback was first introduced in the re-ECN protocol that was the ancestor of ConEx.

Bob Briscoe was part-funded by the European Community under its Seventh Framework Programme through the Reducing Internet Transport Latency (RITE) project (ICT-317700) and through the Trilogy 2 project (ICT-317756). The views expressed here are solely those of the authors.

9. Comments Solicited

Comments and questions are encouraged and very welcome. They can be addressed to the IETF TCP maintenance and minor modifications working group mailing list <>, and/or to the authors.

10. References

10.1. Normative References

[RFC2119] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997.
[RFC3168] Ramakrishnan, K., Floyd, S. and D. Black, "The Addition of Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) to IP", RFC 3168, DOI 10.17487/RFC3168, September 2001.
[RFC5681] Allman, M., Paxson, V. and E. Blanton, "TCP Congestion Control", RFC 5681, DOI 10.17487/RFC5681, September 2009.
[RFC6994] Touch, J., "Shared Use of Experimental TCP Options", RFC 6994, DOI 10.17487/RFC6994, August 2013.

10.2. Informative References

[I-D.bensley-tcpm-dctcp] Bensley, S., Eggert, L., Thaler, D., Balasubramanian, P. and G. Judd, "Microsoft's Datacenter TCP (DCTCP): TCP Congestion Control for Datacenters", Internet-Draft draft-bensley-tcpm-dctcp-05, July 2015.
[I-D.ietf-conex-abstract-mech] Mathis, M. and B. Briscoe, "Congestion Exposure (ConEx) Concepts, Abstract Mechanism and Requirements", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-conex-abstract-mech-13, October 2014.
[I-D.kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback] Kuehlewind, M. and B. Trammell, "A Mechanism for ECN Path Probing and Fallback", Internet-Draft draft-kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback-01, September 2013.
[I-D.moncaster-tcpm-rcv-cheat] Moncaster, T., Briscoe, B. and A. Jacquet, "A TCP Test to Allow Senders to Identify Receiver Non-Compliance", Internet-Draft draft-moncaster-tcpm-rcv-cheat-03, July 2014.
[RFC3540] Spring, N., Wetherall, D. and D. Ely, "Robust Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) Signaling with Nonces", RFC 3540, DOI 10.17487/RFC3540, June 2003.
[RFC4987] Eddy, W., "TCP SYN Flooding Attacks and Common Mitigations", RFC 4987, DOI 10.17487/RFC4987, August 2007.
[RFC5562] Kuzmanovic, A., Mondal, A., Floyd, S. and K. Ramakrishnan, "Adding Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) Capability to TCP's SYN/ACK Packets", RFC 5562, DOI 10.17487/RFC5562, June 2009.
[RFC5925] Touch, J., Mankin, A. and R. Bonica, "The TCP Authentication Option", RFC 5925, DOI 10.17487/RFC5925, June 2010.
[RFC6824] Ford, A., Raiciu, C., Handley, M. and O. Bonaventure, "TCP Extensions for Multipath Operation with Multiple Addresses", RFC 6824, DOI 10.17487/RFC6824, January 2013.
[RFC7413] Cheng, Y., Chu, J., Radhakrishnan, S. and A. Jain, "TCP Fast Open", RFC 7413, DOI 10.17487/RFC7413, December 2014.
[RFC7560] Kuehlewind, M., Scheffenegger, R. and B. Briscoe, "Problem Statement and Requirements for Increased Accuracy in Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) Feedback", RFC 7560, DOI 10.17487/RFC7560, August 2015.

Appendix A. Example Algorithms

This appendix is informative, not normative. It gives example algorithms that would satisfy the normative requirements of the AccECN protocol. However, implementers are free to choose other ways to implement the requirements.

A.1. Example Algorithm to Encode/Decode the AccECN Option

The example algorithms below show how a Data Receiver in AccECN mode could encode its CE byte counter into the ECEB field within the AccECN TCP Option, and how a Data Sender in AccECN mode could decode the ECEB field into its byte counter The other counters for bytes marked ECT(0) and ECT(1) in the AccECN Option would be similarly encoded and decoded.

It is assumed that each local byte counter is an unsigned integer greater than 24b (probably 32b), and that the following constant has been assigned:

  • DIVOPT = 2^24

Every time a CE marked data segment arrives, the Data Receiver increments its local value of by the size of the TCP Data. Whenever it sends an ACK with the AccECN Option, the value it writes into the ECEB field is


where '%' is the modulo operator.

