OSI reference model (Open Systems Interconnection)

Definition: Learn what the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) reference model is and how its seven layers of functions provide vendors and developers with a common language for discussing how messages should be transmitted between any two points in a telecommunication network.

OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) is reference model for how messages should be transmitted between any two points in a telecommunication network. A reference model is a framework for understanding relationships. The purpose of the OSI reference model is to guide vendors and developers so that the digital communication products and software programs they create will interoperate

The OSI reference model defines seven layers of functions that take place at each end of a communication. Although OSI is not always strictly adhered to in terms of keeping related functions together in a well-defined layer, many -- if not most -- products involved in telecommunication make an attempt to describe themselves in relation to the OSI model. It is also valuable as a common reference for discussion about digital communication. Developed by representatives of major computer and telecommunication companies beginning in 1983, OSI was originally intended to be a detailed specification of interfaces. Instead, the committee decided to establish a common reference model for which others could then develop detailed interfaces -- which in turn could become standards. OSI was officially adopted as an international standard by the International Organization of Standards (ISO).

OSI layers

The main idea in OSI is that the process of communication between two end points in a telecommunication network can be divided into layers, with each layer adding its own set of special, related functions. Each communicating user or program is at a computer equipped with these seven layers of function. So, in a given message between users, there will be a flow of data through each layer at one end down through the layers in that computer and, at the other end, when the message arrives, another flow of data up through the layers in the receiving computer and ultimately to the end user or program. The actual programming and hardware that furnishes these seven layers of function is usually a combination of the computer operating system, applications (such as your Web browser), TCP/IP or alternative transport and network protocols, and the software and hardware that enable you to put a signal on one of the lines attached to your computer.

The OSI model divides telecommunication into seven layers. The layers are in two groups. The upper four layers are used whenever a message passes from or to a user. The lower three layers (up to the network layer) are used when any message passes through the host computer. Messages intended for this computer pass to the upper layers. Messages destined for some other host are not passed up to the upper layers but are forwarded to another host. The seven layers of OSI are:

Layer 7: The application layer - This is the layer at which communication partners are identified, quality of service (QoS) is identified, user authentication and privacy are considered, and any constraints on data syntax are identified. (This layer is not the application itself, although some applications may perform application layer functions.)

Layer 6: The presentation layer - This is a layer, usually part of an operating system (OS), that converts incoming and outgoing data from one presentation format to another (for example, from a text stream into a popup window with the newly-arrived text).

Layer 5: The session layer - This layer sets up, coordinates, and terminates conversations, exchanges, and dialogs between the applications at each end. It deals with session and connection coordination.

Layer 4: The transport layer - This layer manages the end-to-end control (for example, determining whether all packets have arrived) and error-checking. It ensures complete data transfer.

Layer 3: The network layer - This layer handles the routing of the data (sending it in the right direction to the right destination on outgoing transmissions and receiving incoming transmissions at the packet level). The network layer does routing and forwarding.

Layer 2: The data-link layer - This layer provides synchronization for the physical level and does bit-stuffing for strings of 1's in excess of 5. It furnishes transmission protocol knowledge and management. This layer has two sublayers, the Logical Link Control Layer and the Media Access Control Layer.

Layer 1: The physical layer - This layer conveys the bit stream through the network at the electrical and mechanical level. It provides the hardware means of sending and receiving data on a carrier network.

Seven layers of the OSI model

This was first published in August 2014

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