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What Is a Raw Socket?

A raw socket is a powerful network communication tool that allows direct sending and receiving of data over a network, bypassing standard protocols. It's essential for crafting custom packets, enabling developers to fine-tune network communication. Curious about how raw sockets empower applications and what risks they pose? Dive deeper to explore their potential and pitfalls in network programming. What will you discover?
T.S. Adams
T.S. Adams

A network socket is an endpoint for data exchange throughout a network. Think of a socket like a physical address: information going through the computer's network is routed to a specific socket in the computer itself. A raw socket is a type of network socket which allows a software application on the computer to send and obtain packets of information from the network without using the computer's operating system as a middleman. In other words, it allows for direct communication between a program and an external source without the intervention of the computer's primary operating system.

The primary advantage to using raw socket network handling is that it cuts out the middle man. Since the operating system doesn't handle the data specifically, it reduces overhead on the network, saving central processing unit (CPU) cycles and decreasing stress on the system hardware. A raw socket provides an express tunnel between an application and an external source. Neither the operating system nor any other program on the computer has the ability to interfere with a raw connection.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Raw socket network interfaces do have a downside. though. Hackers commonly use raw socket connections to stage transmission control protocol (TCP) attacks on a network. During a TCP attack, a hacker sends a forged bit of data onto the network through a raw socket connection. This forged data contains a reset signal for the TCP connection, which in turn interrupts and crashes the current network connections on the computer.

For this reason, some operating systems have withdrawn support for raw sockets. The rationale for this is that it can help ensure network security. Software companies can restrict users' ability to use raw sockets by employing what's called a "hotfix," a permanent upgrade to the operating system. These upgrades have not had a significant negative impact on user experience, because the benefits of raw sockets have diminished as technology has improved.

For modern computers, the amount of extra processing required to handle regular socket connections as opposed to raw sockets is so minimal as to be largely irrelevant. With modern processors coming in dual-, quad-, and even six-core varieties, the chances of regular network socket connections lagging the computer are negligible. For this reason, unless there is a specific justification for using a raw socket connection over a standard network socket, the risk posed by hackers and TCP attacks on the network outweigh any advantages.

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