A Discrete-Event Network Simulator

CSMA NetDevice

This is the introduction to CSMA NetDevice chapter, to complement the CSMA model doxygen.

Overview of the CSMA model

The ns-3 CSMA device models a simple bus network in the spirit of Ethernet. Although it does not model any real physical network you could ever build or buy, it does provide some very useful functionality.

Typically when one thinks of a bus network Ethernet or IEEE 802.3 comes to mind. Ethernet uses CSMA/CD (Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection with exponentially increasing backoff to contend for the shared transmission medium. The ns-3 CSMA device models only a portion of this process, using the nature of the globally available channel to provide instantaneous (faster than light) carrier sense and priority-based collision “avoidance.” Collisions in the sense of Ethernet never happen and so the ns-3 CSMA device does not model collision detection, nor will any transmission in progress be “jammed.”

CSMA Layer Model

There are a number of conventions in use for describing layered communications architectures in the literature and in textbooks. The most common layering model is the ISO seven layer reference model. In this view the CsmaNetDevice and CsmaChannel pair occupies the lowest two layers – at the physical (layer one), and data link (layer two) positions. Another important reference model is that specified by RFC 1122, “Requirements for Internet Hosts – Communication Layers.” In this view the CsmaNetDevice and CsmaChannel pair occupies the lowest layer – the link layer. There is also a seemingly endless litany of alternative descriptions found in textbooks and in the literature. We adopt the naming conventions used in the IEEE 802 standards which speak of LLC, MAC, MII and PHY layering. These acronyms are defined as:

  • LLC: Logical Link Control;
  • MAC: Media Access Control;
  • MII: Media Independent Interface;
  • PHY: Physical Layer.

In this case the LLC and MAC are sublayers of the OSI data link layer and the MII and PHY are sublayers of the OSI physical layer.

The “top” of the CSMA device defines the transition from the network layer to the data link layer. This transition is performed by higher layers by calling either CsmaNetDevice::Send or CsmaNetDevice::SendFrom.

In contrast to the IEEE 802.3 standards, there is no precisely specified PHY in the CSMA model in the sense of wire types, signals or pinouts. The “bottom” interface of the CsmaNetDevice can be thought of as as a kind of Media Independent Interface (MII) as seen in the “Fast Ethernet” (IEEE 802.3u) specifications. This MII interface fits into a corresponding media independent interface on the CsmaChannel. You will not find the equivalent of a 10BASE-T or a 1000BASE-LX PHY.

The CsmaNetDevice calls the CsmaChannel through a media independent interface. There is a method defined to tell the channel when to start “wiggling the wires” using the method CsmaChannel::TransmitStart, and a method to tell the channel when the transmission process is done and the channel should begin propagating the last bit across the “wire”: CsmaChannel::TransmitEnd.

When the TransmitEnd method is executed, the channel will model a single uniform signal propagation delay in the medium and deliver copes of the packet to each of the devices attached to the packet via the CsmaNetDevice::Receive method.

There is a “pin” in the device media independent interface corresponding to “COL” (collision). The state of the channel may be sensed by calling CsmaChannel::GetState. Each device will look at this “pin” before starting a send and will perform appropriate backoff operations if required.

Properly received packets are forwarded up to higher levels from the CsmaNetDevice via a callback mechanism. The callback function is initialized by the higher layer (when the net device is attached) using CsmaNetDevice::SetReceiveCallback and is invoked upon “proper” reception of a packet by the net device in order to forward the packet up the protocol stack.

CSMA Channel Model

The class CsmaChannel models the actual transmission medium. There is no fixed limit for the number of devices connected to the channel. The CsmaChannel models a data rate and a speed-of-light delay which can be accessed via the attributes “DataRate” and “Delay” respectively. The data rate provided to the channel is used to set the data rates used by the transmitter sections of the CSMA devices connected to the channel. There is no way to independently set data rates in the devices. Since the data rate is only used to calculate a delay time, there is no limitation (other than by the data type holding the value) on the speed at which CSMA channels and devices can operate; and no restriction based on any kind of PHY characteristics.

