Internet-Draft search June 2024
Chung, et al. Expires 8 December 2024 [Page]
Intended Status:
Standards Track
J. Chung
M. Kachooei
F. Li
M. Claypool

SEARCH -- a New Slow Start Algorithm for TCP and QUIC


TCP slow start is designed to ramp up to the network congestion point quickly, doubling the congestion window each round-trip time until the congestion point is reached, whereupon TCP exits the slow start phase. Unfortunately, the default Linux TCP slow start implementation -- TCP Cubic with HyStart -- can cause premature exit from slow start, especially over wireless links, degrading link utilization. However, without HyStart, TCP exits slow start too late, causing unnecessary packet loss. To improve TCP slow start performance, this document proposes using the Slow start Exit At Right CHokepoint (SEARCH) algorithm where the TCP sender determines the congestion point based on acknowledged deliveries -- specifically, the sender computes the delivered bytes compared to the expected delivered bytes, smoothed to account for link latency variation and normalized to accommodate link capacities, and exits slow start if the delivered bytes are lower than expected. We implemented SEARCH as a Linux kernel v5.16 module and evaluated it over WiFi, 4G/LTE, and low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous (GEO) satellite links. Analysis of the results show that the SEARCH reliably exits from slow start after the congestion point is reached but before inducing packet loss.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The TCP slow start mechanism starts sending data rates cautiously yet rapidly increases towards the congestion point, approximately doubling the congestion window (cwnd) each round-trip time (RTT). Unfortunately, default implementations of TCP slow start, such as TCP Cubic with HyStart [HYSTART] in Linux, often result in a premature exit from the slow start phase, or, if HyStart is disabled, excessive packet loss upon overshooting the congestion point. Exiting slow start too early curtails TCP's ability to capitalize on unused link capacity, a setback that is particularly pronounced in high bandwidth-delay product (BDP) networks (e.g., GEO satellites) where the time to grow the congestion window to the congestion point is substantial. Conversely, exiting slow start too late overshoots the link's capacity, inducing necessary congestion and packet loss, particularly problematic for links with large (bloated) bottleneck queues.

To determine the slow start exit point, we propose that the TCP sender monitor the acknowledged delivered bytes in an RTT and compare that to what is expected based on the bytes acknowledged as delivered during the previous RTT. Large differences between delivered bytes and expected delivered bytes is then the indicator that slow start has reached the network congestion point and the slow start phase should exit. We call our approach the Slow start Exit At Right CHokepoint (SEARCH) algorithm. SEARCH is based on the principle that during slow start, the congestion window expands by one maximum segment size (MSS) for each acknowledgment (ACK) received, prompting the transmission of two segments and effectively doubling the sending rate each RTT. However, when the network surpasses the congestion point, the delivery rate does not double as expected, signaling that the slow start phase should exit. Specifically, the current delivered bytes should be twice the delivered bytes one RTT ago. To accommodate links with a wide range in capacities, SEARCH normalizes the difference based on the current delivery rate and since link latencies can vary over time independently of data rates (especially for wireless links), SEARCH smooths the measured delivery rates over several RTTs.

This document describes the current version of the SEARCH algorithm, version 3. Active work on the SEARCH algorithm is continuing.

This document is organized as follows: Section 2 provides terminology and definitions relevant used throughout this document; Section 3 describes the SEARCH algorithm in detail; Section 4 provides justification for algorithm settings; Section 5 describes the implementation status; Section 6 describes security considerations; Section 7 notes that there are no IANA considerations; Section 8 closes with acknowledgments; and Section 9 provides references.

2. Terminology and Definitions

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, BCP 14 [RFC2119] and indicate requirement levels for compliant CoAP implementations.

In this document, the term "byte" is used in its now customary sense as a synonym for "octet".

ACK: a TCP acknowledgement.

bins: the aggregate (total) of acknowledged delivery bytes over a small time window.

congestion window (cwnd): A TCP state variable that limits the amount of data a TCP can send. At any given time, a TCP flow MUST NOT send data with a sequence number higher than the sum of the highest acknowledged sequence number and the minimum of the cwnd and receiver window.

norm_diff: the normalized difference in current delivered bytes and previously delivered bytes.

round-trip time (RTT): the round-trip time for a segment sent until the acknowledgement is received.

THRESH: the norm_diff value above which SEARCH will consider the congestion point to be reached and the slow start phase exits.

