Definition

port number

A port number is a way to identify a specific process to which an Internet or other network message is to be forwarded when it arrives at a server. For the Transmission Control Protocol and the User Datagram Protocol, a port number is a 16-bit integer that is put in the header appended to a message unit. This port number is passed logically between client and server transport layers and physically between the transport layer and the Internet Protocol layer and forwarded on.

For example, a request from a client (perhaps on behalf of you at your PC) to a server on the Internet may request a file be served from that host's File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server or process. In order to pass your request to the FTP process in the remote server, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) software layer in your computer identifies the port number of 21 (which by convention is associated with an FTP request) in the 16-bit port number integer that is appended to your request. At the server, the TCP layer will read the port number of 21 and forward your request to the FTP program at the server.

Some services or processes have conventionally assigned permanent port numbers. These are known as well-known port numbers. In other cases, a port number is assigned temporarily (for the duration of the request and its completion) from a range of assigned port numbers. This is called an ephemeral port number.

This was last updated in August 2006
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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