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TCP or UDP. What and Why?

Published: 2023-09-03

Written By Owen Crisp


Knowing the two different protocols back to front allows a better solutions architect for all your networking quarms. Today we'll be breaking down both transmission control protocol and user datagram protocol; going into more detail on the distinct differences. On the surface they're both for sending and receiving, but what else do you know about these two?  

TCP, The Three Musketeers of Data Transmission:

Before data transmission can occur, a connection needs to be established between the client and server. The server must continuously listen for client requests once a connection is established. TCP, being a connection-oriented protocol, establishes and preserves a connection between the sender and recipient throughout the data transfer process. TCP also leverages both timeout and checksum alongside its acknowledgement as part of its error checking processes. If an error or missing data packet is identified, the entire process of transmission is restarted.

Working on a three way "handshake", the transmission control protocol guarantees delivery of data. The three way protocol consists of a synchronisation segment (SYN), a synchronisation acknowledgement (SYN ACK), and finally the acknowledgement segment (ACK RECIEVED). This process is thorough and guarantees all data is delivered from sender to recipient through the server. The guarantee of data can be crucial, as just a single missing packet (one code character for example) could render a whole website unreadable. During data transmission if a data packet is lost, the server will halt, restart, and attempt retransmission to complete the transfer as intended.

However with all benefits come drawbacks, nothing can be perfect. The thoroughness of the protocol means for huge overhead; consuming a considerable amount of bandwidth. This can cause congestion on a busy network and take considerably longer in terms of transfer times. TCP is the preferred protocol in file transferring, web browsing, and emails.  

UDP, The Best Effort:

Similar to TCP, User Datagram Protocol is also for sending and receiving data. Unlike TCP, the UDP is connectionless; this means there are no connections established before the data is sent. UDP does not guarantee all the data being transferred and will not go back to pick up anything missed. Furthermore, it does not ensure the delivery at the conclusion of sending. This is why UDP is often referred to as the "fire and forget" protocol.

One of the primary factors contributing to the widespread use of UDP, despite its inherent limitations, is its swiftness and efficiency. The User Datagram Protocol (UDP) doesn't necessitate the establishment of a pre-existing connection to begin packet transmission. Consequently, it reduces the time typically spent on activating the server and putting it into a "passive open" state for listening. This results in a quicker commencement of data transmission, free from delays or prolonged latency.

Due to the removal of the data guarantee and the method in which it sends data, the removal of the overhead TCP creates allows for much faster data transfer. Without the confirmation of receipt from client to recipient, it could be that data is lost during transmission. For example, UDP does nothing to control network congestion and can lose data packets if traffic amongst its pathway is heavy. This makes it unsuitable for takss web page viewing or emails, and more for streaming or VOIP. Despite its unreliable characteristics, UDP remains a fundamental component of online operations. Its shines in scenarios involving real-time data transmission, where the occasional loss of a few packets is inconsequential and often unnoticeable.

To use playing an online game as an example: When a data packet is lost, it might lead to the skipping of a few frames. Despite this however, the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) will persist in sending the subsequent data packets, enabling the user to continue their gameplay without much interruption. This may infect not even be noticeable for the user, where as loading an email with missing data packets could render it unreadable.


These protocols each bring their own unique strengths to the table. TCP is the steady and reliable one, while UDP is all about efficiency. But here's the kicker: To make the most of these protocols, it's essential to grasp the key distinctions between TCP and UDP. By doing so, organisations can fine-tune their networks to perfection.

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