3. SEARCH Algorithm

The concept that during the slow start phase, the delivered bytes should double each RTT until the congestion point is reached is core to the SEARCH algorithm. In SEARCH, when the bytes delivered one RTT prior is half the bytes delivered currently, the bitrate is not yet at capacity, whereas when the bytes delivered prior are more than half the bytes delivered currently, the link capacity has been reached and TCP exits slow start.

One challenge in monitoring delivered data across multiple RTTs is latency variability for some links. Variable latency in the absence of congestion - common in some wireless links - can cause RTTs to differ over time even when the network is not yet at the congestion point. This variability complicates comparing delivered bytes one RTT prior to those delivered currently in that a lowered latency can make it seem like the total bytes delivered currently is too low compared to the total delivered one RTT ago, making it seem like the link is at the congestion point when it is not.

To counteract link latency variability, SEARCH tracks delivered data over several RTTs in a sliding window providing a more stable basis for comparison. Since tracking individual segment delivery times is prohibitive in terms of memory use, the data within the sliding window is aggregated over bins representing small, fixed time periods. The window then slides over bin-by-bin, rather than sliding every acknowledgement (ACK), reducing both the computational load (since SEARCH only triggers at the bin boundary) and the memory requirements (since delivered byte totals are kept for a bin-sized time interval instead of for each segment).

The SEARCH algorithm (that runs on the TCP sender only) is shown below.

The parameters in CAPS (lines 1-6) are constants, with the INITIAL_RTT (line 1) obtained via the first round-trip time measured in the TCP connection.

The variables in Initialization (lines 7-9) are set once, upon establishment of a TCP connection.

The variable now on lines 9, 10 and 24 is the current system time when the code is called.

The variable sequence_num and rtt above line 10 are obtained upon arrival of an acknowledgement from the receiver.

The variable cwnd on line 41 is the current congestion window.

Lines 1-6 set the predefined parameters for the SEARCH algorithm. The window size (WINDOW SIZE) is 3.5 times the initial RTT. The delivered bytes over a SEARCH window is approximated using 10 (W) bins, with an additional 15 additional bins (EXTRA_BINS) bins (for a total of 25 (NUM_BINS)) to allow comparison of the current delivered bytes to the previously delivered bytes one RTT earlier. The bin duration (BIN_DURATION) is the window size divided by the number of bins. The threshold (THRESH) is set to 0.35 and is the upper bound of the permissible difference between the previously delivered bytes and the current delivered bytes (normalized) above which slow start exits.

Lines 7 to 9 do one-time initialization of SEARCH variables when a TCP connection is established.

After initialization, SEARCH only acts when acknowledgements (ACKS) are received and even then, only when the current time (now) has passed the end of the latest bin boundary (stored in the variable bin_end). This check happens on line 10 and if the bin boundary is passed, the bin statistics are updated in the function update_bins(), lines 24-31.

In update_bins(), under most TCP connections, the time (now) is in the successive bin, but in some cases (such as during an RTT spike or a TCP connection without data to send), more than one bin boundary may have been passed. Line 24 computes how many bins have been passed. In lines 26 to 28, for each bin passed, the bin[] variable is set to 0. For the latest bin, the delivered bytes is updated by taking the latest sequence number (from the ACK) and subtracting the previously recorded sequence number in the last bin boundary (line 30). In line 31, the current sequence number is stored (in prev_seq_num) for computing the delivered bytes the next time a bin boundary is passed.

Once the bins are updated, lines 12-14 check if enough bins have been filled to run SEARCH. This requires at least W (10) bins (i.e., on SEARCH window worth of bytes-delivered data), but also enough bins to shift back by an RTT to compute a window (10) bins one RTT ago, too.

If there is enough bin data to run SEARCH, lines 15 and 17 compute the current and previously delivered bytes over a window (W) of bins, respectively. This sum is computed in the function sum_bins(), lines 32-38. For previously delivered bytes, shifting by an RTT may mean the SEARCH window lands between bin boundaries, so the sum is interpolated by the fraction of each of the end bins.

The function sum_bins(), idx1 and idx2 are the indices into the bin[] array for the start and end of the bin summation and as explained above, fraction is the proportion (from 0 to 1) of the end bins to use in the summation. In lines 33-35, the summation loops through the bin[] array for the middle bins, modulo the number of bins allocated (NUM_BINS) and then adds the fractions of the end bins in lines 36 and 37.

