0107: Pigweed Communications#

SEED-0107: Communications

Status: Open for Comments Last Call Accepted Rejected

Proposal Date: 2023-07-19

CL: pwrev/157090


Pigweed does not currently offer an end-to-end solution for network communications. This SEED proposes that Pigweed adopt a new sockets API as its primary networking abstraction. The sockets API will be backed by a new, lightweight embedded-focused network protocol stack, inspired by the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP). It will also support full TCP/IP via an open source embedded TCP/IP stack or OS sockets. The new communications APIs will support asynchronous use and zero-copy transmission.

This work is comprised of the following subareas:

The Pigweed team will revisit pw_rpc after deploying the sockets API and network protocol stack.


Pigweed’s primary communications system is pw_rpc. pw_rpc makes it possible to call functions and exchange data with a remote system. Requests and responses are encoded as protobufs. pw_rpc was initially deployed to a system with its own network protocol stack, so the Pigweed team did not invest in building a network stack of its own.

The TCP/IP model, as described in RFC 1122, organizes communications systems and protocols into four layers: Application, Transport, Internet (or Network), and Link (or Network access). Pigweed’s current communications offerings fit into the TCP/IP model as follows:

TCP/IP Model

Pigweed Modules



Internet / Network

Link / Network access

Notably, Pigweed provides little functionality below the application layer. The pw_router and pw_hdlc modules only implement a subset of features needed at their layer in the communications stack.

Challenges deploying pw_rpc#

pw_rpc is application-layer communications module. It relies on a network layer to send packets between endpoints and doesn’t provide any networking features itself. When initially developing pw_rpc, the Pigweed team focused its limited resources solely on this application-layer feature, which made it possible to deploy pw_rpc quickly to systems with existing networks.

pw_rpc has been deployed to many projects with great results. However, since Pigweed does not provide a network stack, deploying pw_rpc to systems without existing stacks can be challenging. These systems have to develop their own solutions to transmit and route pw_rpc packets.

As an example, one project based its network communications on Pigweed’s pw_hdlc module. It used HDLC in a way more similar to IP, providing network-level addressing and features like quality-of-service. Source and destination addresses and ports were packed into the HDLC address field to facilitate routing and multiplexing. The pw_router module was developed to support static routing tables for HDLC frames through nodes in the system, and the pw_transfer RPC service was developed to provide reliable delivery of data.

Learning from custom network stacks#

Teams want to use Pigweed to build cool devices. Their goal isn’t to build a network protocol stack, but they need one to use features like pw_rpc and pw_transfer. Given this, teams have little incentive to make the enormous time investment to develop a robust, reusable network stack. The practical approach is to assemble the minimum viable network stack from what’s available.

The Pigweed team has seen a few teams create custom network stacks for pw_rpc. While these projects were successful, their network stacks were not their primary focus. As a result, they had some shortcomings, including the following:

  • Byte stuffing memory overhead – HDLC is a low-level protocol. It uses byte stuffing to ensure frame integrity across unreliable links. Byte stuffing makes sense on the wire, but not in memory. Storing byte stuffed frames requires double the memory to account for worst-case byte stuffing. Some projects use HDLC frames as network layer packets, so they are buffered in memory for routing, which requires more memory than necessary.

  • HDLC protocol overhead – HDLC’s frame recovery and integrity features are not needed across all links. For example, these features are unnecessary for Bluetooth. However, when projects use HDLC for both the network and link layers, it has to be used across all links.

  • pw_transfer at the application layerpw_transfer supports reliable data transfers with pw_rpc. It required significant investment to develop, but since it is layered on top of pw_rpc, it has additional overhead and limited reusability.

  • Custom routing – Some network nodes have multiple routes between them. Projects have had to write custom, non-portable logic to handle routing.

  • pw_rpc channel IDs in routing – Some projects used pw_rpc channel IDs as a network addresses. Channel IDs were assigned for the whole network ahead of time. This has several downsides:

    • Requires nodes to have knowledge of the global channel ID assignments and routes between them, which can be difficult to keep in sync.

