Unicast communication: One to One

Chapter 5 image

Introduction

Unicast, sending messages to a single receiver, is the typical way we communicate on the Internet. For example, to view a web page, we send unicast messages to a server, which in turn sends us the page to display on our browser.

In this chapter, you will send unicast messages, for example to a friend’s or teammate’s micro:bit. Doing this, you will learn some basic ideas of computer networking, including:

  • the concept of unicast

  • the concept of a protocol

  • the concept of an address and IP address

  • the concept of a data packet and a header

What you’ll need

2 micro:bits
1 whiteboard/board
boardmarkers/post-it notes
1 teammate

Background

This chapter covers unicast communication. So, what is unicast?

Definition 1: Unicast

Transmission of a message to a single receiver.

When transmitting messages to each other, computers use protocols.

Definition 2: Protocol

A set of rules for how messages are sent across networks.

Simply, protocols define how computers should send messages and what they should do when they receive a message. On the Internet, every computer or device follows the Internet Protocol (IP).

According to Internet Protocol, each device is given a unique address, called an IP address. Remember you have already used special addresses for broadcast and multicast. In this chapter, we consider unicast addresses. IP address is used for unicast on the Internet.

Definition 3: IP address

A unique string that identifies computers that use the Internet Protocol  to communicate over a network. This string is made up of 4 decimal numbers, that range between 0 and 255. Each decimal is separated by dots. For example, 213.248.234.11 is an IP address.

Your micro:bit also has an address (but it is a bit different). You already partly changed your micro:bit’s address, by changing the group ID.

When two computers communicate, the sender sends a data packet  to the receiver.

Definition 4: Data packet

A data packet is a piece of data sent over a network. This piece of data has an actual message part (for example, an image or a text) and one or more header parts. A header contains helpful information for protocols like the sender and receiver IP addresses.

A data packet contains a message and a header. A header contains information to help a protocol such as sender and receiver addresses, and message types. Different protocols may add different headers to a message.

Figure 1: A data packet contains a message and a header. A header contains information to help a protocol such as sender and receiver addresses, and message types. Different protocols may add different headers to a message.

The figure above shows how the data and one header forms a data packet. In this figure, as well as the sender and receiver addresses, the example header also includes a message type. Message type tells the receiver whether it is receiving, for example, a text or an image. Remember, in the previous chapters, your programmed your receivers to receive a specific type of message. If your packets contained a header with the message type, then it would be easier to write the receiver program.

In this chapter, to unicast to other micro:bits, you will create a data packet by adding a header with source and destination addresses.

Programming: Sending and receiving unicast messages

In this section, you will program your micro:bits to send and receive unicast messages completing four tasks. To start with, you need two micro:bits.

For unicast to work, your radio should receive all messages sent, but your program should read only the ones that are addressed to you. This is like seeing all the post coming into your house, but only opening the envelopes with your name on.

Task 1: Configure your radio

Description: To receive any packet, sent by anybody, you need to use broadcast as the underlying communication.

Instruction: Set your radio group ID like you did in Broadcast Communication: One to All.

Task 2: Design your header

Description: The sender micro:bit needs to add a header to each message before sending. The message header will include:

  • sender address

  • receiver address

For the message header, you will create a special string.

Instruction: First construct the sender and receiver addresses. With your teammate, pick two-letter strings as micro:bit addresses. You need one address for your micro:bit, and one address for your teammate’s micro:bit. For example, you can use your initials: These are “CS” and “AK” for the authors of this book. Important! Your addresses should be unique across all the addresses of micro:bits that are in the same room with you.

Next, join the strings for sender and receiver addresses to create a header. You will use the blocks under the Text menu in the MakeCode Blocks editor shown in the figure below. Create your header using the blocks in this menu.

Text menu in PXT

Text menu in the MakeCode Blocks editor

Task 3: Create your packet and send

Description: Now it is time to create your packet. As shown in the figure with the example packet, a header and a message form a packet. Your final packet will have the following information:

  • sender address

  • receiver address

  • your message

Instruction: Pick a string as your message. For example: “Hello”. Use the Text blocks to join your message string with your header.

Now, your sender micro:bit is ready to send unicast packets.

Task 4: Receive a packet

Description: When the receiver micro:bit receives a packet, it decides whether to receive or ignore the packet. Notice that the receiver micro:bit receives a single string, but it knows that this string is made up of:

  • Sender address: first 2 letters

  • Receiver address: next 2 letters

  • Sender’s message: the rest of the string

The receiver needs to use this information to decide which packets are for itself.

Instruction: Divide the received string into the sender address, receiver address, and sender’s message variables. Use the Text blocks, for example substring and compare.

Check if the receiver address is equal to your micro:bit’s address. If it is, then your micro:bit is the rightful receiver. Display the sender address and the message on your display. If your micro:bit is not the receiver, be a good citizen, and ignore the message.

Challenge: Filter senders

Description: Sometimes, you may not want to receive messages just from anybody. For this, you will write a program so that you only receive messages from two people you know. We will call this your allow-list (often referred to as a whitelist).

Instruction: Extend the receiver program to also check the sender address field in the header. Check whether this address is in your allow-list. If yes, display the sender address and the message. If not, ignore the message. Test your program with addresses in and out of your whitelist.

Extended activity

Exercise 1

You may have written two separate programs: one for the receiver and one for the sender. Change your program so that both micro:bits can send and receive.

Exercise 2

Did you try listening out for messages sent from other micro:bits in your class? How could your program achieve this? Is this the right thing to do? How might you protect your messages from others snooping?

Exercise 3

In this chapter, we have covered one way to do a unicast: Putting sender and receiver addresses in a data packet header. But there is another way. Remember Group communication: one to many. If you set your group to be only for your pair of micro:bits, then this is like you are unicasting. To unicast like this, choose a unique group ID, like you did for group communication. Announce it on the board so that no one else uses it. Write programs for your pair of micro:bits that send and receive using this radio group ID. What are the limitations of doing unicast like this? Hint: Think about how many possible group IDs there are. Would this be enough for everyone in the world who has a micro:bit?

Problems

  1. In what ways is unicast like broadcast and group communication? In what ways is it different?

  2. Which ones are not IP addresses?

    1. -1.0.0.1

    2. 278.0.10.0

    3. 104.20.14.61

    4. 127.0.0.1

    5. 161.23.84;18

    6. 161.73.246.13

    7. 104.20.14.61.15

  3. In this chapter, you used two-letter strings for your addresses. How many different people can you unicast using this address size?

  4. When selecting an address size for your message header, can you pick any size you like? In your program, what happens if you increase your address size to 10 letters? Do you see any benefits? Or are there any limitations?

  5. How does the size of a data packet header affect the actual packet size? If your data packet size were 100 Bytes, and your header size were 10 Bytes, how big could your messages be? What happens if the header size increases to 50 Bytes?

Resources