Keep alive

Once a TCP connection has been established, that connection is defined to be valid until one side closes it. Once the connection has entered the connected state, it will remain connected indefinitely. But, in reality, the connection will not last indefinitely. Many firewalls or NAT systems close connections if there has been no activity in some time period. The Keep Alive signal can be used to refrain intermediate hosts from closing idle connection due to inactivity.

libcurl offers several options to enable and control TCP Keep alive for connections it creates. There is one main boolean option to switch the feature on/off, and there are three separate options for the counters and timeouts involved.

It can be noted that while this method tries to defeat middle boxes closing down idle connections, there are also such boxes that plain simply ignore keep alive probes. There are no guarantees that this actually works.

Enable keep alive

Set the CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPALIVE long to 1 to enable, 0 to disable. If enabled, libcurl will set TCP Keep Alive options on any new TCP connection it creates using this handle. If it creates connections using other protocols, like UDP or QUIC, those connections will not be affected.

Idle time

You set the CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPIDLE long to the number of seconds you want the connection to be idle before sending the first keep alive probe. The default value is 60 seconds. It makes sense to try to set this to a time slightly lower than the time limit in your strictest middle box.

Probe interval

Set CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPINTVL to a long for the number of seconds to wait between subsequent keep alive probes. The probes that follow once the first keep alive probe has been sent. Default is 60 seconds.

Probe count

Sometimes referred as keep alive retry. Set CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPCNT to a long holding the number of retransmissions to be carried out before declaring that remote end is not available and closing the connection. Default is 9. This libcurl option was added in 8.9.0, long after the previous options.

Example

A tiny example of libcurl application doing a transfer using TCP keep alive.

int main(void)
{
  CURL *curl = curl_easy_init();
  if(curl) {
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_URL, "https://example.com");

    /* enable TCP keep-alive for this transfer */
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPALIVE, 1L);

    /* keep-alive idle time to 120 seconds */
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPIDLE, 120L);

    /* interval time between keep-alive probes: 60 seconds */
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPINTVL, 60L);

    /* maximum number of keep-alive probes: 3 */
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_TCP_KEEPCNT, 3L);

    curl_easy_perform(curl);
  }
}

HTTP Keep-Alive

There was this old keyword called Keep-Alive used for HTTP/1.0 in the Connection: header. It has an entirely separate functionality and is not related to TCP Keep Alive: it meant that the connection should be kept alive for persistent use in subsequent transfers. That became default for HTTP in 1.1.

QUIC and HTTP/2

Both QUIC and HTTP/2 have PING frames that can be sent between two peers involved in the communication that then have similar effects as TCP Keep Alive. These options do however not control libcurl's use of PING frames.