Implementors MAY include "keep-alives" in their TCP implementations, although this practice is not universally accepted. If keep-alives are included, the application MUST be able to turn them on or off for each TCP connection, and they MUST default to off.
Keep-alive packets MUST only be sent when no data or acknowledgement packets have been received for the connection within an interval. This interval MUST be configurable and MUST default to no less than two hours.
It is extremely important to remember that ACK segments that contain no data are not reliably transmitted by TCP. Consequently, if a keep-alive mechanism is implemented it MUST NOT interpret failure to respond to any specific probe as a dead connection. An implementation SHOULD send a keep-alive segment with no data; however, it MAY be configurable to send a keep-alive segment containing one garbage octet, for compatibility with erroneous TCP implementations.
A "keep-alive" mechanism periodically probes the other end of a connection when the connection is otherwise idle, even when there is no data to be sent. The TCP specification does not include a keep-alive mechanism because it could: (1) cause perfectly good connections to break during transient Internet failures; (2) consume unnecessary bandwidth ("if no one is using the connection, who cares if it is still good?"); and (3) cost money for an Internet path that charges for packets.
Some TCP implementations, however, have included a keep-alive mechanism. To confirm that an idle connection is still active, these implementations send a probe segment designed to elicit a response from the peer TCP. Such a segment generally contains SEG.SEQ = SND.NXT-1 and may or may not contain one garbage octet of data. Note that on a quiet connection SND.NXT = RCV.NXT, so that this SEG.SEQ will be outside the window. Therefore, the probe causes the receiver to return an acknowledgment segment, confirming that the connection is still live. If the peer has dropped the connection due to a network partition or a crash, it will respond with a RST instead of an acknowledgment segment.
Unfortunately, some misbehaved TCP implementations fail to respond to a segment with SEG.SEQ = SND.NXT-1 unless the segment contains data. Alternatively, an implementation could determine whether a peer responded correctly to keep-alive packets with no garbage data octet.
A TCP keep-alive mechanism should only be invoked in server applications that might otherwise hang indefinitely and consume resources unnecessarily if a client crashes or aborts a connection during a network failure.