The CsmaChannel has three states, IDLE, TRANSMITTING and PROPAGATING. These three states are “seen” instantaneously by all devices on the channel. By this we mean that if one device begins or ends a simulated transmission, all devices on the channel are immediately aware of the change in state. There is no time during which one device may see an IDLE channel while another device physically further away in the collision domain may have begun transmitting with the associated signals not propagated down the channel to other devices. Thus there is no need for collision detection in the CsmaChannel model and it is not implemented in any way.

We do, as the name indicates, have a Carrier Sense aspect to the model. Since the simulator is single threaded, access to the common channel will be serialized by the simulator. This provides a deterministic mechanism for contending for the channel. The channel is allocated (transitioned from state IDLE to state TRANSMITTING) on a first-come first-served basis. The channel always goes through a three state process:


The TRANSMITTING state models the time during which the source net device is actually wiggling the signals on the wire. The PROPAGATING state models the time after the last bit was sent, when the signal is propagating down the wire to the “far end.”

The transition to the TRANSMITTING state is driven by a call to CsmaChannel::TransmitStart which is called by the net device that transmits the packet. It is the responsibility of that device to end the transmission with a call to CsmaChannel::TransmitEnd at the appropriate simulation time that reflects the time elapsed to put all of the packet bits on the wire. When TransmitEnd is called, the channel schedules an event corresponding to a single speed-of-light delay. This delay applies to all net devices on the channel identically. You can think of a symmetrical hub in which the packet bits propagate to a central location and then back out equal length cables to the other devices on the channel. The single “speed of light” delay then corresponds to the time it takes for: 1) a signal to propagate from one CsmaNetDevice through its cable to the hub; plus 2) the time it takes for the hub to forward the packet out a port; plus 3) the time it takes for the signal in question to propagate to the destination net device.

The CsmaChannel models a broadcast medium so the packet is delivered to all of the devices on the channel (including the source) at the end of the propagation time. It is the responsibility of the sending device to determine whether or not it receives a packet broadcast over the channel.

The CsmaChannel provides following Attributes:

  • DataRate: The bitrate for packet transmission on connected devices;
  • Delay: The speed of light transmission delay for the channel.

CSMA Net Device Model

The CSMA network device appears somewhat like an Ethernet device. The CsmaNetDevice provides following Attributes:

  • Address: The Mac48Address of the device;
  • SendEnable: Enable packet transmission if true;
  • ReceiveEnable: Enable packet reception if true;
  • EncapsulationMode: Type of link layer encapsulation to use;
  • RxErrorModel: The receive error model;
  • TxQueue: The transmit queue used by the device;
  • InterframeGap: The optional time to wait between “frames”;
  • Rx: A trace source for received packets;
  • Drop: A trace source for dropped packets.

The CsmaNetDevice supports the assignment of a “receive error model.” This is an ErrorModel object that is used to simulate data corruption on the link.

Packets sent over the CsmaNetDevice are always routed through the transmit queue to provide a trace hook for packets sent out over the network. This transmit queue can be set (via attribute) to model different queuing strategies.

Also configurable by attribute is the encapsulation method used by the device. Every packet gets an EthernetHeader that includes the destination and source MAC addresses, and a length/type field. Every packet also gets an EthernetTrailer which includes the FCS. Data in the packet may be encapsulated in different ways.

By default, or by setting the “EncapsulationMode” attribute to “Dix”, the encapsulation is according to the DEC, Intel, Xerox standard. This is sometimes called EthernetII framing and is the familiar destination MAC, source MAC, EtherType, Data, CRC format.

If the “EncapsulationMode” attribute is set to “Llc”, the encapsulation is by LLC SNAP. In this case, a SNAP header is added that contains the EtherType (IP or ARP).

The other implemented encapsulation modes are IP_ARP (set “EncapsulationMode” to “IpArp”) in which the length type of the Ethernet header receives the protocol number of the packet; or ETHERNET_V1 (set “EncapsulationMode” to “EthernetV1”) in which the length type of the Ethernet header receives the length of the packet. A “Raw” encapsulation mode is defined but not implemented – use of the RAW mode results in an assertion.

