System Administration Guide, Volume 3

Protocol Layers and the OSI Model

Most network protocol suites are structured as a series of layers, sometimes referred to collectively as a protocol stack. Each layer is designed for a specific purpose and exists on both the sending and receiving hosts. Each is designed so that a specific layer on one machine sends or receives exactly the same object sent or received by its peer process on another machine. These activities take place independently from what is going on in layers above or below the layer under consideration. In other words, each layer on a host acts independently of other layers on the same machine, and in concert with the same layer on other hosts.

OSI Reference Model

Most network protocol suites are viewed as structured in layers. This is a result of the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) Reference Model designed by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The OSI model describes network activities as having a structure of seven layers, each of which has one or more protocols associated with it. The layers represent data transfer operations common to all types of data transfers among cooperating networks.

The protocol layers of the OSI Reference Model are traditionally listed from the top (layer 7) to the bottom (layer 1) up, as shown in the following table.

Table 4-1 The Open Systems Interconnect Reference Model

Layer No. 

Layer Name 



Consists of standard communication services and applications that everyone can use 


Ensures that information is delivered to the receiving machine in a form that it can understand 


Manages the connections and terminations between cooperating computers 


Manages the transfer of data and assures that received and transmitted data are identical 


Manages data addressing and delivery between networks 

Data Link

Handles the transfer of data across the network media 


Defines the characteristics of the network hardware 

The operations defined by the OSI model are conceptual and not unique to any particular network protocol suite. For example, the OSI network protocol suite implements all seven layers of the OSI Reference Model. TCP/IP uses some of OSI model layers and combines others. Other network protocols, such as SNA, add an eighth layer.