Once bin sums are tallied, line 18 calculates the difference between the expected delivered bytes (2 * prev_delv) and the current delivered bytes (curr_delv), normalized by dividing by the expected delivered bytes. In line 19, this normalized difference value (norm_diff) is compared to the threshold (THRESH). If norm_diff is larger than THRESH, that means the current delivered bytes is lower than expected (i.e., they didn't double over the previous RTT) and slow start exits. Slow start exit is handled by the function exit_slow_start() on lines 39-42.

In slow_start_exit(), since SEARCH had to pass the congestion point in order to ascertain that the chokepoint has been reached, it can reduce the congestion window (cwnd) to instead be at the congestion point instead of above it. Detection of the chokepoint condition is delayed by almost exactly two RTTs, so lines 39 and 40 compute the extra bytes (past the congestion point) that have been added to the congestion window and these are subtracted from the congestion window (line 41). Setting the slow start threshold (ssthresh) to the congestion window (cwnd) effectively exits slow start.


2: W = 10
3: EXTRA_BINS = 15
6: THRESH = 0.35

7: bin[NUM_BINS] = {}
8: curr_idx = -1
9: bin_end = *now* + BIN_DURATION

ACK_arrived(sequence_num, rtt):
  // Check if passed bin boundary.
10: if (*now* > bin_end) then
11:   update_bins()

      // Check if enough data for SEARCH.
12:   prev_idx = curr_idx - (rtt / BIN_DURATION)
13:   if (prev_idx >= W) and
14:      (curr_idx - prev_idx) <= EXTRA_BINS then

        // Run SEARCH check.
15:     curr_delv = sum_bins(curr_idx - W, curr_idx)
16:     fraction = rtt mod BIN_DURATION
17:     prev_delv = sum_bins(prev_idx - W, prev_idx, fraction)
18:     norm_diff = (2 * prev_delv - curr_delv) / (2 * prev_delv)
19:     if (norm_diff >= THRESH) then
20:       exit_slow_start()
21:     end if

22:   end if // Enough data for SEARCH.

23: end if // Each ACK.

// Update bin statistics, accounting for cases where more
// than one bin boundary might have been passed.
24: passed_bins = (*now* - bin_end) / BIN_DURATION + 1
25: bin_end += passed_bins * BIN_DURATION
26: for i = curr_idx to (curr_idx + passed_bins)
27:   bin[i mod NUM_BINS] = 0
28: end for
29: curr_idx += passed_bins
30: bin[curr_idx mod NUM_BINS] = sequence_num - prev_seq_num
31: prev_seq_num = sequence_num

// Add up bins, interpolating a fraction of each bin on the
// end (default is 0).
sum_bins(idx1, idx2, fraction = 0):
32: sum = 0
33: for i = idx1+1 to idx2-1
34:   sum += bin[i mod NUM_BINS]
35: end for
36: sum += bin[idx1] * fraction
37: sum += bin[idx2] * (1-fraction)
38: return sum

// Exit slow start by setting cwnd and ssthresh.
39: cong_idx = curr_idx - 2 * INITIAL_RTT / BIN_DURATION
40: overshoot = sum_bins(cong_idx, curr_idx)
41: cwnd -= overshoot
42: ssthresh = cwnd

4. SEARCH Parameters

This section provides justification and some sensitivity analysis for key SEARCH algorithm constants.

Window Size (WINDOW_SIZE)

The SEARCH window smooths over RTT fluctuations in a connection that are unrelated to congestion. The window size must be large enough to encapsulate meaningful link variation, yet small in order to allow SEARCH to respond near when slow start reaches link capacity. In order to determine an appropriate window size, we analyzed RTT variation over time for GEO, LEO, and 4G LTE links for TCP during slow start. See [KCL24] for details.

The SEARCH window size needs to be large enough to capture the observed periodic oscillations in the RTT values. In order to determine the oscillation period, we use a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) to convert measured RTT values from the time domain to the frequency domain. For GEO satellites, the primary peak is at 0.5 Hz, meaning there is a large, periodic cycle that occurs about every 2 seconds. Given the minimum RTT for a GEO connection of about 600 ms, this means the RTT cycle occurs about every 3.33 RTTs. Thus, a window size of about 3.5 times the minimum RTT should smooth out the latency variation for this type of link.