Note that all net devices on a channel must be set to the same encapsulation mode for correct results. The encapsulation mode is not sensed at the receiver.

The CsmaNetDevice implements a random exponential backoff algorithm that is executed if the channel is determined to be busy (TRANSMITTING or PPROPAGATING) when the device wants to start propagating. This results in a random delay of up to pow (2, retries) - 1 microseconds before a retry is attempted. The default maximum number of retries is 1000.

Using the CsmaNetDevice

The CSMA net devices and channels are typically created and configured using the associated CsmaHelper object. The various ns-3 device helpers generally work in a similar way, and their use is seen in many of our example programs.

The conceptual model of interest is that of a bare computer “husk” into which you plug net devices. The bare computers are created using a NodeContainer helper. You just ask this helper to create as many computers (we call them Nodes) as you need on your network:

NodeContainer csmaNodes;
csmaNodes.Create (nCsmaNodes);

Once you have your nodes, you need to instantiate a CsmaHelper and set any attributes you may want to change.:

CsmaHelper csma;
csma.SetChannelAttribute ("DataRate", StringValue ("100Mbps"));
csma.SetChannelAttribute ("Delay", TimeValue (NanoSeconds (6560)));

csma.SetDeviceAttribute ("EncapsulationMode", StringValue ("Dix"));
csma.SetDeviceAttribute ("FrameSize", UintegerValue (2000));

Once the attributes are set, all that remains is to create the devices and install them on the required nodes, and to connect the devices together using a CSMA channel. When we create the net devices, we add them to a container to allow you to use them in the future. This all takes just one line of code.:

NetDeviceContainer csmaDevices = csma.Install (csmaNodes);

We recommend thinking carefully about changing these Attributes, since it can result in behavior that surprises users. We allow this because we believe flexibility is important. As an example of a possibly surprising effect of changing Attributes, consider the following:

The Mtu Attribute indicates the Maximum Transmission Unit to the device. This is the size of the largest Protocol Data Unit (PDU) that the device can send. This Attribute defaults to 1500 bytes and corresponds to a number found in RFC 894, “A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams over Ethernet Networks.” The number is actually derived from the maximum packet size for 10Base5 (full-spec Ethernet) networks – 1518 bytes. If you subtract DIX encapsulation overhead for Ethernet packets (18 bytes) you will end up with a maximum possible data size (MTU) of 1500 bytes. One can also find that the MTU for IEEE 802.3 networks is 1492 bytes. This is because LLC/SNAP encapsulation adds an extra eight bytes of overhead to the packet. In both cases, the underlying network hardware is limited to 1518 bytes, but the MTU is different because the encapsulation is different.

If one leaves the Mtu Attribute at 1500 bytes and changes the encapsulation mode Attribute to Llc, the result will be a network that encapsulates 1500 byte PDUs with LLC/SNAP framing resulting in packets of 1526 bytes. This would be illegal in many networks, but we allow you do do this. This results in a simulation that quite subtly does not reflect what you might be expecting since a real device would balk at sending a 1526 byte packet.

There also exist jumbo frames (1500 < MTU <= 9000 bytes) and super-jumbo (MTU > 9000 bytes) frames that are not officially sanctioned by IEEE but are available in some high-speed (Gigabit) networks and NICs. In the CSMA model, one could leave the encapsulation mode set to Dix, and set the Mtu to 64000 bytes – even though an associated CsmaChannel DataRate was left at 10 megabits per second (certainly not Gigabit Ethernet). This would essentially model an Ethernet switch made out of vampire-tapped 1980s-style 10Base5 networks that support super-jumbo datagrams, which is certainly not something that was ever made, nor is likely to ever be made; however it is quite easy for you to configure.

Be careful about assumptions regarding what CSMA is actually modelling and how configuration (Attributes) may allow you to swerve considerably away from reality.

CSMA Tracing

Like all ns-3 devices, the CSMA Model provides a number of trace sources. These trace sources can be hooked using your own custom trace code, or you can use our helper functions to arrange for tracing to be enabled on devices you specify.

