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As a system administrator, one can be forgiven for thinking that knowing the details of TCP/IP is unnecessary. However, knowledge of TCP/IP will be indispensable at times.

Knowing your TCP/IP and TCP protocols will assist you in debugging network problems in your systems.

  1. Server connection failures. When server connection fails, knowing the details of TCP/IP protocols will assist you in figuring out why. Is the connection attempted at all? Does the TCP connection fail or is the connection made only to be denied or dropped?
  2. Routing. Is the network connectivity down? Knowing the details of TCP can assist you in figuring out why.
  3. Physical connectivity. Is there activity on the wire? Is the link up? Are you using an old 10Base-2 network? If so, can you debug connectivity problems with it? Is your duplex set correctly on your 10Base-T networks?
  4. Internet connectivity. Is your firewall working correctly? Can you make connections to disallowed sites? Are there holes in the configuration? Are your Internet accessible sites really accessible from the Internet?
  5. Testing network services. Is that DHCP server serving correctly? Is the NFS server actually using TCP throughout? Is the load balancing working properly?

Even if you have a dedicated networking team, knowing the TCP protocols will help you to tell them what is wrong and exactly what is happening – and might just let you resolve it yourself.

Learning the network protocols is not difficult. Start by downloading the network utilities tcpdump and wireshark. These utilities will let you see what is actually happening on the network – real live traffic you can analyze.

Before you start analyzing real traffic, make sure that you can. Sniffing network traffic can violate corporate security rules; make absolutely sure you have authorization.

Secondly, get a general book on TCP/IP protocols; you can learn protocols in-depth later. The TCP/IP Guide from No-Starch press is one such book. Another good book would be one about Ethernet – Ethernet: The Definitive Guide from O’Reilly is one such good book.

Of course, if you aren’t using TCP/IP (as in a OpenVMS cluster, for instance) – then you need a different book…