Serial Programming/Introduction and OSI Model



Welcome to the wonderful world of serial data communications. This is a part of a series of articles that will cover many aspects of serial data communications. We begin with fundamentals and follow a layered approach. By the end of the book, the reader should be able to transfer almost any data over wires between computers. Some forms of wireless communication will also be addressed.

There are so many aspects about this subject that sometimes it is a very hard nut to crack. I'm going to dive down and try to start with the basics and introducing the RS-232 serial data communications standard.

Why Serial Communication?


First of all, the basic standards that will be described here are, from the perspective of computer technology, positively ancient. Some of you reading this could perhaps find your grandparents or even great-grandparents using this protocol when they were in College. At the same time, it is so solid in concept that the reason for abandoning it should always be questioned. Indeed, there have been several other data transmission methods that have been developed since the RS-232 serial data protocol was established, but this workhorse is still widely used and seems to go through a rebirth every once in a while.

Serial communication means transmission of one bit at a time. It could be compared against parallel communication where multiple bits are transmitted in parallel at a time. Parallel communication enable higher speed of communication than serial communication but requires more data wires than serial communication which only requires one data wire.

When all else fails, RS-232 serial communication can be relied upon. When you are trying to get two pieces of computer equipment together, sometimes newer communications methods have hard limitations that can't be worked out due to number of connections, RF interference, distance limitations, being behind physical barriers, in sensitive areas like medical equipment where stray voltages can be a problem, or that you absolutely need to rely upon the data being transmitted. A sister protocol to RS-232, the RS-422 protocol, even allows transmissions for several miles of cable.

Serial data communication is widely implemented. While it is sometimes presumed that a PC can deal with just about any problem you want to throw at it, there are a number of electronic devices that are full of data which needs to be recorded. In part because of the age of this protocol, there are many legacy devices that have RS-232 serial data as the only access to the outside world. But even many of the latest network devices have RS-232 "console" ports to facilitate initial configuration and provide a means of troubleshooting when the network itself is broken. Because the hardware is so widely implemented and available, together with many software tools, it is also relatively cheap to develop equipment and software using this system. Particularly when transmission speed isn't important, but data needs to be sent on a regular basis. RS-232 serial data is a very reasonable solution instead of a more expensive 10BASE-T TCP/IP solution or high-speed fiber optics.

Serial data communication is also versatile. While the usual method of transmission is over copper wires between two fixed points, recently there have been some converters that transmit serial data over fiber optic lines, wireless transmitters, USB devices, and even over TCP/IP networks. What is really surprising here is that all of these transmission methods are totally transparent to the device receiving or transmitting the serial data. It can also be a carrier for TCP/IP, and be used for private networks.

OSI Layered Network Communications Model


While serial data communication is not strictly a network communication protocol, it is still important to understand the layered communications model when dealing with any sort of communications protocols. Often people implementing serial data software have to build multiple layers of this model, even if they are not totally aware of it when they are doing it at the time.

Network Layers:

  1. Application
  2. Presentation
  3. Session
  4. Transport
  5. Network
  6. Data-Link
  7. Physical

Often serial data communication does not implement all of these different layers, and even more often these different layers are combined in the same module or even the very same function. This model was originally developed by the International Organization for Standards (ISO) in 1984 to help give a good idea of where different networking structures could be separated and intermingled. The point here is to know that you can separate different parts of communications sub-systems to help with the debugging process, and to move structures from one sub-system to another.

If your software is well written using a model similar to this one, the software subroutines in layers above and below do not have to be rewritten if the module at a particular layer is changed. To achieve this you need to establish strong standards for the interface between the layers, which will be covered in other sections of these articles. For example, a web browser does not need to know if the HTML is being sent over fiber optic cables, wireless transmissions, or even over a serial data cable.

Serial Communication Layers


For serial data communication, I see this layer model as more common:

  1. Serial data applications
  2. Serial networks
  3. Packet challenge/verification
  4. Basic serial packets
  5. UART processing
  6. Raw RS-232 signals

In the case of many serial data applications, not all of these layers are implemented. Often it is just raw packets being transmitted in one direction, but sometimes even just a signal of any kind can indicate some action take place on a computer, regardless of content. It is possible to simply take the logic level of a raw RS-232 signal in your software, but at some point the data does need to be converted and the voltages involved with RS-232 can damage hardware, so this is very seldom done.

Software Examples


I don't want to get into a holy war over programming languages with this series of articles. For the moment, I'm going to be using Turbo Pascal and Delphi as the programming languages, if for no other reason then the fact that I am most comfortable programming in this development environment. If a good C/C++ guru would like to "translate" these routines, I would welcome that, as well as other programming languages where applicable. Serial communication is complicated enough so please avoid esoteric languages like Intercal or Malbolge. A good BASIC implementation would be welcome, as would LISP. I'll try to avoid language-specific features and simply deal with functions in a generic sense, which good programmers should be able to translate to the language of their choice.

These articles are meant to teach you the basics of serial data communication, not to be a functioning serial data driver. Still, all code examples will be checked and sent through an actual compiler before being listed in the articles, and hopefully fully debugged. There is no one single way to accomplish these steps and tasks, so I am going to encourage a hands-on approach to dealing with software and setting up networks.

While I've had quite a bit of experience in dealing with several serial data protocols (on the packet level), I am by no means the topmost expert at this. As I said earlier, I have considerable experience in dealing with communications at many levels, and I'd like to share some of my very hard-won knowledge.

Applications in Education


While I am only a Software Engineer and don't have the "formal" credentials necessary for making an educational textbook, I do believe that there is much that could be taught about computer networking by students experimenting with serial data communication. The audience that I am aiming for with these articles are the High School hackers/computer geeks and undergraduate CS majors. A High School teacher that wanted to tackle a subject like this, or if you wanted to cover a special topic course in a university setting where students could get some very hands-on experience with communications protocols. Every layer of the OSI model could be demonstrated in a manner that students would learn from first-hand experiences why certain rules/systems have been implemented on the Internet, what standards documents mean, and perhaps even participate in creating standards documents.

If you are a professor or High School instructor interested in using this text, I would be particularly interested in adapting this text to better suit your needs, or working with you in covering this subject.

From a professional perspective, this is a topic that is seldom taught at a university, and usually only in passing when they are rushing through a whole bunch of other protocol suites. Software developers are usually introduced to this topic by having their supervisor dump a bunch of specification documents on their desk, a driver disk with API documentation, and perhaps a typically short deadline in order to get something working that should have been working sometime last year. Software developers who really understand serial data communication are worth gold, and often even these developers only learn just enough to get the immediate job done.

I've also found that skills learned from developing serial data communications also translate into other projects and give a deeper understanding of just about any data transmission system. In addition to the other groups I mentioned, I am also aiming for those unfortunate software engineers who are trying to learn just about anything about this very difficult subject and don't know where to begin. Documentation about serial communication is sparse, and sometime contradictory.

This doesn't have to be that complicated of a subject, and it is possible for mere mortals to be able to understand how everything works.


Other Serial Programming Articles