While the RTT periodicity for LEO links is not as pronounced as they are in GEO links, the analysis yields a similar window size. The FFT of LEO RTTs has a dominant peak at 10 Hz, so a period of about 0.1 seconds. With LEO's minimum RTT of about 30 ms, the period is about 3.33 RTTs, similar to that for GEO. Thus, a window size of about 3.5 times the minimum RTT should smooth out the latency variation for this type of link, too.

Similarly to the LEO link, the LTE network does not have a strong RTT periodicity. The FFT of LTE RTTs has a dominant peak at 6 Hz, with a period of about 0.17 seconds. With the minimum RTT of the LTE network of about 60 ms, this means a window size of about 2.8 times the minimum RTT is needed. A SEARCH default of 3.5 times the minimum RTT exceeds this, so should smooth out the variance for this type of link as well.

** Threshold (THRESH) **

The threshold (THRESH) determines when the difference between the bytes delivered currently and the bytes delivered during the previous RTT is large enough to exit the slow start phase. A small threshold is desirable to exit slow start close to the `at capacity' point (i.e., without overshooting too much), but the threshold must be large enough not to trigger an exit from slow start prematurely due to noise in the measurements.

During slow start, the congestion window doubles each RTT. In ideal conditions and with an initial cwnd of 1 (1 is used as an example, but typical congestion windows start at 10 or more), this results in a sequence of delivered bytes that follows a doubling pattern (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, ...). Once the link capacity is reached, the delivered bytes each RTT cannot increase despite cwnd growth. For example, consider a window that is 4x the size of the RTT. After 5 RTTs, the current delivered window comprises 2, 4, 8, 16, while the previous delivered window is 1, 2, 4, 8. The current delivered bytes is 30, exactly double the bytes delivered in the previous window. Thus, SEARCH would compute the normalized difference as zero.

Once the cwnd ramps up to meet full link capacity, the delivered bytes plateau. Continuing the example, if the link capacity is reached when cwnd is 16, the delivered bytes growth would be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 16. The current delivered window is 4+8+16+16 = 44, while the previously delivered window is 2+4+8+16 = 30. Here, the normalized difference between 2x the previously delivered window and the current delivered window is about (60-44)/60 = 0.27. After 5 more RTTs, the previous delivered and current delivered bytes would both be 16 + 16 + 16 + 16 = 64 and the normalized difference would be (128 - 64) / 64 = 0.5.

Thus, the norm values typically range from 0 (before the congestion point) to 0.5 (well after the congestion point) with values between 0 and 0.5 when the congestion point has been reached but not surpassed by the full window.

To generalize this relationship, the theoretical underpinnings of this behavior can be quantified by integrating the area under the congestion window curve for a closed-form equation for both the current delivered bytes (curr_delv) and the previously delivered bytes (prev_delv). The normalized difference can be computed based on the RTT round relative to the "at capacity" round. While SEARCH seeks to detect the "at capacity" point as soon as possible after reaching it, it must also avoid premature exit in the case of noise on the link. The 0.35 threshold value chosen does this and can be detected about 2 RTTs of reaching capacity.

Number of Bins (NUM_BINS)

Dividing the delivered byte window into bins reduces the sender's memory load by aggregating data into manageable segments instead of tracking each packet. This approach simplifies data handling and minimizes the frequency of window updates, enhancing sender efficiency. However, more bins provide more fidelity to actual delivered byte totals and allow SEARCH to make decisions (i.e., compute if it should exit slow start) more often, but require more memory for each flow. The sensitivity analysis previously conducted aimed to identify the impact of the number of bins used by SEARCH and the ability to exit slow start in a timely fashion.

Using a window size of 3.5x the initial RTT and a threshold of 0.35, we varied the number of bins from 5 to 40 and observed the impact on SEARCH's performance over GEO, LEO and 4G LTE downloads. For all three link types, a bin size 10 of provides nearly identical performance as SEARCH running with more bins, while 10 also minimizes early exits from slow start while having an "at chokepoint" percentage that is close to the maximum.

5. Deployment and Performance Evaluation

Evaluation of hundreds of downloads of TCP with SEARCH across GEO, LEO, and 4G LTE network links compared to TCP with HyStart and TCP without HyStart shows SEARCH almost always exits after capacity has been reached but before packet loss has occurred. This results in capacity limits being reached quickly while avoiding inefficiencies caused by lost packets.