On the arrival of an AccECN Option, the Data Sender uses the TCP acknowledgement number and any SACK options to calculate newlyAckedB, the amount of new data that the ACK acknowledges in bytes. If newlyAckedB is negative it means that a more up to date ACK has already been processed, so this ACK has been superseded and the Data Sender has to ignore the AccECN Option. Then the Data Sender calculates the minimum difference between the ECEB field and its local counter, using modulo arithmetic as follows:

   if (newlyAckedB >= 0) { = (ECEB + DIVOPT - ( % DIVOPT)) % DIVOPT +=

For example, if is 33,554,433 and ECEB is 1461 (both decimal), then % DIVOPT = 1 = (1461 + 2^24 - 1) % 2^24
               = 1460 = 33,554,433 + 1460
               = 33,555,893

A.2. Example Algorithm for Safety Against Long Sequences of ACK Loss

The example algorithms below show how a Data Receiver in AccECN mode could encode its CE packet counter r.cep into the ACE field, and how the Data Sender in AccECN mode could decode the ACE field into its s.cep counter. The Data Sender's algorithm includes code to heuristically detect a long enough unbroken string of ACK losses that could have concealed a cycle of the congestion counter in the ACE field of the next ACK to arrive.

Two variants of the algorithm are given: i) a more conservative variant for a Data Sender to use if it detects that the AccECN Option is not available (see Section 3.2.2 and Section 3.2.4); and ii) a less conservative variant that is feasible when complementary information is available from the AccECN Option.

A.2.1. Safety Algorithm without the AccECN Option

It is assumed that each local packet counter is a sufficiently sized unsigned integer (probably 32b) and that the following constant has been assigned:

  • DIVACE = 2^3

Every time a CE marked packet arrives, the Data Receiver increments its local value of r.cep by 1. It repeats the same value of ACE in every subsequent ACK until the next CE marking arrives, where

  • ACE = r.cep % DIVACE.

If the Data Sender received an earlier value of the counter that had been delayed due to ACK reordering, it might incorrectly calculate that the ACE field had wrapped. Therefore, on the arrival of every ACK, the Data Sender uses the TCP acknowledgement number and any SACK options to calculate newlyAckedB, the amount of new data that the ACK acknowledges. If newlyAckedB is negative it means that a more up to date ACK has already been processed, so this ACK has been superseded and the Data Sender has to ignore the AccECN Option. If newlyAckedB is zero, to break the tie the Data Sender could use timestamps (if present) to work out newlyAckedT, the amount of new time that the ACK acknowledges. Then the Data Sender calculates the minimum difference d.cep between the ACE field and its local s.cep counter, using modulo arithmetic as follows:

   if ((newlyAckedB > 0) || (newlyAckedB == 0 && newlyAckedT > 0))
       d.cep = (ACE + DIVACE - (s.cep % DIVACE)) % DIVACE

Section 3.2.2 requires the Data Sender to assume that the ACE field did cycle if it could have cycled under prevailing conditions. The 3-bit ACE field in an arriving ACK could have cycled and become ambiguous to the Data Sender if a row of ACKs goes missing that covers a stream of data long enough to contain 8 or more CE marks. We use the word `missing' rather than `lost', because some or all the missing ACKs might arrive eventually, but out of order. Even if some of the lost ACKs are piggy-backed on data (i.e. not pure ACKs) retransmissions will not repair the lost AccECN information, because AccECN requires retransmissions to carry the latest AccECN counters, not the original ones.

The phrase `under prevailing conditions' allows the Data Sender to take account of the prevailing size of data segments and the prevailing CE marking rate just before the sequence of ACK losses. However, we shall start with the simplest algorithm, which assumes segments are all full-sized and ultra-conservatively it assumes that ECN marking was 100% on the forward path when ACKs on the reverse path started to all be dropped. Specifically, if newlyAckedB is the amount of data that an ACK acknowledges since the previous ACK, then the Data Sender could assume that this acknowledges newlyAckedPkt full-sized segments, where newlyAckedPkt = newlyAckedB/MSS. Then it could assume that the ACE field incremented by

    dSafer.cep = newlyAckedPkt - ((newlyAckedPkt - d.cep) % DIVACE),

For example, imagine an ACK acknowledges newlyAckedPkt=9 more full-size segments than any previous ACK, and that ACE increments by a minimum of 2 CE marks (d.cep=2). The above formula works out that it would still be safe to assume 2 CE marks (because 9 - ((9-2) % 8) = 2). However, if ACE increases by a minimum of 2 but acknowledges 10 full-sized segments, then it would be necessary to assume that there could have been 10 CE marks (because 10 - ((10-2) % 8) = 10).

Implementers could build in more heuristics to estimate prevailing average segment size and prevailing ECN marking. For instance, newlyAckedPkt in the above formula could be replaced with newlyAckedPktHeur = newlyAckedPkt*p*MSS/s, where s is the prevailing segment size and p is the prevailing ECN marking probability. However, ultimately, if TCP's ECN feedback becomes inaccurate it still has loss detection to fall back on. Therefore, it would seem safe to implement a simple algorithm, rather than a perfect one.

