The end-to-end principle is one of the central design principles of the Internet and is implemented in the design of the underlying methods and protocols in the Internet Protocol Suite. It is also used in other distributed systems. The principle states that, whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled.
According to the end-to-end principle, protocol features are only justified in the lower layers of a system if they are a performance optimization, hence, Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) retransmission for reliability is still justified, but efforts to improve TCP reliability should stop after peak performance has been reached.
The concept and research of end-to-end connectivity and network intelligence at the end-nodes reaches back to packet-switching networks in the 1970s, cf. CYCLADES. A 1981 presentation entitled End-to-end arguments in system design by Jerome H. Saltzer, David P. Reed, and David D. Clark, argued that reliable systems tend to require end-to-end processing to operate correctly, in addition to any processing in the intermediate system. They pointed out that most features in the lowest level of a communications system have costs for all higher-layer clients, even if those clients do not need the features, and are redundant if the clients have to reimplement the features on an end-to-end basis.
This leads to the model of a dumb, minimal network with smart terminals, a completely different model from the previous paradigm of the smart network with dumb terminals.
In 1995, the Federal Networking Council adopted a resolution defining the Internet as a “global information system” that is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons; is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on this communications and related infrastructure.
In the Internet Protocol Suite, the Internet Protocol is a simple (“dumb”), stateless protocol that moves datagrams across the network, and TCP is a smart transport protocol providing error detection, retransmission, congestion control, and flow control end-to-end. The network itself (the routers) needs only to support the simple, lightweight IP; the endpoints run the heavier TCP on top of it when needed.
A second canonical example is that of file transfer. Every reliable file transfer protocol and file transfer program should contain a checksum, which is validated only after everything has been successfully stored on disk. Disk errors, router errors, and file transfer software errors make an end-to-end checksum necessary. Therefore, there is a limit to how secure TCP checksum should be, because it has to be reimplemented for any robust end-to-end application to be secure.
A third example (not from the original paper) is the EtherType field of Ethernet. An Ethernet frame does not attempt to provide interpretation for the 16 bits of type in an original Ethernet packet. To add special interpretation to some of these bits would reduce the total number of Ethertypes, hurting the scalability of higher layer protocols, i.e. all higher layer protocols would pay a price for the benefit of just a few. Attempts to add elaborate interpretation (e.g. IEEE 802 SSAP/DSAP) have generally been ignored by most network designs, which follow the end-to-end principle.
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