Upper-Level (MAC) Hooks

From the point of view of tracing in the net device, there are several interesting points to insert trace hooks. A convention inherited from other simulators is that packets destined for transmission onto attached networks pass through a single “transmit queue” in the net device. We provide trace hooks at this point in packet flow, which corresponds (abstractly) only to a transition from the network to data link layer, and call them collectively the device MAC hooks.

When a packet is sent to the CSMA net device for transmission it always passes through the transmit queue. The transmit queue in the CsmaNetDevice inherits from Queue, and therefore inherits three trace sources:

  • An Enqueue operation source (see Queue::m_traceEnqueue);
  • A Dequeue operation source (see Queue::m_traceDequeue);
  • A Drop operation source (see Queue::m_traceDrop).

The upper-level (MAC) trace hooks for the CsmaNetDevice are, in fact, exactly these three trace sources on the single transmit queue of the device.

The m_traceEnqueue event is triggered when a packet is placed on the transmit queue. This happens at the time that CsmaNetDevice::Send or CsmaNetDevice::SendFrom is called by a higher layer to queue a packet for transmission.

The m_traceDequeue event is triggered when a packet is removed from the transmit queue. Dequeues from the transmit queue can happen in three situations: 1) If the underlying channel is idle when the CsmaNetDevice::Send or CsmaNetDevice::SendFrom is called, a packet is dequeued from the transmit queue and immediately transmitted; 2) If the underlying channel is idle, a packet may be dequeued and immediately transmitted in an internal TransmitCompleteEvent that functions much like a transmit complete interrupt service routine; or 3) from the random exponential backoff handler if a timeout is detected.

Case (3) implies that a packet is dequeued from the transmit queue if it is unable to be transmitted according to the backoff rules. It is important to understand that this will appear as a Dequeued packet and it is easy to incorrectly assume that the packet was transmitted since it passed through the transmit queue. In fact, a packet is actually dropped by the net device in this case. The reason for this behavior is due to the definition of the Queue Drop event. The m_traceDrop event is, by definition, fired when a packet cannot be enqueued on the transmit queue because it is full. This event only fires if the queue is full and we do not overload this event to indicate that the CsmaChannel is “full.”

Lower-Level (PHY) Hooks

Similar to the upper level trace hooks, there are trace hooks available at the lower levels of the net device. We call these the PHY hooks. These events fire from the device methods that talk directly to the CsmaChannel.

The trace source m_dropTrace is called to indicate a packet that is dropped by the device. This happens in two cases: First, if the receive side of the net device is not enabled (see CsmaNetDevice::m_receiveEnable and the associated attribute “ReceiveEnable”).

The m_dropTrace is also used to indicate that a packet was discarded as corrupt if a receive error model is used (see CsmaNetDevice::m_receiveErrorModel and the associated attribute “ReceiveErrorModel”).

The other low-level trace source fires on reception of an accepted packet (see CsmaNetDevice::m_rxTrace). A packet is accepted if it is destined for the broadcast address, a multicast address, or to the MAC address assigned to the net device.


The ns3 CSMA model is a simplistic model of an Ethernet-like network. It supports a Carrier-Sense function and allows for Multiple Access to a shared medium. It is not physical in the sense that the state of the medium is instantaneously shared among all devices. This means that there is no collision detection required in this model and none is implemented. There will never be a “jam” of a packet already on the medium. Access to the shared channel is on a first-come first-served basis as determined by the simulator scheduler. If the channel is determined to be busy by looking at the global state, a random exponential backoff is performed and a retry is attempted.

Ns-3 Attributes provide a mechanism for setting various parameters in the device and channel such as addresses, encapsulation modes and error model selection. Trace hooks are provided in the usual manner with a set of upper level hooks corresponding to a transmit queue and used in ASCII tracing; and also a set of lower level hooks used in pcap tracing.

Although the ns-3 CsmaChannel and CsmaNetDevice does not model any kind of network you could build or buy, it does provide us with some useful functionality. You should, however, understand that it is explicitly not Ethernet or any flavor of IEEE 802.3 but an interesting subset.