The simple algorithm for dSafer.cep above requires no monitoring of prevailing conditions and it would still be safe if, for example, segments were on average at least 5% of full-sized as long as ECN marking was 5% or less. Assuming it was used, the Data Sender would increment its packet counter as follows:

  • s.cep += dSafer.cep

If missing acknowledgement numbers arrive later (due to reordering), Section 3.2.2 says "the Data Sender MAY attempt to neutralise the effect of any action it took based on a conservative assumption that it later found to be incorrect". To do this, the Data Sender would have to store the values of all the relevant variables whenever it made assumptions, so that it could re-evaluate them later. Given this could become complex and it is not required, we do not attempt to provide an example of how to do this.

A.2.2. Safety Algorithm with the AccECN Option

When the AccECN Option is available on the ACKs before and after the possible sequence of ACK losses, if the Data Sender only needs CE-marked bytes, it will have sufficient information in the AccECN Option without needing to process the ACE field. However, if for some reason it needs CE-marked packets, if dSafer.cep is different from d.cep, it can calculate the average marked segment size that each implies to determine whether d.cep is likely to be a safe enough estimate. Specifically, it could use the following algorithm, where is the amount of newly CE-marked bytes (see Appendix A.1):

   if (dSafer.cep > d.cep) {
       s =
       if (s <= MSS) {
          sSafer =
          if (sSafer < MSS/SAFETY_FACTOR)
              dSafer.cep = d.cep    % d.cep is a safe enough estimate
       } % else
           % No need for else; dSafer.cep is already correct, 
           % because d.cep must have been too small

The chart below shows when the above algorithm will consider d.cep can replace dSafer.cep as a safe enough estimate of the number of CE-marked packets:

      |         dSafer.cep
      |                  is
 MSS/2+--------------+    safest
      |              |
      | d.cep is safe|
      |    enough    |
                    MSS   s

The following examples give the reasoning behind the algorithm, assuming MSS=1,460 [B]:

  • if d.cep=0, dSafer.cep=8 and,460, then s=infinity and sSafer=182.5.
    Therefore even though the average size of 8 data segments is unlikely to have been as small as MSS/8, d.cep cannot have been correct, because it would imply an average segment size greater than the MSS.
  • if d.cep=2, dSafer.cep=10 and,460, then s=730 and sSafer=146.
    Therefore d.cep is safe enough, because the average size of 10 data segments is unlikely to have been as small as MSS/10.
  • if d.cep=7, dSafer.cep=15 and,200, then s=1,457 and sSafer=680.
    Therefore d.cep is safe enough, because the average data segment size is more likely to have been just less than one MSS, rather than below MSS/2.

If pure ACKs were allowed to be ECN-capable, missing ACKs would be far less likely. However, because [RFC3168] currently precludes this, the above algorithm assumes that pure ACKs are not ECN-capable.

A.3. Example Algorithm to Estimate Marked Bytes from Marked Packets

If the AccECN Option is not available, the Data Sender can only decode CE-marking from the ACE field in packets. Every time an ACK arrives, to convert this into an estimate of CE-marked bytes, it needs an average of the segment size, s_ave. Then it can add or subtract s_ave from the value of as the value of d.cep increments or decrements.

To calculate s_ave, it could keep a record of the byte numbers of all the boundaries between packets in flight (including control packets), and recalculate s_ave on every ACK. However it would be simpler to merely maintain a counter packets_in_flight for the number of packets in flight (including control packets), which it could update once per RTT. Either way, it would estimate s_ave as:

  • s_ave ~= flightsize / packets_in_flight,

where flightsize is the variable that TCP already maintains for the number of bytes in flight. To avoid floating point arithmetic, it could right-bit-shift by lg(packets_in_flight), where lg() means log base 2.

An alternative would be to maintain an exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) of the segment size:

  • s_ave = a * s + (1-a) * s_ave,

where a is the decay constant for the EWMA. However, then it is necessary to choose a good value for this constant, which ought to depend on the number of packets in flight. Also the decay constant needs to be power of two to avoid floating point arithmetic.

A.4. Example Algorithm to Beacon AccECN Options

Section 3.2.5 requires a Data Receiver to beacon a full-length AccECN Option at least 3 times per RTT. This could be implemented by maintaining a variable to store the number of ACKs (pure and data ACKs) since a full AccECN Option was last sent and another for the approximate number of ACKs sent in the last round trip time:

   if (acks_since_full_last_sent > acks_in_round / BEACON_FREQ)

For optimised integer arithmetic, BEACON_FREQ = 4 could be used, rather than 3, so that the division could be implemented as an integer right bit-shift by lg(BEACON_FREQ).

