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Send a UDP datagram in C

Tested on

Debian (Lenny)


To send an outbound UDP datagram in C


Suppose that you wish to write a client that implements the UDP-based variant of the Daytime Protocol, as defined by RFC 867

This is a very simple protocol whereby the client sends a datagram to the server, then the server responds with a datagram containing a human-readable copy of the current date and time. The datagram from the client is not required to have any particular content.



The method described here has three steps:

  1. Construct the remote socket address.
  2. Create a UDP socket.
  3. Send the datagram.

The following header files will be needed:

#include <errno.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <netdb.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <netinet/in.h>

and if using sendmsg to send the datagram:

#include <sys/uio.h>

Construct the remote socket address

To send a UDP datagram it is necessary to specify the remote IP address and port number to which the connection should be directed. The combination of these two values is treated as a single entity called the socket address, which is represented by a struct sockaddr_in for IPv4 or a struct sockaddr_in6 for IPv6.

A local socket address may also be specified, however it is rarely necessary to do so. By default the local address is chosen automatically by the network stack.

Most common network services have an assigned port number on which they are normally expected to listen. It makes sense for the client to use this as a default, however it is important that an alternative can be selected. The user of the client will not necessarily have any control over how the server is configured, so the onus is on the client software to provide access to whichever port the server has been instructed to use.

It is often useful for the remote IP address to default to the loopback address, particularly for services such as databases where there is a good chance of the client and server being run on the same machine. Alternatively, it may be preferable to require that the destination be specified explicitly.

For most purposes the best way to construct the remote address is by calling getaddrinfo. This takes a string containing either a hostname or an IP address, and a second string containing either a service name or a port number. These are converted into a sockaddr_in or a sockaddr_in6 as appropriate:

const char* hostname=0; /* localhost */
const char* portname="daytime";
struct addrinfo hints;
struct addrinfo* res=0;
int err=getaddrinfo(hostname,portname,&hints,&res);
if (err!=0) {
    die("failed to resolve remote socket address (err=%d)",err);

The hints argument contains additional information to help guide the conversion. In this example:

The res argument is used to return a linked list of addrinfo structures containing the address or addresses that were found. If multiple records are returned then the recommended behaviour (from RFC 1123) is to try each address in turn, stopping when a successful outcome is achieved. This assumes that you have some way to distinguish success from failure, which may not always be the case, but if you are able to do this then you should. If not then an acceptable alternative is to use the first result and discard the remainder.

The memory occupied by the result list should be released by calling freeaddrinfo once it is no longer needed, however this cannot be done until after the datagram has been sent.

Create the client socket.

The socket that will be used to send the datagram should be created using the socket function. This takes three arguments:

  1. the domain (AF_INET or AF_INET6 in this case, corresponding to IPv4 or IPv6 respectively),
  2. the socket type (SOCK_DGRAM in this case, meaning that the socket should provide connectionless and potentially unreliable transfer of datagrams), and
  3. the protocol (IPROTO_UDP in this case, corresponding to UDP).

A value of 0 for the protocol requests the default for the given address family and socket type, which for AF_INET or AF_INET6 and SOCK_DGRAM would be IPPROTO_UDP. It is equally acceptable for the protocol to be deduced in this manner or specified explicitly.

Assuming you previously used getaddrinfo to construct the remote address then the required values can be obtained from the addrinfo structure:

int fd=socket(res->ai_family,res->ai_socktype,res->ai_protocol);
if (fd==-1) {

Send the datagram

Datagrams can be sent using any function that is capable of writing to a file descriptor, however unless you have connected the socket to a particular remote address (as described below) it is necessary to use either sendto or sendmsg so that a destination address can be specified. Of these sendmsg is the more flexibile option, but at the cost of a signficiantly more complex interface. Details for each function are given below.

Regardless of which function you choose, each function call will result in a separate datagram being sent. For this reason you must either compose each datagram payload as a single, contiguous block of memory, or make use of the scatter/gather capability provided by sendmsg.

Send the datagram (using sendto)

To call sendto you must supply the content of the datagram and the remote address to which it should be sent:

if (sendto(fd,content,sizeof(content),0,
    res->ai_addr,res->ai_addrlen)==-1) {

The fourth argument is for specifying flags which modify the behaviour of sendto, none of which are needed in this example.

The value returned by sendto is the number of bytes sent, or -1 if there was an error. UDP datagrams are sent atomically, so unlike when writing to a TCP socket there is no need to wrap the function call in a loop to handle partially-sent data.

Send the datagram (using sendmsg)

To call sendmsg, in addition to the datagram content and remote address you must also construct an iovec array and a msghdr structure:

struct iovec iov[1];

struct msghdr message;

if (sendmsg(fd,&message,0)==-1) {

The purpose of the iovec array is to provide a scatter/gather capability so that the datagram payload need not be stored in a contiguous region of memory. In this example the entire payload is stored in a single buffer, therefore only one array element is needed.

The msghdr structure exists to bring the number of arguments to recvmsg and sendmsg down to a managable number. On entry to sendmsg it specifies where the destination address, the datagram payload and any ancillary data are stored. In this example no ancillary data has been provided.

If you wish to pass any flags into sendmsg then this cannot be done using msg_flags, which is ignored on entry. Instead you must pass them using the third argument to sendmsg (which is zero in this example).


Sending to the IPv4 broadcast address

By default, attempts to send a datagram to the broadcast address are rejected with an error (typically EACCES, however it is not obvious from the POSIX specification which error should occur). This is a safety measure intended to reduce the risk of making unintended broadcasts. It can be overridden by setting the SO_BROADCAST socket option:

int broadcast=1;
if (setsockopt(fd,SOL_SOCKET,SO_BROADCAST,
    &broadcast,sizeof(broadcast))==-1) {

Replying to a datagram

When replying to a UDP datagram the response should normally be sent to the IP address and port number from which the request originated. This can be arranged by capturing the source address of the request using recvfrom or recvmsg, then passing it to sendto or sendmsg as the destination address for the response.

There is also the question of where the response should be sent from. In most cases the best choice will be from the port and IP address to which the request was directed. This is not a requirement of the User Datagram Protocol itself, however there are several reasons why it is desirable:

An exception would be where the application-layer protocol explicitly requires or allows the response to originate from a different port (for example, as is the case for TFTP).

Replying from a matching port number can be achieved very easily by sending the response using the socket that received the request. This method will reply from a matching IP address if the socket is bound to a specific address, but not necessarily if it is bound to the wildcard address and the server is multihomed.

Unfortunately the POSIX API does not provide a satisfactory way to reply from a matching IP address in a portable manner. Briefly, the available options include:

This is a substantial topic in its own right and will be the subject of a future microHOWTO.

Connecting to a remote host

When exchanging many datagrams from a particular remote host it may be beneficial for a UDP socket to be connected to that host. This removes the need for the remote address to be explicitly checked every time a datagram is received, and for the address to be specified every time one is sent. The connection is made using the connect function:

if (connect(fd,remote_addr,sizeof(remote_addr))==-1) {

This is superficially identical to the call that would be made to establish a TCP connection, however unlike TCP there is no handshake. This has two notable consequences:

A UDP socket in the connected state will only receive datagrams that originate from the given remote address. It is therefore feasible to use functions such as read or recv in place of recvfrom. Similarly the given remote address becomes the default for outgoing datagrams, therefore it is feasible to use write or send in place of sendto. (Being connected does not, however, prevent you from sending datagrams to arbitrary destinations using sendto if you so wish.)

See also

Further Reading

Tags: c | posix | socket