Definition

OSI model (Open Systems Interconnection)

Contributor(s): Daniel Kroon and Kara Gattine

OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) is a reference model for how applications communicate over a network.

A reference model is a conceptual framework for understanding relationships. The purpose of the OSI reference model is to guide vendors and developers so the digital communication products and software programs they create can interoperate, and to facilitate a clear framework that describes the functions of a networking or telecommunication system.

Most vendors involved in telecommunications make an attempt to describe their products and services in relation to the OSI model. And although it is useful for guiding discussion and evaluation, OSI is rarely actually implemented as-is. That's because few network products or standard tools keep related functions together in well-defined layers, as is the case in the OSI model. The TCP/IP protocol suite, which defines the internet, does not map cleanly to the OSI model.

Developed by representatives of major computer and telecommunication companies beginning in 1983, OSI was originally intended to be a detailed specification of actual interfaces. Instead, the committee decided to establish a common reference model with which others could then develop detailed interfaces, which, in turn, could become standards governing the transmission of data packets. The OSI architecture was officially adopted as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

OSI model layers

The main concept of OSI is that the process of communication between two endpoints in a network can be divided into seven distinct groups of related functions, or layers. Each communicating user or program is on a device that can provide those seven layers of function.

In this architecture, each layer serves the layer above it and, in turn, is served by the layer below it. So, in a given message between users, there will be a flow of data down through the layers in the source computer, across the network, and then up through the layers in the receiving computer.

OSI communication model illustrated
TechTarget

The seven layers of function are provided by a combination of applications, operating systems, network card device drivers and networking hardware that enable a system to transmit a signal over a network Ethernet or fiber optic cable or through Wi-Fi or other wireless protocols.

The seven Open Systems Interconnection layers are:

Layer 7: The application layer. This is the layer at which communication partners are identified -- Is there someone to talk to? -- network capacity is assessed -- Will the network let me talk to them right now? -- and where the data or application is presented in a visual form the user can understand. This layer is not the application itself, it is the set of services an application should be able to make use of directly, although some applications may perform application-layer functions.

Layer 6: The presentation layer. This layer is usually part of an operating system (OS) and converts incoming and outgoing data from one presentation format to another -- for example, from clear text to encrypted text at one end and back to clear text at the other.

Layer 5: The session layer. This layer sets up, coordinates and terminates conversations. Its services include authentication and reconnection after an interruption. On the internet, Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) provide these services for most applications.

Layer 4: The transport layer. This layer manages packetization of data, then the delivery of the packets, including checking for errors in the data once it arrives. On the internet, TCP and UDP provide these services for most applications as well.

Layer 3: The network layer. This layer handles addressing and routing the data -- sending it in the right direction to the right destination on outgoing transmissions and receiving incoming transmissions at the packet level. IP is the network layer for the internet.

Layer 2: The data-link layer. This layer sets up links across the physical network, putting packets into network frames. This layer has two sub-layers: the logical link control layer and the media access control layer (MAC). MAC layer types include Ethernet and 802.11 wireless specifications.

Layer 1: The physical layer. This layer conveys the bit stream across the network either electrically, mechanically or through radio waves. The physical layer covers a variety of devices and mediums, among them cabling, connectors, receivers, transceivers and repeaters.

This was last updated in April 2018

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Does it matter that TCP/IP doesn’t have protocols that map to all seven layers of the OSI model?
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What changes should be made to the OSI model?
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Great resource Margaret! Having worked in IT for quite a while, I've grown to realize that basically everything I do somehow ties back to the OSI model. This is a must-know subject for anyone getting into IT or security!
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Kevin, how have you seen the OSI model used in our organization?
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Reading this at 6 AM - very helpful. I have an exam 2 hours later.
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Good!
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Does a laptop perform the functions of all the OSI layer?
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No, Laptop sent only data to network, Routers and Switches may take place on OSI layers
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"Layer 4: The transport layer. This layer manages packetization of data, then the delivery of the packets, including checking for errors in the data once it arrives. On the internet, TCP and UDP provide these services for most applications as well."

That's wrong. The Transport layer deals with TCP segments and UDP datagrams, not packets! Packets are the PDU for layer 3. Look at the contents of a header for a network packet (layer 3) and the contents of a header for a TCP header (layer 4) and you will also realize that division of data into manageable fragments is done at layer 3! Layer 3 headers deal with fragmentation, not TCP headers. 
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if osi model is only a reference model then why it is very important? 
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