Multiple Associations with Stream Control Transmission Protocol

by Jan Newmarch

In two previous articles [in the September and October 2007 issues of LJ], I looked at the basics of SCTP, how you can use SCTP as a replacement for TCP and how you can use SCTP to process multiple streams within a single association. In this final article, I look at how a single endpoint deals with multiple associations (connections to other endpoints). First though, I explain how SCTP can give extra information about what is going on through events.


The SCTP stack can generate events when “interesting” things happen. By default, all event generation is turned off except for data events. In the last article, I discussed the SCTP call sctp_rcvmsg(). By default, this just returns the data read. But, I also wanted to find out on which stream the data came, and for this I had to turn on the data_io_event so the SCTP stack would fill in the sctp_sndrcvinfo structure, which has the sinfo_stream field. Events are listed in the sctp_event_subscribe structure:

struct sctp_event_subscribe { 
    uint8_t sctp_data_io_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_association_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_address_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_send_failure_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_peer_error_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_shutdown_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_partial_delivery_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_adaptation_layer_event; 
    uint8_t sctp_authentication_event; 

An application sets fields to one for events it is interested in and zero for the others. It then makes a call to setsockopt() with SCTP_EVENTS. For example:

memset(&event, 0, sizeof(event)); 
event.sctp_data_io_event = 1; 
event.sctp_association_event = 1; 
setsockopt(fd, IPPROTO_SCTP, SCTP_EVENTS, 
           &event, sizeof(event));

Events are delivered inline along with “ordinary” data whenever a read (using sctp_recvmsg or similar) is done. If the application turns on events, reads will contain a mixture of events and data. The application then will need to examine each read to see whether it is an event or data to be processed. This is quite straightforward. If the flags field in the sctp_recvmsg() call has the MSG_NOTIFICATION bit set, the read message contains an event; otherwise, it contains data as before. Pseudo-code for this is:

nread = sctp_rcvmsg(..., msg, ..., &flags); 
if (flags & MSG_NOTIFICATION) 
    handle_data(msg, nread);

Events can be used to tell the following: if a new association has started or if an old one has terminated; if a peer has changed state by, say, one of the interfaces becoming unavailable or a new interface becoming available; if a send has failed, a remote error has occurred or a remote peer has shut down; if partial delivery has failed; and if authentication information is available.

If an event is received in the event buffer, first its type must be found, and then the buffer can be cast to a suitable type for that event. For example, the code to handle a shutdown event is:

void handle_event(void *buf) { 
    union sctp_notification *notification; 
    struct sn_header *head; 

    notification = buf; 
    switch(notification->sn_header.sn_type) { 
        struct sctp_shutdown_event *shut; 
        shut = (struct sctp_shutdown_event *) buf; 
        printf("Shutdown on assoc id %d\n", 
        printf("Unhandled event type %d\n", 

Closing an Association

A socket can support multiple associations. If you close a socket, it closes all of the associations! It is sometimes desirable to close only a single association but not the socket, so that the socket can continue to be used for the other associations.

SCTP can abort an association or close it gracefully. Graceful shutdown will ensure that any queued messages are delivered properly before shutdown, while abort does not do this. Either of these are signaled by setting the sinfo_flags in the sctp_sndrcvinfo structure to the appropriate value. A graceful shutdown is signaled by setting the shutdown flag and writing a message (with no data):

sinfo.sinfo_flags = SCTP_EOF; sctp_send(..., &sinfo, ...);

The reader then will be sent an sctp_shutdown_event if it has that event type enabled. The code to handle such an event was shown above. This can be done only on one-to-many sockets though. For one-to-one sockets, you are limited to using close().

