Accurate and current RTT estimates are necessary to adapt to changing traffic conditions and to avoid an instability known as "congestion collapse" [Nagle84] in a busy network. However, accurate measurement of RTT may be difficult both in theory and in implementation.
Many TCP implementations base their RTT measurements upon a sample of only one packet per window. While this yields an adequate approximation to the RTT for small windows, it results in an unacceptably poor RTT estimate for an LFN. If we look at RTT estimation as a signal processing problem (which it is), a data signal at some frequency, the packet rate, is being sampled at a lower frequency, the window rate. This lower sampling frequency violates Nyquist's criteria and may therefore introduce "aliasing" artifacts into the estimated RTT [Hamming77].
A good RTT estimator with a conservative retransmission timeout calculation can tolerate aliasing when the sampling frequency is "close" to the data frequency. For example, with a window of 8 packets, the sample rate is 1/8 the data frequency -- less than an order of magnitude different. However, when the window is tens or hundreds of packets, the RTT estimator may be seriously in error, resulting in spurious retransmissions.
If there are dropped packets, the problem becomes worse. Zhang [Zhang86], Jain [Jain86] and Karn [Karn87] have shown that it is not possible to accumulate reliable RTT estimates if retransmitted segments are included in the estimate. Since a full window of data will have been transmitted prior to a retransmission, all of the segments in that window will have to be ACKed before the next RTT sample can be taken. This means at least an additional window's worth of time between RTT measurements and, as the error rate approaches one per window of data (e.g., 10**-6 errors per bit for the Wideband satellite network), it becomes effectively impossible to obtain a valid RTT measurement.
A solution to these problems, which actually simplifies the sender substantially, is as follows: using TCP options, the sender places a timestamp in each data segment, and the receiver reflects these timestamps back in ACK segments. Then a single subtract gives the sender an accurate RTT measurement for every ACK segment (which will correspond to every other data segment, with a sensible receiver). We call this the RTTM (Round-Trip Time Measurement) mechanism.
It is vitally important to use the RTTM mechanism with big windows; otherwise, the door is opened to some dangerous instabilities due to aliasing. Furthermore, the option is probably useful for all TCP's, since it simplifies the sender.