Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP)
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Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP)

There are occasions when we need to simply copy a file without the need for all of the features of the FTP protocol. For example, when a diskless workstation or a router is booted, we need to download the bootstrap and configuration files. Here we do not need all of the sophistication provided in FTP. We just need a protocol that quickly copies the files.


Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) is designed for these types of file transfer. It is so simple that the software package can fit into the read-only memory of a diskless workstation. It can be used at a bootstrap time. The reason that it fits on ROM is that it requires only basic IP and UDP. However, there is no security for TFTP. TFTP can read or write a file for the client. Reading means copying a file from the server site to the client site. Writing means copying a file from the client site to the server site.



There are five types of TFTP messages, RRQ, WRQ, DATA, ACK, and ERROR.



The read request (RRQ) message is used by the client to establish a connection for reading data from the server.



The write request (WRQ) message is used by the client to establish a connection for writing data to the server.



The data (DATA) message is used by the client or the server to send blocks of data.



The acknowledge (ACK) message is used by the client or server to acknowledge the receipt of a data block. The message is only 4 bytes long. The ACK message can also be a response to a WRQ. It is sent by the server to indicate that it is ready to receive data from the client. In this case, the value of the block number field is 0.



The ERROR message is used by the client or the server when a connection cannot be established or when there is a problem during data transmission. It can be sent as a negative response to RRQ or WRQ. It can also be used if the next block cannot be transferred during the actual data transfer phase. The error message is not used to declare a damaged or duplicated message. These problems are resolved by error-control mechanisms.



TFTP uses UDP services. Because there is no provision for connection establishment and termination in UDP, UDP transfers each block of data encapsulated in an independent user datagram. In TFTP, however, we do not want to transfer only one block of data; we do not want to transfer the file as independent blocks either. We need connections for the blocks of data being transferred if they all belong to the same file. TFTP uses RRQ, WRQ, ACK, and ERROR messages to establish a connection. It uses the DATA message with a block of data of fewer than 512 bytes (0–511) to terminate the connection.


Connection Establishment

Connection establishment for reading files is different from connection establishment for writing files.


Connection Termination

After the entire file is transferred, the connection must be terminated. As mentioned previously, TFTP does not have a special message for termination. Termination is accomplished by sending the last block of data, which is less than 512 bytes.


Data Transfer

The data transfer phase occurs between connection establishment and termination. TFTP uses the services of UDP, which is unreliable. The file is divided into blocks of data, in which each block except the last one is exactly 512 bytes. The last block must be between 0 and 511 bytes. TFTP can transfer data in ASCII or binary format. UDP does not have any mechanism for flow and error control. TFTP has to create a flow- and error-control mechanism to transfer a file made of continuous blocks of data.


Flow Control

TFTP sends a block of data using the DATA message and waits for an ACK message. If the sender receives an acknowledgment before the timeout, it sends the next block. Thus, flow control is achieved by numbering the data blocks and waiting for an ACK before the next data block is sent.


Retrieve a File

When the client wants to retrieve (read) a file, it sends the RRQ message. The server responds with a DATA message sending the first block of data (if there is no problem) with a block number of 1.


Store a File

When the client wants to store (write) a file, it sends the WRQ message. The server responds with an ACK message (if there is no problem) using 0 for the block number. After receiving this acknowledgment, the client sends the first data block with a block number of 1.


Error Control

The TFTP error-control mechanism is different from those of other protocols. It is symmetric, which means that the sender and the receiver both use time-outs. The sender uses a time-out for data messages; the receiver uses a time-out for acknowledgment messages. If a data message is lost, the sender retransmits it after time-out expiration. If an acknowledgment is lost, the receiver retransmits it after time-out expiration. This guarantees a smooth operation. Error control is needed in four situations: a damaged message, a lost message, a lost acknowledgment, or a duplicated message.


UDP Ports

When a process uses the services of UDP, the server process issues a passive open on the well-known port and waits for the client process to issue an active open on an ephemeral port. After the connection is established, the client and server communicate using these two ports. TFTP follows a different set of steps because of the communication between a client TFTP and a server. If a TFTP server uses the well-known port 69 to communicate with a single client, no other clients can use these services during that time.



One important point about TFTP is that there is no provision for security: There is no user identification or password. Today, however, precautions must be taken to prevent hackers from accessing files. One security measure is to limit the access of TFTP to noncritical files. One way to achieve minimal security is to implement security in the router close to a TFTP server, which would allow only certain hosts to access the server.



TFTP is very useful for basic file transfer where security is not a big issue. It can be used to initialize devices such as bridges or routers. Its main application is in conjunction with the DHCP. TFTP requires only a small amount of memory and uses only the services of UDP and IP. It can easily be configured in ROM (or PROM). When the station is powered on, TFTP will be connected to a server and can download the configuration files from there. The powered-on station uses the DHCP client to get the name of the configuration file from the DHCP server. The station then passes the name of the file to the TFTP client to get the contents of the configuration file from the TFTP server.

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