Getting the Association ID

Many of the calls that deal with associations take an association ID as a parameter. Whereas in TCP, a connection effectively is represented by the pair of source and destination endpoint IP addresses, in SCTP, the source and destination can both be multihomed, so they will be represented by the set of source and the set of destination addresses. For one-to-many sockets, the source addresses may be shared by many associations, so I need the destination addresses to identify an association properly. For a single association, these destination addresses all belong to a single endpoint computer. The SCTP variation on getsockopt()—that is, sctp_opt_info()—is used to find an association from an address. The reason I cannot simply use getsockopt() is that I need to pass in a socket address, and the return value includes the association value. This in/out semantics is not supported by all implementations of getsockopt(). The code is:

sctp_assoc_t get_associd(int sockfd, struct sockaddr *sa, socklen_t salen) { 
    struct sctp_paddrinfo sp; 
    int sz; 
    sz = sizeof(struct sctp_paddrinfo); 
    bzero(&sp, sz); 
    memcpy(&sp.spinfo_address, sa, salen); 
    if (sctp_opt_info(sockfd, 0, SCTP_GET_PEER_ADDR_INFO, &sp, &sz) == -1) 
        perror("get assoc"); 
    return (sp.spinfo_assoc_id); 

Note that Unix Network Programming (volume 1, 3rd ed.) by W. Richard Stevens, et al., gives different code: the specification has changed since that book was written, and the above is now the preferred way (and Stevens' code doesn't work under Linux anyway).

Multiple Associations

A server can handle multiple clients in a number of ways: a TCP server can use a single server socket that listens for clients and deals with them sequentially, or it could fork off each new client connection as a separate process or thread, or it could have many sockets and poll or select between them. A UDP server typically will keep no client state and will treat each message in its entirety as a separate entity. SCTP offers another variation, roughly halfway between TCP and UDP.

An SCTP socket can handle multiple long-lived associations to many endpoints simultaneously. It supports the “connection-oriented” semantics of TCP by maintaining an association ID for each association. On the other hand, it is like UDP in that each read usually returns a complete message from a client. SCTP applications use the TCP model by using the one-to-one sockets that I have discussed in the previous two articles. And, it uses a one-to-many model, which is more like UDP by using a one-to-many socket. When you create a socket, you specify whether it is one-to-one or one-to-many. In the first article in this series, I created a one-to-one socket by the call:


To create a one-to-many socket, I simply change the second parameter:


A TCP server handles multiple connections simultaneously by essentially using concurrent reads. This is done by using multiple processes, threads, or by poll/select among many sockets. A UDP server typically uses a single read loop, handling each message as it arrives. An SCTP one-to-many server looks like a UDP server: it will bind a socket and listen. Then, instead of blocking on accept(), which would return a new one-to-one socket, it blocks on sctp_rcvmsg(), which returns a message from either a new or existing association. Pseudo-code for such a server is:

sockfd = socket(...); 
bind(sockfd, ...); 
listen(sockfd, ...); 
while (true) { 
    nread = sctp_rcvmsg(sockfd, ..., buf, ..., &info); 
    assoc_id = sinfo.sinfo_assoc_id; 
    stream = sinfo.sinfo_stream; 
    handle_message(assoc_id, stream, buf, nread); 

A client also can use the one-to-many socket model. After binding to a port (probably an ephemeral one), it can use the single socket to connect to many other endpoints and use this single socket to send messages to any of them. It even can do away with an explicit connect operation and just start sending to new endpoints (an implicit connection is done if no existing association exists).

Peeled-Off Sockets

One-to-one sockets follow the TCP model; one-to-many sockets follow the UDP model. Is it possible to have both at once? Yes, it is, to some extent. For example, you may have a server that you can talk to in two modes: ordinary user and superuser. Messages from ordinary users may be handled in UDP style, reading and just responding, while superuser connections may need to be treated differently. SCTP allows a connection on a one-to-many socket to be “peeled off” and become a one-to-one socket. This one-to-one socket may then be treated in TCP-style, while all other associations remain on the one-to-many socket.

Lazy Person's Chat

In this section, I discuss a simple example of how to build a simple chat server using SCTP. This isn't meant to be a competitor to the many chat systems around, rather it is to show some of the features of SCTP.

A chat server must listen for messages coming from a probably transient group of clients. When a message is received from any one client, it should send the message back out to all of the other clients.

UDP could be a choice here: a server simply can wait in a read loop, waiting for messages to come in. But, to send them back out, it needs to keep a list of clients, and this is a bit more difficult. Clients will come and go, so some sort of “liveness” test is needed to keep the list up to date.

