TCP vs. UDP: Understanding the Difference

Posted on Dec 17, 2018 by Sean Doyle

You may have heard of TCP and UDP when setting up a router, configuring firewall software, or looking through VPN features. But what is the difference between UDP and TCP and when should you use UDP vs TCP?

In order to understand the difference between TCP and UDP, you should first know what they are.

What is TCP?

Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is a connection-oriented protocol that computers use to communicate over the internet. It is one of the main protocols in TCP/IP networks. TCP provides error-checking and guarantees delivery of data and that packets will be delivered in the order they were sent.

What is UDP?

User Datagram Protocol (UDP) is a connectionless protocol that works just like TCP but assumes that error-checking and recovery services are not required. Instead, UDP continuously sends datagrams to the recipient whether they receive them or not.

What’s the difference between TCP and UDP?

TCP and UDP have many differences and similarities. They are the most commonly used protocols for sending packets over the internet. They both work on the transport layer of the TCP/IP protocol stack and both use the IP protocol.

But, let’s take a look at some of the key differences in TCP vs UDP


TCP vs UDP: connection vs connectionless

TCP is a connection-oriented protocol and UDP is a connection-less protocol. TCP establishes a connection between a sender and receiver before data can be sent. UDP does not establish a connection before sending data.


TCP vs UDP: Reliability

TCP is very reliable. Data sent using a TCP protocol is guaranteed to be delivered to the receiver. If data is lost in transit it will recover the data and resend it. TCP will also check packets for errors and track packets so that data is not lost or corrupted.

In comparison, UDP is unreliable, it does not provide guaranteed delivery and a datagram packet may become corrupt or lost in transit.


TCP vs UDP: Flow control

TCP uses a flow control mechanism that ensures a sender is not overwhelming a receiver by sending too many packets at once. TCP stores data in a send buffer and receives data in a receive buffer. When an application is ready, it will read the data from the receive buffer. If the receive buffer is full, the receiver would not be able to handle more data and would drop it. To maintain the amount of data that can be sent to a receiver, the receiver tells the sender how much spare room in the receive buffer there is (receive window). Every time a packet is received, a message is sent to the sender with the value of the current receive window.

UDP does not provide flow control. With UDP, packets arrive in a continuous stream or they are dropped.


TCP vs UDP: Ordering

TCP does ordering and sequencing to guarantee that packets sent from a server will be delivered to the client in the same order they were sent. On the other hand, UDP sends packets in any order.


TCP vs UDP: Speed

TCP is slower than UDP because it has a lot more to do. TCP has to establish a connection, error-check, and guarantee that files are received in the order they were sent.


TCP vs UDP: Usage

TCP is best suited to be used for applications that require high reliability where timing is less of a concern.

  • World Wide Web (HTTP, HTTPS)
  • Secure Shell (SSH)
  • File Transfer Protocol (FTP)
  • Email (SMTP, IMAP/POP)

UDP is best suited for applications that require speed and efficiency.

  • VPN tunneling
  • Streaming videos
  • Online games
  • Live broadcasts
  • Domain Name System (DNS)
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
  • Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP)


TCP vs UDP: Conclusion

It is easy to decide if you should choose UDP vs TCP since they are both well suited to specific applications.  If accuracy and reliability is of the utmost importance, then TCP is the way to go. If speed is more important, UDP is the right choice.

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