Introduction To TCP Sockets

Client Sockets

Sockets are sort of like PBX phone systems, where the IP address is the phone number, and the port is the extension. Every paired (connected) socket has a source IP/port and a destination IP/port.

When you want to hook up to a listening server, first you have to request a socket from the kernel. You use the socket() call. In Python, that’d be:

  import socket
  s = socket.socket(socket.PF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)

That tells Python that you want a socket in the Internet class (as opposed to, say Appletalk), and that it should be a streaming socket (TCP, as opposed to a datagram socket, which would be UDP).

The next thing you can do is tell the kernel what IP/port you’d like to use as the source port (think of this as the number that will show up on caller ID when you make your connection). You can do this with the bind() call, like this:

  s.bind(("", 9234))

This tells the kernel to use the IP/port of and 9234. When you make an outbound connection, it will come from that IP and that port. You can use 0 for the IP and 0 for the port, in which case the kernel picks one for you. Or you can skip the bind call entirely, which is the same as binding to ('', 0).

So you’ve got a socket and it’s bound to something, now all you have to do is connect it (make your phone call). In Python:

  s.connect(("", 80))

That’ll hook you up to port 80 (the HTTP port) of

From then on you can use s just like it was a file, with read and write replaced with send and recv (I think you can actually use read and write on sockets, but traditionally send and recv are used):

  s.send("GET / HTTP/1.0\n\n")
  print s.recv(8192)

When you’re done, just close it:


Server Sockets

Since a server operates on a IP/port combination too, you still do the socket and bind calls (and you can skip the bind if you want any random port, but I’ve never heard of a server that doesn’t care what port it’s listening to). Then the next thing you have to do for a server, instead of connecting, is listen. In Python:


That tells the kernel to start listening for incoming connections to the IP/Port you got with bind.

Once you get a connection set up in the kernel, you have to ask the kernel for that connection. That conenction will be a different file descriptor than the one you had listening, so that you can have multiple connections plugged in to the same ip/port and keep them all distinct. The call you make to the kernel is “accept” and by default it will block (that is, the kernel won’t return control to your program) until there’s a new socket established. So you’ll see loops like this:

  while 1:
    c = s.accept()
    cli_sock, cli_addr = c

    cli_sock.send("Hello, person from %s" % cli_addr)

So there, you are accepting from s, it puts the new socket in c. Python does a little trick here, in that it actually returns a tuple (like a list) with the first value the actual socket, and the second value the address (ip/port) of the incoming connection. So you don’t have to ask again to find out who just connected to you, get get it with the accept call. The C library does this in a slightly different way, but you still get the same information. And at that point, you can start treating the client socket just like you would any other connected socket.

Forking for fun and profit

The code above is the serializing (FIFO) model, but you’d need to fork to handle multiple requests simultaneously. In practice, hardly anything serializes requests, what’s more common is something like this:

  while 1:
    c = s.accept()
    if os.fork():

If you’re just learning sockets, do a serialized socket first. It’ll be easier to understand what’s going on that way. But forks are easy too. You call fork() and then you get a new process that starts with the same everything (all the variables are the same and it starts running right after the fork() call). After the fork, both are running as if the fork has just completed, but the parent’s fork returned the PID of the new process, and the child’s fork returned 0.