SCTP is a better choice: it can sit in a read loop too, but it also keeps a list of associations and, better, keeps that list up to date by sending heartbeat messages to the peers. The list management is handled by SCTP.

TCP also could be a choice: each client would start a new client socket on the server. The server then would need to keep a list of the client sockets and do a poll/select between them to see if anyone is sending a message. Again, SCTP is a better choice: in the one-to-many mode, it will keep only a single socket, and there is no need for a poll/select loop.

When it comes to sending messages back to all the connected clients, SCTP makes it even easier—the flag SCTP_SENDALL that can can be set in the sctp_sndrcvinfo field of sctp_send(). So a server simply needs to read a message from any client, set the SCTP_SENDALL bit and write it back out. The SCTP stack then will send it to all live peers! There are only a few lines of code:

nread = sctp_recvmsg(sockfd, buf, SIZE, 
                    (struct sockaddr *) &client_addr, 
                    &len, &sinfo, &flags); 
bzero(&sinfo, sizeof(sinfo)); 
sinfo.sinfo_flags |= SCTP_SENDALL; 
sctp_send(sockfd, buf, nread, &sinfo, 0);

The SCTP_SENDALL flag has been introduced only recently into SCTP and is not in current kernels (up to, but it should make it into the 2.6.22 kernels. The full code for client and server is shown in Listings 1 (chat_client.c) and 2 (chat_server.c).

Listing 1. chat_client.c

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <sys/select.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <netinet/in.h>

#include <netinet/sctp.h>

#define SIZE 1024
char buf[SIZE];
#define STDIN 0
char *msg = "hello\n";
#define ECHO_PORT 2013

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
        int sockfd;
        int nread, nsent;
        int flags, len;
        struct sockaddr_in serv_addr;
        struct sctp_sndrcvinfo sinfo;
        fd_set readfds;

        if (argc != 2) {
                fprintf(stderr, "usage: %s IPaddr\n", argv[0]);
        /* create endpoint using  SCTP */
        sockfd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_SEQPACKET,
        if (sockfd < 0) {
                perror("socket creation failed");
                exit(2); }
        /* connect to server */
        serv_addr.sin_family = AF_INET;
        serv_addr.sin_addr.s_addr = inet_addr(argv[1]);
        serv_addr.sin_port = htons(ECHO_PORT);

        if (connect(sockfd,
                    (struct sockaddr *) &serv_addr,
                    sizeof(serv_addr)) < 0) {
                perror("connect to server failed");

        while (1) {
                /* we need to select between messages FROM the user
                   on the console and messages TO the user from the
                FD_CLR(sockfd, &readfds);
                FD_SET(sockfd, &readfds);
                FD_SET(STDIN, &readfds);
                select(sockfd+1, &readfds, NULL, NULL, NULL);

                if (FD_ISSET(STDIN, &readfds)) {
                        printf("reading from stdin\n");
                        nread = read(0, buf, SIZE);
                        if (nread <= 0 )
                        sendto(sockfd, buf, nread, 0,
                               (struct sockaddr *) &serv_addr,
                } else if (FD_ISSET(sockfd, &readfds)) {
                        printf("Reading from socket\n");
                        len = sizeof(serv_addr);
                        nread = sctp_recvmsg(sockfd, buf, SIZE,
                                     (struct sockaddr *) &serv_addr,
                                     &sinfo, &flags);
                        write(1, buf, nread);

Listing 2. chat_server.c

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <strings.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <netinet/in.h>

#include <netinet/sctp.h>

#define SIZE 1024
char buf[SIZE];
#define CHAT_PORT 2013

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
        int sockfd, client_sockfd;
        int nread, nsent, len;
        struct sockaddr_in serv_addr, client_addr;
        struct sctp_sndrcvinfo sinfo;
        int flags;
        struct sctp_event_subscribe events;
        sctp_assoc_t assoc_id;