Evaluation of a SEARCH implementation in an open source QUIC library (QUICly) over an emulated GEO satellite link validates the implementation, illustrating how SEARCH detects the congestion point and exits slow start before packet loss occurs. Evaluation over a commercial GEO satellite link shows SEARCH can provide a median improvement of up to 3 seconds (14%) compared to the baseline by limiting cwnd growth when capacity is reached and delaying any packet loss due to congestion.

Details can be found at [KCL24] and [CKC24].

6. Implementation Status

This section records the status of known implementations of the algorithm defined by this specification at the time of posting of this Internet-Draft, and is based on a proposal described in [RFC7942]. The description of implementations in this section is intended to assist the IETF in its decision processes in progressing drafts to RFCs. Please note that the listing of any individual implementation here does not imply endorsement by the IETF. Furthermore, no effort has been spent to verify the information presented here that was supplied by IETF contributors. This is not intended as, and must not be construed to be, a catalog of available implementations or their features. Readers are advised to note that other implementations may exist.

According to [RFC7942], "this will allow reviewers and working groups to assign due consideration to documents that have the benefit of running code, which may serve as evidence of valuable experimentation and feedback that have made the implemented protocols more mature. It is up to the individual working groups to use this information as they see fit".

As of the time of writing, the following implementations of SEARCH have been publicly released:

Linux TCP

Source code URL:

Source: WPI Maturity: production License: GPL? Contact: Last updated: May 2024


Source code URLs:

Source: WPI Maturity: production License: BSD-style Contact: Last updated: May 2024

7. Security Considerations

This proposal makes no changes to the underlying security of transport protocols or congestion control algorithms. SEARCH shares the same security considerations as the existing standard congestion control algorithm [RFC5681].

8. IANA Considerations

This document has no IANA actions. Here we are using that phrase, suggested by [RFC8126], because SEARCH does not modify or extend the wire format of any network protocol, nor does it add new dependencies on assigned numbers. SEARCH involves only a change to the slow start part of the congestion control algorithm of a transport sender, and does not involve changes in the network, the receiver, or any network protocol.

Note to RFC Editor: this section may be removed on publication as an RFC.

9. Acknowledgements

Much of the content of this draft is the result of discussions with the Congestion Control Research Group (CCRG) at WPI In addition, feedback and discussions of early versions of SEARCH with the technical group at Viasat has been invaluable.

10. References

11. References

11.1. Normative References

Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Allman, M., Paxson, V., and E. Blanton, "TCP Congestion Control", RFC 5681, DOI 10.17487/RFC5681, , <>.
Sheffer, Y. and A. Farrel, "Improving Awareness of Running Code: The Implementation Status Section", BCP 205, RFC 7942, DOI 10.17487/RFC7942, , <>.
Cotton, M., Leiba, B., and T. Narten, "Guidelines for Writing an IANA Considerations Section in RFCs", BCP 26, RFC 8126, DOI 10.17487/RFC8126, , <>.

11.2. Informative References

Cronin, A., Kachooei, M., Chung, J., Li, F., Peters, B., and M. Claypool, "Improving QUIC Slow Start Behavior in Wireless Networks with SEARCH", Proceedings of the IEEE International Symposium on Local and Metropolitan Area Networks (LANMAN), Boston, MA, USA , , <>.
Ha, S. and I. Rhee, "Taming the Elephants: New TCP Slow Start", Computer Networks vol. 55, no. 9, pp. 2092-2110, DOI 10.1016/j.comnet.2011.01.014 , , <>.
Kachooei, M., Chung, J., Li, F., Peters, B., Chung, J., and M. Claypool, "Improving TCP Slow Start Performance in Wireless Networks with SEARCH", The World of Wireless, Mobile and Multimedia Networks conference (WoWMoM), Perth, Australia , .

Appendix A. Historical Note

Authors' Addresses

Jae Won Chung
Viasat Inc
300 Nickerson Rd,
Marlborough, MA, 1002
United States of America
Maryam Ataei Kachooei
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
100 Institute Rd
Worcester, MA, 01609
United States of America
Feng Li
Viasat Inc
300 Nickerson Rd,
Marlborough, MA, 1002
United States of America
Mark Claypool
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
100 Institute Rd
Worcester, MA, 01609
United States of America