    • Implies that all traffic is pw_rpc packets.

    • Requires decoding pw_rpc packets at lower levels of the network stack.

    • Complicates runtime assignment of channel IDs.

  • Flow control – Projects’ communications stacks have not supported flow control. The network layer simply has to drop packets it cannot process. There is no mechanism to tell the producer to slow down or wait for the receiver to be ready.

  • Accounting for the MTU – HDLC and pw_rpc have variable overheads, so it is difficult to know how much memory to allocate for RPC payloads. If packets are not sized properly with respect to the maximum transmission unit (MTU), packets may be silently dropped.

Problem summary#

These are the key issues of Pigweed’s communications offerings based on the team’s experiences deploying pw_rpc.

No cohesive full stack solution

Pigweed only provides a handful of communications modules. They were not designed to work together, and there is not enough to assemble a functioning network stack. Some projects have to create bespoke network protocols with limited reusability.

Layering violations

pw_transfer runs on top of pw_rpc instead of the transport layer, which adds overhead and prevents its use independent of pw_rpc. Using pw_rpc channels for routing ties the network to pw_rpc. Projects often use pw_hdlc for multiple network layers, which brings the encoding’s overhead higher up the stack and across links that do not need it.


Reliable data transfer requires pw_transfer, which runs on top of pw_rpc. This adds additional overhead and requires more CPU-intensive decoding operations. Using pw_rpc channel IDs in lower layers of the network requires expensive varint decodes, even when the packets are bound for other nodes.

Missing features

Each project has to develop its own version of common features, including:

  • Addressing – There are no standard addressing schemes available to Pigweed users.

  • Routing – Projects must implement their own logic for routing packets, which can be complex.

  • Flow control – There is no way for the receiver to signal that it is ready for more data or that it cannot receive any more, either at the protocol or API level anywhere in the stack. Flow control is a crucial feature for realistic networks with limited resources.

  • Connections – Connections ensure the recipient is listening to transmissions, and detect when the other end is no longer communicating. pw_transfer maintains a connection, but it sits atop pw_rpc, so cannot be used elsewhere.

  • Quality of service (QoS) – Projects have developed basic QoS features in HDLC, but there is no support in upstream Pigweed. Every project has to develop its own custom implementation.


This SEED proposes a new communications system for Pigweed with the following goals:

  • Practical end-to-end solution – Pigweed provides a full suite of APIs and protocols that support simple and complex networking use cases.

  • Robust, stable, and reliable – Pigweed communications “just work”, even under high load. The networking stack is thoroughly tested in both single and multithreaded environments, with functional, load, fuzz, and performance testing. Projects can easily test their own deployments with Pigweed tooling.

  • Cohesive, yet modular – The network stack is holistically designed, but modular. It is organized into layers that can be exchanged and configured independently. Layering simplifies the stack, decouples protocol implementations, and maximizes flexibility within a cohesive system.

  • Efficient & performant – Pigweed’s network stack minimizes code size and CPU usage. It provides for high throughput, low latency data transmission. Memory allocation is configurable and adaptable to a project’s needs.

  • Usable & easy to learn – Pigweed’s communications systems are backed by thorough and up-to-date documentation. Getting started is easy using Pigweed’s tutorials and examples.


Pigweed will unify its communications systems under a common sockets API. This entails the following:

  • Sockets API – Pigweed will introduce a sockets API to serve as its common networking interface.

  • Lightweight protocol stack – Pigweed will provide a custom, lightweight network protocol stack inspired by IPv6, with UDP, TCP, and SCTP-like transport protocols.

  • TCP/IP integration – Pigweed will offer sockets implementations for OS sockets and an existing embedded TCP/IP stack.

  • Async – Pigweed will establish a new pattern for async programming and use it in its networking APIs.

  • Zero copy – Pigweed will develop a new buffer management system to enable zero-copy networking.

These features fit fit into the TCP/IP model as follows:

TCP/IP Model

Future Pigweed Comms Stack


Various modules including
pw_rpc and pw_transfer.