        /* create endpoint */
        sockfd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_SEQPACKET,
        if (sockfd < 0) {
        /* bind address */
        serv_addr.sin_family = AF_INET;
        serv_addr.sin_addr.s_addr = htonl(INADDR_ANY);
        serv_addr.sin_port = htons(CHAT_PORT);
        if (bind(sockfd, (struct sockaddr *) &serv_addr,
                 sizeof(serv_addr)) < 0) {
                exit(3); }

        bzero(&events, sizeof(events));
        events.sctp_data_io_event = 1;
        if (setsockopt(sockfd, IPPROTO_SCTP,
                       SCTP_EVENTS, &events, sizeof(events))) {
                perror("set sock opt\n");

        /* specify queue */

        listen(sockfd, 5);

        for (;;) {
                len = sizeof(client_addr);
                nread = sctp_recvmsg(sockfd, buf, SIZE,
                                     (struct sockaddr *) &client_addr,
                                     &sinfo, &flags);

                printf("Got a read of %d\n", nread);
                write(1, buf, nread);
                /* send it back out to all associations */

                bzero(&sinfo, sizeof(sinfo));
                sinfo.sinfo_flags |= SCTP_SENDALL;

                sctp_send(sockfd, buf, nread,
                          // (struct sockaddr *) &client_addr, 1,
                          &sinfo, 0);


Unordered Messages

SCTP normally delivers messages within a stream in the order in which they were written. If you don't need this, you can turn off the ordering feature. This can make delivery of messages faster, as they don't have to be reassembled into the correct order.

New Protocols

I have examined in these three articles how TCP applications can be moved to SCTP and discussed the new features of SCTP. So, why isn't everyone using SCTP now? Well, there is the inertia of moving people off the TCP applications onto the SCTP versions, and that will happen only when people become fed up with the TCP versions—and that may never happen.

The place to look for SCTP is in new applications using new protocols designed to take advantage of SCTP:

  • SS7 (Signaling System 7, see Wikipedia) is a standard for control signaling in the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). SS7 signaling is done out of band, meaning that SS7 signaling messages are transported over a separate data connection. This represents a significant security improvement over earlier systems that used in-band signaling. SCTP basically was invented to handle protocols like SS7 over IP. SS7 uses multihoming to increase reliability and streams to avoid the TCP problem of head-of-line blocking.

  • Diameter (RFC 3588, is an IETF protocol to supply an Authentication, Authorization and Accounting (AAA) framework for applications, such as network access or IP mobility. A good introduction is at It replaces an earlier protocol, Radius, that ran over UDP. Diameter uses TCP or SCTP for the added reliability of these transports. A Diameter server must support both TCP and SCTP; although at present, clients can choose either. SCTP is the default, and in the future, clients may be required to support SCTP. SCTP is preferred, because it can use streams to avoid the head-of-line blocking problem that exists with TCP.

  • DLM (Distributed Lock Manager, is a Red Hat project currently in the kernel. This can use either TCP or SCTP. SCTP has the advantage of multihome support. Although TCP presently is the default, SCTP can be used by setting a kernel build configuration flag.

  • MPI (Message Passing Interface, is a de facto standard for communication among the processes modeling a parallel program on a distributed memory system (according to Wikipedia). It does not specify which transport protocol should be used, although TCP has been common in the past.

Humaira Kamal, in his Master's thesis, investigated using SCTP as a transport protocol and reported favourable results. He singled out the causes as being the message-based nature of SCTP and the use of streams within an association. These examples show that SCTP is being used in a variety of real-world situations to gain benefits over the TCP and UDP transports.


This series of articles has covered the basics of SCTP. There are many options that can control, in fine detail, the behaviour of an SCTP stack. There also is ongoing work in bringing a security model into SCTP, so that, for example, TLS can be run across SCTP. There also is work being done on different language bindings to SCTP, such as a Java language binding. SCTP will not make TCP and UDP disappear overnight, but I hope these articles have shown that it has features that can make writing many applications easier and more robust.

Of course, SCTP is not the only attempt to devise new protocols. For comparisons to other new procotols see “Survey of Transport Protocols other than Standard TCP” at This shows that SCTP stacks up very well against possible alternatives, so you might want to consider it for your next networking project!

Jan Newmarch is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Monash University. He has been using Linux since kernel 0.98. He has written four books and many papers and given courses on many technical topics, concentrating on network programming for the last six years. His Web site is

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