Book Review: TCP/IP Guide

TCP/IP, the stack of technologies that underlies the Internet and the World Wide Web, is, not surprisingly, a large and complex topic. During my two decades in the technology field I’ve looked at a number of books on the subject, but tended to give up quickly and content myself with the discrete bits of knowledge essential for the job at hand. TCP/IP, however, is one of the few important topics about which it is really impossible to know enough, even for an information systems generalist like myself. For TCP/IP technologies have become as critical to modern business – and personal communication – as blood circulation is to the human body.

Charles M. Kozierok’s new TCP/IP Guide is the best-organized and easiest-to-digest “complete” TCP/IP book I’ve ever seen. I put “complete” in quotes because no single volume could possibly drill down to every last detail of every protocol in the suite, and Kozierok doesn’t claim to, not even in the 1,400-plus pages of this volume. What he does, however, is write clearly and engagingly, dividing the topic into short manageable chapters, covering pretty much everything a technician could ever need to know about TCP/IP, and providing just the right amount of background information and context to give the reader a sense of why and how the technologies we use every day were designed just so.

The last is no small thing. The why and the how are of more than academic interest. Knowing how technologies developed sometimes actually helps increase comprehension. And having some historical context makes the essentially dry and difficult subject matter more pleasant to read, which is also no small matter.

The book delivers to the attentive reader a working knowledge of TCP/IP in all its multifaceted complexity. Kozierok begins with some valuable chapters on the fundamentals of networking technology, the standards organizations that give rise to the flummoxing sea of acronyms every IT professional must learn, and the mathematics that underlies computing (if you’ve ever struggled to understand binary or hexadecimal numbers, the explanations in this book are as good as any I’ve seen). Then, the heart of the book explains the many protocols and related technologies that comprise the TCP/IP stack.

It’s structured logically according to the layers of the OSI Reference Model, starting from the physical transfer of data via wires, moving up through the complex logic that enables a giant network of millions of devices (e.g. the Internet) to interoperate smoothly, and ending with the top-level applications most everyone’s familiar with, such as HTTP and email. Thus, one can comfortably read or skim the book straight through. Afterwards, it will function as a useful reference – probably for a number of years, since the pace of TCP/IP development is quite slow. (Imagine trying to rebuild a bridge into a bigger, better bridge without ever being able to close it to traffic, and you’ll have an idea why the next generation of TCP/IP, known as v6, has been under development for a decade already.)

Since it does not presume much network knowledge, the book is appropriate for both neophytes and professionals. I’ve been around this technology for many years, and even in my quick read-through I learned quite a bit. I also remembered why some of the topics, like subnet masking and sliding windows, have previously caused my head to swim, and appreciated the clear, detailed but concise presentations in this book. The author truly has a gift for explication.

I can’t think of a reason why any datacenter or beginning IT technician wouldn’t want to own this volume. It’s well written and organized, as complete as nearly everyone could want, contains many useful tables and diagrams, and covers IPv6, the forthcoming next generation of Internet technology. It’s not inexpensive, but then again, on a per-page basis it kind of is. And it’s not one of those books that’s going to be outdated in six months’ time. (Also, as a side benefit, carrying it around will help build muscle mass). If TCP/IP technology is at all important to your job, pick up a copy of this book – you won’t regret it.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]