OS Sockets

Pigweed Sockets


UDP-like unreliable protocol
TCP-like reliable protocol
SCTP-like reliable protocol

Network / Internet

IPv6-like protocol

Network access / Link


Sockets API#

The new sockets API will become the primary networking abstraction in Pigweed. The API will support the following:

  • Creating sockets for bidirectional communications with other nodes in the network.

  • Opening and closing connections for connection-oriented socket types.

  • Sending and receiving data, optionally asynchronously.

  • Reporting errors.

The sockets API will support runtime polymorphism. In C++, it will be a virtual interface.


A network socket represents a bidirectional communications channel with another node, which could be local or across the Internet. Network sockets form the API between an application and the network.

Sockets are a proven, well-understood concept. Socket APIs such as Berkeley / POSIX sockets are familiar to anyone with Internet programming experience.

Sockets APIs hide the details of the network protocol stack. A socket provides well-defined semantics for a communications channel, but applications do not need to know how data is sent and received. The same API can be used to exchange data with another process on the same machine or with a device across the world.

Sockets SEED

The Pigweed sockets API will be explored in an upcoming SEED.

Socket types#

Pigweed’s sockets API will support the following sockets types.

Berkeley socket type

Internet protocol

Payload type


Guaranteed, ordered delivery





Unreliable datagram



Byte stream

Reliable byte stream




Reliable datagram

Raw sockets (SOCK_RAW) may be supported in the future if required. SOCK_CONN_DGRAM (unreliable connection-oriented datagram) sockets are uncommon and will not be supported.

The socket’s semantics will be expressed in the sockets API, e.g. with a different interface or class for each type. Instances of the connection-oriented socket types will be generated from a “listener” object.

Pigweed’s sockets API will draw inspiration from modern type safe APIs like Rust’s std::net sockets, rather than traditional APIs like POSIX sockets or Winsock. Pigweed sockets will map trivially to these APIs and implementations will be provided upstream.

Using the sockets API#

The Pigweed sockets API will provide the interface between applications and the network. Any application can open a socket to communicate across the network. A future revision of pw_rpc will use the sockets API in place of its current Channel API.

The sockets API will support both synchronous and asynchonous use. The synchronous API may be built using the async API. It will also support zero-copy data transmission.


The Pigweed sockets API will be aware of addresses. Addresses are used to refer to nodes in a network, including the socket’s own node. With TCP/IP, the socket address includes an IP address and a port number.

The POSIX sockets API supports different domains through address family constants such as AF_INET, AF_INET6, and AF_UNIX. Addresses in these families are specified or accessed in various socket operations. Because the address format is not specified by the API, working with addresses is not type safe.

Pigweed sockets will approach addressing differently, but details are yet to be determined. Possible approaches include:

  • Use IPv6 addresses exclusively. Systems with other addressing schemes map these into IPv6 for use with Pigweed APIs.

  • Provide a polymorphic address class so sockets can work with addresses generically.

  • Avoid addresses in the base sockets API. Instead, use implementation specific derived classes to access addresses.

Network protocol stack#

The sockets API will be backed by a network protocol stack. Pigweed will provide sockets implementations for following network protocol stacks:

Embedded TCP/IP stack#

Pigweed will provide a sockets implementation for an embedded TCP/IP stack such as lwIP.

The sockets integration will be structured to avoid unnecessary dependencies on network stack features. For example, if a system is using IPv6 exclusively, the integration won’t require IPv4 support, and the TCP/IP stack can be configured without it.


The Internet protocol suite, or TCP/IP, is informed by decades of research and practical experience. It is much more than IP, TCP, and UDP; it’s an alphabet soup of protocols that address a myriad of use cases and challenges. Implementing a functional TCP/IP stack is no small task. At time of writing, lwIP has about as many lines of C as Pigweed has C++ (excluding tests).

The Pigweed team does not plan to implement a full TCP/IP stack. This is a major undertaking, and there are already established open source embedded TCP/IP stacks. Projects needing the full power of TCP/IP can use an embedded stack like lwIP.

