UDP (User Datagram Protocol) is a simple transport layer protocol defined in RFC 768. It is designed to run on top of IP and it’s IP protocol number is 17.

Key Properties of UDP

  • Connectionless and ‘unreliable’

  • Minimal overhead

  • Multiplexing

Connectionless and ‘unreliable’

Instead of initiating a connection, UDP simply splits data into discrete segments and sends them independently. Because there is no sequencing information, the recipient cannot guarantee whether all of the data sent has been received. UDP does still have a checksum so corrupted data can be discarded but it cannot be resent.

It is still possible for applications to perform error checking and correction at the application layer if necessary. For example, if transferring files, you could run a checksum against the fully received file.

Minimal overhead

Because UDP does not establish connections or implement flow control, far fewer packets need to be sent to transfer data. The UDP header is also much simpler, with just 4 fields and no options.


Multiplexing is used to allow multiple connections simultaneously and to differentiate between the connections for different applications. When a host receives data, it needs to work out who that data is for – is it http traffic for a web browser, VOIP for Skype or FTP data being transferred. UDP does this using ports.

Hosts manage network connections using sockets which are defined by:

  • IP Address

  • Transport Protocol (UDP)

  • Port number

Source Ports

When a client sets up a connection for an application it will assign an unused port as the source port. This is known as an ephemeral port – it is just assigned for the duration of the connection. All data received on this port until the connection is terminated will be sent on to that application.

Destination Ports

The destination port that data is sent to is more specific. Common applications have been assigned port numbers which is what a client will set as the destination port. For example DNS traffic uses port 53. The server side of the connection can then differentiate between clients using the combination of IP address and the client source port.

Port Numbers

There are three ranges of port numbers. IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) maintain registered port numbers and suggested ranges to be used:

  • Well known ports (0 – 1023)

  • Registered ports (1024 – 49151)

  • Dynamic / Private Ports (49152 – 65535)

Well Known UDP Port Numbers

53 Domain Name System DNS

67 and 68 Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol DHCP

69 Trivial File Transfer Protocol TFTP

123 Network Time Protocol NTP

161 Simple Network Management Protocol

514 Syslog

UDP Header

Source Port (16 bits)

UDP port number which the data is being sent from.

Destination Port (16 bits)

UDP port number which the data is being sent to.

Length (16 bits)

Length in bytes of the datagram (header and data). The minimum is 8 bytes – just a UDP header with no data.

Checksum (16 bits)

The checksum is calculated over a ‘pseudo header’ consisting of the source IP address, destination IP address, 8 bits of zero padding, transport protocol (17 for UDP) and the UDP length.

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