What is UDP and how does it work?

Tim Rohaly

UDP stands for User Datagram Protocol. UDP provides an unreliable packet delivery system built on top of the IP protocol. As with IP, each packet is an individual, and is handled separately. Because of this, the amount of data that can be sent in a UDP packet is limited to the amount that can be contained in a single IP packet. Thus, a UDP packet can contain at most 65507 bytes (this is the 65535-byte IP packet size minus the minimum IP header of 20 bytes and minus the 8-byte UDP header).

UDP packets can arrive out of order or not at all. No packet has any knowledge of the preceding or following packet. The recipient does not acknowledge packets, so the sender does not know that the transmission was successful. UDP has no provisions for flow control--packets can be received faster than they can be used. We call this type of communication connectionless because the packets have no relationship to each other and because there is no state maintained.

The destination IP address and port number are encapsulated in each UDP packet. These two numbers together uniquely identify the recipient and are used by the underlying operating system to deliver the packet to a specific process (application). Each UDP packet also contains the sender's IP address and port number.

One way to think of UDP is by analogy to communications via a letter. You write the letter (this is the data you are sending); put the letter inside an envelope (the UDP packet); address the envelope (using an IP address and a port number); put your return address on the envelope (your local IP address and port number); and then you send the letter.

Like a real letter, you have no way of knowing whether a UDP packet was received. If you send a second letter one day after the first, the second one may be received before the first. Or, the second one may never be received.