Choosing between embedded TCP/IP and Pigweed’s stack#

lwIP’s website states that it requires tens of KB of RAM and about 40 KB of ROM. Using lwIP means using the same TCP/IP protocols that run the Internet. These protocols are feature rich, but have more overhead than is necessary for local communications within a small embedded system.

Projects that can afford the resource requirements and protocol overhead of TCP/IP should use it. These projects can set up a local IPv4 or IPv6 network and use it for communications behind the Pigweed sockets API. Projects that cannot afford full TCP/IP can opt for Pigweed’s custom protocol stack. Pigweed’s custom stack will not have the depth of features and tooling of TCP/IP does, but will be sufficient for many systems.

TCP/IP socket types#

With an embedded TCP/IP stack, the Pigweed sockets API will be implemented as follows:

  • Unreliable datagram (SOCK_DGRAM) – UDP

  • Reliable byte stream (SOCK_STREAM) – TCP

  • Reliable datagram (SOCK_SEQPACKET) – Lightweight framing over TCP. This will be semantically similar to SCTP, but integrations will not use SCTP since it is not widely supported.

Pigweed’s custom network protocol stack#

Pigweed will develop a custom, lightweight network protocol stack.

This new protocol stack will be designed for small devices with relatively simple networks. It will scale to several interconnected cores that interface with a few external devices (e.g. over USB or Bluetooth). Depending on project requirements, it may or may not support dynamic network host configuration (e.g. DHCP or SLAAC).

Pigweed’s network protocol stack will be a strict subset of TCP/IP. This will include minimal, reduced overhead versions of UDP, TCP, and IPv6. Portions of other protocols such as ICMPv6 may be implemented as required.


TCP/IP is too large and complex for some embedded systems. Systems for which TCP/IP is unnecessary can use Pigweed’s lightweight embedded network protocol stack.

Transport layer#

Pigweed will provide transport layer protocols that implement the semantics of SOCK_DGRAM, SOCK_STREAM, and SOCK_SEQPACKET-like sockets.

  • SOCK_DRAM-like sockets will be backed by a UDP-like protocol. This will add source and destination ports to the IP-style packets for multiplexing on top of the network layer.

  • SOCK_STREAM-like sockets will be backed by a TCP-like protocol that uses network layer packets to implement a reliable byte stream. It will be based on TCP, but will not implement all of its features. The pw_transfer module may serve as a starting point for the new protocol implementation.

  • SOCK_SEQPACKET-like sockets will be implemented with a simple message-oriented protocol on top of the TCP-like protocol. Applications like pw_rpc will use SOCK_SEQPACKET sockets.

Network layer#

Pigweed will create a new network-layer protocol closely based on IPv6. Details are still to be determined, but the protocol is intended to be a strict subset of IPv6 and related protocols (e.g. ICMP, NDP) as needed. If a need arises, it is met by implementing the associated IP suite protocol. Packets will use compressed version of an IPv6 header (e.g. omit fields, use smaller addresses).

This protocol will provide:

  • Unreliable packet delivery between source and destination.

  • Routing based on the source and destination addresses.

  • Quality of service (e.g. via the traffic class field).

Packets may be routed at this layer independently of the link layer. Wire format details stay on the wire.

Language support#

Pigweed today is primarily C++, but it supports Rust, C, Python, TypeScript, and Java to varying extents.

Pigweed’s communications stack will be developed in either C++ or Rust to start, but it will be ported to all supported languages in time. The stack may have C APIs to facilitate interoperability between C++ and Rust.

Network protocol stack SEED

Pigweed’s network protocol stack will be explored in an upcoming SEED.


Pigweed will develop a model for asynchronous programming and use it in its networking APIs, including sockets. Sockets will also support synchronous operations, but these may be implemented in terms of the asynchronous API.

The Pigweed async model has not been designed yet. The pw_async module has a task dispatcher, but the pattern for async APIs has not been established. Further exploration is needed, but C++20 coroutines may be used for Pigweed async APIs where supported.


Synchronous APIs require the thread to block while an operation completes. The thread and its resources cannot be used by the system until the task completes. Async APIs allow a single thread to handle multiple simultaneous tasks. The thread advances tasks until they need to wait for an external operation to complete, then switches to another task to avoid blocking.

Threads are expensive in embedded systems. Each thread requires significant memory for its stack and kernel structures for bookkeeping. They occupy this memory all the time, even when they are not running. Furthermore, context switches between threads can take significant CPU time.

Asynchronous programming avoids these downsides. Many asynchronous threads run on a single thread. Fewer threads are needed, and the resources of one thread are shared by multiple tasks. Since asynchronous systems run within one thread, no thread context switches occur.

Networking involves many asynchronous tasks. For example, waiting for data to be sent through a network interface, for a connection request, or for data to arrive on one or more interfaces are all operations that benefit from asynchronous APIs. Network protocols themselves are heavily asynchronous.

Async SEED

Pigweed’s async pattern will be explored in an upcoming SEED.

Buffer management#

Pigweed’s networking APIs will support zero-copy data transmission. Applications will be able to request a buffer from a socket. When one is available, they fill it with data for transmission.

Pigweed will develop a general purpose module for allocating and managing buffers. This will be used to implement zero-copy features for Pigweed’s networking stack.

As an example, zero-copy buffer allocation could work as follows:

  • The user requests a buffer from a socket.

  • The network protocol layer under the socket requests a buffer from the next lower layer.

  • The bottom protocol layer allocates a buffer.

  • Each layer reserves part of the buffer for its headers or footers.

  • The remaining buffer is provided to the user to populate with their payload.

  • When the user is done, the buffer is released. Each layer of the network stack processes the buffer as necessary.

  • Finally, at the lowest layer, the final buffer is sent over the hardware interface.

Zero-copy APIs will be asynchronous.


Networking involves transmitting large amounts of data. Copying network traffic can result in substantial CPU usage, particularly in nodes that route traffic to other nodes.

A buffer management system that minimizes copying saves precious CPU cycles and power on constrained systems.

Buffer management SEED

Pigweed’s buffer management system will be explored in an upcoming SEED.

Vectored I/O#

Vectored or scatter/gather I/O allows users to serialize data from multiple buffers into a single output stream, or vice versa. For Pigweed’s networking APIs, this could be used to, for example, store a packet header in one buffer and packet contents in one or more other buffers. These isolated chunks are serialized in order to the network interface.

Vectored I/O minimizes copying, but is complex. Additionally, simple DMA engines may only operate on a single DMA buffer. Thus, vectored I/O could require either:

  • a copy into the DMA engine’s buffer, which costs CPU time and memory, or

  • multiple, small DMAs, which involves extra interrupts and CPU time.

Vectored I/O may be supported in Pigweed’s communications stack, depending on project requirements.

Next steps#

Pigweed’s communications revamp will proceed loosely as follows:

  • Write SEEDs to explore existing solutions, distill requirements, and propose new Pigweed features for these areas:

    • Sockets API

    • Async pattern

    • Buffer management

    • Network protocol stack

  • Implement the Sockets API.

    • Document, integrate, and deploy the async programming pattern for Pigweed.

    • Develop and test Pigweed’s buffer management system.

    • Use these features in the sockets API. If necessary, the synchronous, copying API could be implemented first.

  • Deploy the sockets API for TCP/IP.

    • Implement and unit test sockets for TCP/IP with POSIX and Winsock sockets.

    • Implement and unit test sockets for an embedded TCP/IP stack.

  • Develop a test suite for Pigweed network communications.

    • Create integration tests for networks with multiple nodes that cover basic operation, high load, and packet loss.

    • Write performance tests against the sockets API to measure network stack performance.

  • Develop Pigweed’s lightweight network protocol stack.

    • Test the lightweight network protocol stack on hardware and in a simulated environment.

    • Write fuzz tests for the protocol stack.

    • Write performance tests for the protocol stack.

  • Revisit other communications systems, including pw_rpc and pw_transfer.