In certain operating systems, it might be too complex to maintain acks_in_round. In others it might be possible by tagging each data segment in the retransmit buffer with the number of ACKs sent at the point that segment was sent. This would not work well if the Data Receiver was not sending data itself, in which case it might be necessary to beacon based on time instead, as follows:

   if (time_now > time_last_option_sent + RTT / BEACON_FREQ)

However, this time-based approach does not work well when all the ACKs are sent early in each round trip, as is the case during slow-start.

{ToDo: A simple and robust beaconing algorithm for all circumstances is still work-in-progress.}

A.5. Example Algorithm to Count Not-ECT Bytes

A Data Sender in AccECN mode can infer the amount of TCP payload data arriving at the receiver marked Not-ECT from the difference between the amount of newly ACKed data and the sum of the bytes with the other three markings,, d.e0b and d.e1b. Note that, because r.e0b is initialised to 1 and the other two counters are initialised to 0, the initial sum will be 1, which matches the initial offset of the TCP sequence number on completion of the 3WHS.

For this approach to be precise, it has to be assumed that spurious (unnecessary) retransmissions do not lead to double counting. This assumption is currently correct, given that RFC 3168 requires that the Data Sender marks retransmitted segments as Not-ECT. However, the converse is not true; necessary transmissions will result in under-counting.

However, such precision is unlikely to be necessary. The only known use of a count of Not-ECT marked bytes is to test whether equipment on the path is clearing the ECN field (perhaps due to an out-dated attempt to clear, or bleach, what used to be the ToS field). To detect bleaching it will be sufficient to detect whether nearly all bytes arrive marked as Not-ECT. Therefore there should be no need to keep track of the details of retransmissions.

Appendix B. Alternative Design Choices (To Be Removed Before Publication)

This appendix is informative, not normative. It records alternative designs that the authors chose not to include in the normative specification, but which the IETF might wish to consider for inclusion:

Feedback all four ECN codepoints on the SYN/ACK:
The last two negotiation combinations in Table 2 could also be used to indicate AccECN support and to feedback that the arriving SYN was ECT(0) or ECT(1). This could be used to probe the client to server path for incorrect forwarding of the ECN field [I-D.kuehlewind-tcpm-ecn-fallback]. Note, however, that it would be unremarkable if ECN on the SYN was zeroed by security devices, given RFC 3168 prohibited ECT on SYN because it enables DoS attacks.
Feedback all four ECN codepoints on the First ACK:
To probe the server to client path for incorrect ECN forwarding, it could be useful to have four feedback states on the first ACK from the TCP client. This could be achieved by assigning four combinations of the ECN flags in the main TCP header, and only initialising the ACE field on subsequent segments.
Empty AccECN Option:
It might be useful to allow an empty (Length=2) AccECN Option on the SYN/ACK and first ACK. Then if a host had to omit the option because there was insufficient space for a larger option, it would not give the impression to the other end that a middlebox had stripped the option.

Appendix C. Open Protocol Design Issues (To Be Removed Before Publication)

  1. Currently it is specified that the receiver `SHOULD' use Change-Triggered ACKs. It is controversial whether this ought to be a `MUST' instead. A `SHOULD' would leave the Data Sender uncertain whether it can rely on the timing and ordering information in ACKs. If the sender guesses wrongly, it will probably introduce at least 1RTT of delay before it can use this timing information. Ironically it will most likely be wanting this information to reduce ramp-up delay. A `MUST' could make it hard to implement AccECN in offload hardware. However, it is not known whether AccECN would be hard to implement in such hardware even with a `SHOULD' here. For instance, was it hard to offload DCTCP to hardware because of change-triggered ACKs, or was this just one of many reasons? The choice between MUST and SHOULD here is critical. Before that choice is made, a clear use-case for certainty of timing and ordering information is needed, plus well-informed discussion about hardware offload constraints.
  2. There is possibly a concern that a receiver could deliberately omit the AccECN Option pretending that it had been stripped by a middlebox. No known way can yet be contrived to take advantage of this downgrade attack, but it is mentioned here in case someone else can contrive one.
  3. The s.cep counter might increase even if the counter does not (e.g. due to a CE-marked control packet). The sender's response to such a situation is considered out of scope, because this ought to be dealt with in whatever future specification allows ECN-capable control packets. However, it is possible that the situation might arise even if the sender has not sent ECN-capable control packets, in which case, this draft might need to give some advice on how the sender should respond.

Appendix D. Changes in This Version (To Be Removed Before Publication)

The difference between any pair of versions can be displayed at <>

From kuehlewind-05 to ietf-00:
Filename change to reflect WG adoption.

Authors' Addresses

Bob Briscoe Simula Research Laboratory EMail: URI:
Mirja Kühlewind ETH Zurich Gloriastrasse 35 Zurich, 8092 Switzerland EMail:
Richard Scheffenegger NetApp, Inc. Am Euro Platz 2 Vienna, 1120 Austria Phone: +43 1 3676811 3146 EMail: