TCP Window Scaling Option

TCP as originally specified only allows for windows up to 65536 bytes, because the window-related protocol fields all have a width of 16 bits. This prevents the use of large TCP windows, which are necessary to achieve high transmission rates over paths with a large bandwidth*delay product.

The Window Scaling Option is one of several options defined in RFC 7323, "TCP Extensions for High Performance". It allows TCP to advertise and use a window larger than 65536 bytes. The way this works is that in the initial handshake, the a TCP speaker announces a scaling factor, which is a power of two between 20 (no scaling) and 214, to allow for an effective window of 230 (one Gigabyte). Window Scaling only comes into effect when both ends of the connection advertise the option (even with just a scaling factor of 20).

As explained under the large TCP windows topic, Window Scaling is typically used in connection with the TCP Timestamp option and the PAWS (Protection Against Wrapped Sequence numbers), both defined in RFC 7323.

32K limitations on some systems when Window Scaling is not used

Some systems, notably Linux, limit the usable window in the absence of Window Scaling to 32 Kilobytes. The reasoning behind this is that some (other) systems used in the past were broken by larger windows, because they erroneously interpreted the 16-bit values related to TCP windows as signed, rather than unsigned, integers.

This limitation can have the effect that users (or applications) that request window sizes between 32K and 64K, but don't have Window Scaling enabled, do not actually benefit from the desired window sizes.

The artificial limitation was finally removed from the Linux kernel sources on March 21, 2006. The old behavior (window limited to 32KB when Window Scaling isn't used) can still be enabled through a sysctl tuning parameter, in case one really wants to interoperate with TCP implementations that are broken in the way described above.

Problems with window scaling

Middlebox issues

MiddleBoxes which do not understand window scaling may cause very poor performance, as described in WindowScalingProblems. Windows Vista limits the scaling factor for HTTP transactions to 2 to avoid some of the problems, see WindowsOSSpecific.

Diagnostic issues

The Window Scaling option has an impact on how the offered window in TCP ACKs should be interpreted. This can cause problems when one is faced with incomplete packet traces that lack the initial SYN/SYN+ACK handshake where the options are negotiated: The SEQ/ACK sequence may look incorrect because scaling cannot be taken into account. One effect of this is that tcpgraph or similar analysis tools (included in tools such as WireShark) may produce incoherent results.


  • RFC 7323, TCP Extensions for High Performance, D. Borman, B. Braden, V. Jacobson, B. Scheffenegger, September 2014 (obsoletes RFC 1323 from May 1993)
  • git note about the Linux kernel modification that got rid of the 32K limit, R. Jones and D.S. Miller, March 2006. Can also be retrieved as a patch.

-- SimonLeinen - 21 Mar 2006 - 27 September 2014
-- PekkaSavola - 07 Nov 2006
-- AlexGall - 31 Aug 2007 (added reference to scaling limitiation in Windows Vista)

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Topic revision: r6 - 2014-09-27 - SimonLeinen
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