dave yarwood
Working with OSC: UDP vs. TCP


December 13, 2019


If you’ve seen my talk at Strange Loop this year, you may have noticed, during the part where I talked about the future direction of Alda, that we’ll be using OSC to communicate between the client and the player processes. I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately implementing this, and it’s coming along nicely.

An interesting development from the last couple weeks is that I ended up deciding to use TCP instead of UDP for this communication.

I was initially hoping to use UDP because latency is important, and I was assuming that any dropped packets could be re-sent easily.

It turns out that there is a limit to the size of a UDP packet. From what I read in this discussion, the UDP protocol allows a limit of 64K bytes, but the practical guaranteed limit is a measly 576 bytes. Because the OSC protocol adds a small number of additional bytes, it is best to restrict the payload of each packet to a smaller number like 512 bytes, just to be safe.

As a consequence, an Alda score of sufficient size translates into a UDP packet that can’t be sent because it’s larger than the actual limit, which can vary from system to system. A simple “hello world” 5-note example score serialized into a 544-byte UDP packet. Longer scores easily got up into the tens of thousands of bytes! I observed that if the score was long enough, the packet seemed to vanish into thin air, probably because it exceeded the particular limit of my system, which seems to be somewhere around 64K bytes.

“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll break the bundle up into a couple hundred packets that are each under 512 bytes!”

So I tried that, but I ran into some serious technical hurdles. One issue is that the order in which the packets are received is not guaranteed, so I had to include a sequence number on each packet and reconstruct them in order on the receiving end. Another issue is that packets can be lost. I knew about that property of UDP coming into this, but I had no idea that the packet loss is so frequent! A significant amount of the time, less than 100% of the packets arrived. At that point, it became clear to me that UDP wouldn’t work for my use case. TCP is really more appropriate for any scenario where you care about losing even a single packet.

I haven’t been able to fully test using TCP yet, but I’m hopeful that the trade-off in latency won’t be too bad. My current blocker is that neither of the OSC libraries I’m using (go-osc and JavaOSC) currently support sending OSC packets over TCP. So, I’ve been digging into how these two libraries work and preparing to contribute TCP support to both. Wish me luck!


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