Sockets – How does the socket API accept() function work

networkingsocketstcp

The socket API is the de-facto standard for TCP/IP and UDP/IP communications (that is, networking code as we know it). However, one of its core functions, accept() is a bit magical.

To borrow a semi-formal definition:

accept() is used on the server side.
It accepts a received incoming attempt
to create a new TCP connection from
the remote client, and creates a new
socket associated with the socket
address pair of this connection.

In other words, accept returns a new socket through which the server can communicate with the newly connected client. The old socket (on which accept was called) stays open, on the same port, listening for new connections.

How does accept work? How is it implemented? There's a lot of confusion on this topic. Many people claim accept opens a new port and you communicate with the client through it. But this obviously isn't true, as no new port is opened. You actually can communicate through the same port with different clients, but how? When several threads call recv on the same port, how does the data know where to go?

I guess it's something along the lines of the client's address being associated with a socket descriptor, and whenever data comes through recv it's routed to the correct socket, but I'm not sure.

It'd be great to get a thorough explanation of the inner-workings of this mechanism.

Best Solution

Your confusion lies in thinking that a socket is identified by Server IP : Server Port. When in actuality, sockets are uniquely identified by a quartet of information:

Client IP : Client Port and Server IP : Server Port

So while the Server IP and Server Port are constant in all accepted connections, the client side information is what allows it to keep track of where everything is going.

Example to clarify things:

Say we have a server at 192.168.1.1:80 and two clients, 10.0.0.1 and 10.0.0.2.

10.0.0.1 opens a connection on local port 1234 and connects to the server. Now the server has one socket identified as follows:

10.0.0.1:1234 - 192.168.1.1:80  

Now 10.0.0.2 opens a connection on local port 5678 and connects to the server. Now the server has two sockets identified as follows:

10.0.0.1:1234 - 192.168.1.1:80  
10.0.0.2:5678 - 192.168.1.1:80
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