Reliable Data Transfer Protocols (RDT): The Reliability Guarantee that Keeps the Internet Running Smoothly

The Internet is a messy place connected by presumably unreliable infrastructure — but we make it work! How can an unreliable network provide a reliable communications platform? Reliable Data Transfer Protocols help make it happen and understanding their core functions is essential to understanding computer networks.

Image from Overcoded


Reliable Data Transfer Protocols must address the two primary concerns of data loss and data corruption. In network communications, these types of errors generally occur on the physical network hardware during buffering, propagation, and transmission actions.

Acknowledgment (ACK)

When a network system sends data to another network system, RDT suggests that some measures be taken to ensure that data arrived successfully. One basic approach to accomplish this is to incorporate a system of acknowledgment such that a receiver can inform the sender “yes, I received your message.”


What happens is a receiver never receives a packet to ACK or NAK? Such could be the case resulting from packet loss across the network. In this scenario, a sender may be stuck waiting indefinitely for an ACK/NAK that will never come.

Sequence Numbers (SEQ)

As senders transmit data across the network, awaiting ACK feedback from receivers, there becomes another issue: how is a sender to know which data an ACK is referencing? For example, let’s say 3 data segments were transmitted and the sender received 2 ACKs and 1 NAK. Which segment would need to be retransmitted?


Pipelining is an ARQ protocol that allows for significant expansion of transmission rates. In modern protocols like TCP, the range of sequence numbers available are 232 (0 -4,294,967,295 unsigned integers). However, there are still several approaches as to how retransmission of corrupt or lost data segments should be handled.

Go-Back-N (GBN)

Go-Back-N is a sliding window protocol by which a sender maintains a window of packets that can be sent across the network. For example, if the sender has 30 total packets ranging in SEQ numbers from 0–29, a transmission window of size 5 may only include SEQ5-SEQ9 at a particular time.

  1. The maximum value is the SEQ of the base + N for an n-sized window. In our example above, a window size of 5 would result in a maximum of base+5. This represents the SEQ number of the last packet authorized for transmission.
  1. ACK received from the receiver;
  2. Timeout event for a previously transmitted packet

Selective Repeat (SR)

Selective repeat is similar to GBN but addresses the issue of redundant network transmissions. For example, where GBN receivers discard out-of-sequence packets and signal retransmission of entire sequence ranges, SR can request specific packets to be retransmitted.

  1. Timeouts experienced for already transmitted packets;
  2. ACK received for already transmitted packets


Reliable data protocols support transport layer services necessary for many modern network communications. The use of acknowledgments, timers, sequence numbers, buffers, and clever algorithms all help ensure messages from senders arrive at receivers around the world.

Entrepreneur, Computer Science Student, Designer, and self-confessed health nut that enjoys productivity hacks, developing better habits, and Mother Nature.