In a world increasingly dominated by protocols like: HTTP, REST, GraphQL, RPC, and pre-built libraries that handle each of them - it seems many are losing touch with how things actually work (myself included). Several years ago I took a networking course in university where I implemented my own client/server programs in UDP and TCP. In my final year, my distributed systems course culminated in a distributed key-value store. Despite creating functional programs for both of these courses, I didn’t really understand the actual use cases for them. Now after several years of game and web development, I have a much better understanding of why the client - server paradigm is so important. In my opinion, this is fundamental knowledge that any programmer should be aware of, even if they are using a much higher level library to actually handle this.

In this post, I’ll strip out as much as possible to present an extremely simple example of a TCP client and server written in C. For the sake of brevity, there is no error handling, this can be an exercise for the reader as they will eventually accidentally find themselves with a socket that fails to open due to the port already being in use.

For now, I would only expect this to work on unix like systems, e.g. Linux and MacOS. In the future, I can look into updating to include Windows.



// server.c
#include <stdio.h>      // printf
#include <netinet/in.h> // sockaddr_in, INADDR_ANY
#include <sys/socket.h> // socket, bind, listen, accept, AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM
#include <sys/types.h>  // htonl, htons, socklen_t
#include <unistd.h>     // read, write, close

// This is used to pre-allocate the char array size
// For our use case, we will accept that it's not possible to read messages larger than this
#define MAX_MESSAGE_SIZE 256

int main(void)
  // Initialize the details of the server socket
  struct sockaddr_in server_sockaddr_in;

  // Define socket family AF_INET = internetwork: UDP, TCP, etc.
  server_sockaddr_in.sin_family = AF_INET;

  // The htonl() function converts the unsigned integer hostlong from host byte order to network byte order.
  server_sockaddr_in.sin_addr.s_addr = htonl(INADDR_ANY);

  // Defines the port we want to open this socket on
  const int port = 8080;
  // The htons() function converts the unsigned short integer hostshort from host byte order to network byte order.
  server_sockaddr_in.sin_port = htons(port);

  // creates an endpoint for communication and returns a file descriptor that refers to that endpoint
  // SOCK_STREAM defines that this should communicate over TCP
  int socket_file_descriptor = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);

  // bind() assigns the address specified by server_sockaddr_in to the socket socket_file_descriptor
  bind(socket_file_descriptor, (struct sockaddr *)&server_sockaddr_in, sizeof(server_sockaddr_in));

  // listen() marks the socket referred to by sockfd as a passive socket
  // the second parameter (5) defines the maximum length to which the queue of pending connections for socket_file_descriptor may grow
  listen(socket_file_descriptor, 5);

  struct sockaddr_in client_sockaddr_in;
  socklen_t len = sizeof(client_sockaddr_in);

  // accept() extracts the first connection request on the queue of pending connections for the listening socket
  // The address info from the client will be stored in client_sockaddr_in
  int connection_file_descriptor = accept(socket_file_descriptor, (struct sockaddr *)&client_sockaddr_in, &len);

  char buffer[MAX_MESSAGE_SIZE] = {};

  // read() attempts to read up to MAX_MESSAGE_SIZE bytes from file descriptor connection_file_descriptor into buffer
  read(connection_file_descriptor, buffer, sizeof(buffer));
  printf("%s", buffer);

  char status = 0;
  // write(fd, buf, count) writes up to count bytes from the buffer starting at buf to the file referred to by the file descriptor fd
  // In this case we simply send a single byte 0 to indicate we have received the message
  write(connection_file_descriptor, &status, 1);

  // close() closes a file descriptor, so that it no longer refers to any file and may be reused

  return 0;

How to Build

cc server.c -o server

This will output an executable named server that you can then run from the command line.

What Next?

In order to properly test this TCP server, you will need a TCP client. In my next post, I will walk through creating a simple TCP client in C.