Chapter 6: Congestion Control

The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good. —William Shakespeare

Problem: Allocating Resources

By now we have seen enough layers of the network protocol hierarchy to understand how data can be transferred among processes across heterogeneous networks. We now turn to a problem that spans the entire protocol stack—how to effectively and fairly allocate resources among a collection of competing users. The resources being shared include the bandwidth of the links and the buffers on the routers or switches where packets are queued awaiting transmission. Packets contend at a router for the use of a link, with each contending packet placed in a queue waiting its turn to be transmitted over the link. When too many packets are contending for the same link, the queue fills and two undesirable things happen: packets experience increased end-to-end delay, and in the worst case, the queue overflows and packets have to be dropped. When long queues persist and drops become common, the network is said to be congested. Most networks provide a congestion-control mechanism to deal with just such a situation.

Congestion control and resource allocation are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, if the network takes an active role in allocating resources—for example, scheduling which virtual circuit gets to use a given physical link during a certain period of time—then congestion may be avoided, thereby making congestion control unnecessary. Allocating network resources with any precision is difficult, however, because the resources in question are distributed throughout the network; multiple links connecting a series of routers need to be scheduled. On the other hand, you can always let packet sources send as much data as they want and then recover from congestion should it occur. This is the easier approach, but it can be disruptive because many packets may be discarded by the network before congestion can be controlled. Furthermore, it is precisely at those times when the network is congested—that is, resources have become scarce relative to demand—that the need for resource allocation among competing users is most keenly felt. There are also solutions in the middle, whereby inexact allocation decisions are made, but congestion can still occur and hence some mechanism is still needed to recover from it. Whether you call such a mixed solution congestion control or resource allocation does not really matter. In some sense, it is both.

Congestion control and resource allocation involve both hosts and network elements such as routers. In network elements, various queuing disciplines can be used to control the order in which packets get transmitted and which packets get dropped. The queuing discipline can also segregate traffic to keep one user's packets from unduly affecting another user's packets. At the end hosts, the congestion-control mechanism paces how fast sources are allowed to send packets. This is done in an effort to keep congestion from occurring in the first place and, should it occur, to help eliminate the congestion.

This chapter starts with an overview of congestion control and resource allocation. We then discuss different queuing disciplines that can be implemented on the routers inside the network, followed by a description of the congestion-control algorithm provided by TCP on the hosts. The fourth section explores various techniques involving both routers and hosts that aim to avoid congestion before it becomes a problem. Finally, we examine the broad area of quality of service. We consider the needs of applications to receive different levels of resource allocation in the network and describe a number of ways in which they can request these resources and the network can meet the requests.

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