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DNP3 Tutorial Part 5: Understanding DNP3 Packet Layers

A Critical Tool for Troubleshooting Communication Problems

We continue to examine the Distributed Network Protocol (DNP3) focusing specifically on the layered communication model used to exchange information. The last section focused on the structure of DNP3 messages and illustrated the first few layers of the message.

The application layer combines an application service data unit (ASDU), a packaged object in itself, with an application protocol control info (APCI) block to make an application protocol data unit (APDU).

The transport layer breaks the APDU into segments with a maximum size of 16 bytes and packages them with an 8-bit transport control header and 16-bit segment CRC separators into a transportFrame.

The link layer adds a header the control and addressing information to prepare the packet for delivery to a specific destination.

These layers can be mapped to the four-layer model developed by the Department of Defense (you may recall the DoD origins of the Internet) with the DoD Internet Layer omitted.

If the serial transport is used, the packet assembly is completed and placed on the transport media for delivery.

If the packet will be sent over a LAN/WAN, the three DNP3 layers are rolled up into the application layer. The assembled packet is wrapped in the Transport Control Protocol (TCP) by the transport layer, which in turn is wrapped in the Internet Protocol (IP) by the (somewhat obvious) internet layer. The User Datagram Protocol (UDP) can also be used but presents some additional issues related to reliable delivery in congested networks The fourth layer is the Network Interface layer where the assembled packet is actually interfaced to some kind of transport media (for example, twisted pair copper, RG58 co-axial or fiber). While this multi-layer model may seem a bit confusing, it effectively isolates the tasks of communication and ultimately assists in designing and implementing a network.

Traversing the Layers

To illustrate the function of this layered model, let's look at a single DNP3 Read request over a LAN.

DNP3 Layered Communication

A DNP3 message passes through the protocol layers at both the manager and the agent. Each layer addresses a specific communication task.

The DNP3 Master wants to know the current status of the Remote's power and prepares a Read request message for the appropriate object. After passing through all three DNP3 layers, the message is passed to the TCP/UDP transport layer. The transport layer adds a data block that identifies the Master port from which the request is sent and the port on which it expects the Remote DNP3 process to be listening for messages. The packet thus formed is then passed to the IP layer. Here a data block containing the IP and Media Access addresses of the Master and the Remote is added before the entire assembled packet gets passed to the Network Interface layer. The Network Interface layer verifies media access and availability and places the packet on the media for transmission.

After working its way across bridges and through routers (the modern equivalent of over the rivers and through the woods) based on the IP information, the packet finally arrives at the Remote. Here it passes through the same four layers in exactly the opposite order as it did at the Master. First, it is pulled off the media by the Network Interface layer. After confirming that the packet is intact and valid, the Network Interface layer simply passes it to the IP layer. The IP layer verifies the Media Access and IP address and passes it on to the TCP/UDP layer where the target port is checked for connected applications. If an application is listening at the target port, the packet is passed to the Application layer. If the listening application is the Remote DNP3 process, the Read request is passed through its three layers to validate the request and identify what information needs to be collected. The Remote response then follows the identical path in reverse to reach the Master.