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What is the OSI 7 Layer Model and is it still relevant?

The Open Systems Interconnection or OSI 7 layer model is the definitive model that describes computer networking and was conceived in the 1970s, back in the early days of networking.

The 7 layer model merged two existing network models and was eventlaly ratafied and published in 1984 to create the OSI model that is still relevant today as it cleanly describes the layers required for users to communicate over a network.

The model goes from top to bottom or from 7 to 1.

physical-layer

The 7 layers

Layer 7 – Application

The Application Layer is the one at the top – it’s what most users see. In the OSI model, this is the layer that is the “closest to the end user”. Applications that work at Layer 7 are the ones that users interact with directly. A web browser (Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) or other app – Skype, Microsoft Outlook – are examples of Layer 7 applications.

Layer 6 – Presentation

The Presentation Layer represents the area that is independent of data representation at the application layer – in general, it represents the preparation or translation of application format to network format, or from network formatting to application format. In other words, the layer “presents” data for the application or the network. A good example of this is encryption and decryption of data for secure or SSL transmission.

Layer 5 – Session

When two devices, computers or servers need to “speak” with one another, a session needs to be created, and this is done at the Session Layer. Functions at this layer involve setup, coordination (how long should a system wait for a response, for example) and termination between the applications at each end of the session.

Layer 4 – Transport

The Transport Layer deals with the coordination of the data transfer between end systems and hosts. How much data to send, at what rate, where it goes, etc. The best known example of the Transport Layer is the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which is built on top of the Internet Protocol (IP), commonly known as TCP/IP. TCP and UDP port numbers work at Layer 4, while IP addresses work at Layer 3, the Network Layer.

Layer 3 – Network

At the Network Layer is where you’ll find most of the router functionality that most networking professionals care about and love. In its most basic sense, this layer is responsible for packet forwarding, including routing through different routers. You might know that your London computer wants to connect to a server in Guildford, but there are millions of different paths to take. Routers at this layer help do this efficiently.

Layer 2 – Data Link

The data link layer provides node-to-node data transfer—a link between two directly connected nodes. It detects and possibly corrects errors that may occur in the physical layer. It defines the protocol to establish and terminate a connection between two physically connected devices. It also defines the protocol for flow control between them.

IEEE 802 divides the data link layer into two sublayers:

  • Medium access control (MAC) layer – responsible for controlling how devices in a network gain access to a medium and permission to transmit data.
  • Logical link control (LLC) layer – responsible for identifying and encapsulating network layer protocols, and controls error checking and frame synchronization.

The MAC and LLC layers of IEEE 802 networks such as 802.3 Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, and 802.15.4 ZigBee operate at the data link layer.

The Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) is a data link layer protocol that can operate over several different physical layers, such as synchronous and asynchronous serial lines.

Layer 1 – Physical

At the bottom of our OSI model we have the Physical Layer, which represents the electrical and physical representation of the system. This can include everything from the cable type, radio frequency link (as in an 802.11 wireless systems), as well as the layout of pins, voltages and other physical requirements. When a networking problem occurs, many networking pros go right to the physical layer to check that all of the cables are properly connected and that the power plug hasn’t been pulled from the router, switch or computer, for example.

The physical layer is the layer of low-level networking equipment, such as some hubs, cabling, and repeaters. The physical layer is never concerned with protocols or other such higher-layer items. Examples of hardware in this layer are network adapters, repeaters, network hubs, modems, and fiber media converters.

Why you need to know the 7 OSI layers

Most people in the networking space will  need to know about the different layers when they’re going for their certifications. After that, you hear about the OSI model when vendors are making pitches about which layer(s) their products work with.

The purpose of the OSI reference model is to guide vendors and developers so the digital communication products and software programs they create will interoperate, and to facilitate clear comparisons among communications tools.

If you can understand the OSI model and its layers, you can also then understand which protocols and devices can interoperate with each other when new technologies are developed and explained.

Remembering the OSI Model 7 layer

We love a mnemonic trick to recall the seven layers.

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