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What is Checksum & How it Works?

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13th Sep, 2023
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What is Checksum & How it Works?

Checksums are an essential component of the IP protocol, the underlying technology that enables the internet to function. The checksum method implements the checksum using bit addition and bit complement methods. Using a checksum or other error-detection approach is necessary to identify any damage to the data while it is being transported across the network channel. 

This blog will explain what is checksum with examples, how it works, and the many types. Continue reading to learn how to use checksums on different operating systems.

What Is Checksum?

Checksum is a technique used to determine the authenticity of received data and to detect whether there was an error in transmission. It is an error detection algorithm that adjoins redundant bits in a message for detecting errors and is capable of working on any message length. Before transmission, every piece of data or file might be issued a checksum value after executing a cryptographic hash function. 

Checksums function by giving the party on the receiving end information about the transmission to ensure that the complete range of data is transmitted. The checksum value is often a long string of letters and numbers that operate as a fingerprint for a file or set of files to identify the number of bits contained in the transmission. 

Checksums are frequently called hash values or unique numbers generated by cryptographic techniques and work like digital data fingerprints. Creating and comparing checksums is sometimes called ‘fixity checking’. Checksums are used to test data integrity and discover data corruption problems. Checksum functions are linked to hash functions, fingerprints, randomisation, and cryptographic hash functions.

Why Use Checksum?

Here are the reasons to use checksum:

  • Error detection: A checksum facilitates the identification of potential faults that could occur while transmitting data. This lets the recipient juxtapose the received data with the provided checksum value. When a disparity between the checksum and the received data exists, it indicates errors or alterations within the data.
  • Data integrity: Checksums are crucial in preserving data’s integrity and protecting it against tampering or corruption during storage and transit. A comparison between the computed and the received checksum makes it possible to ascertain whether the data has remained unaltered.
  • Anomaly identification: A checksum is produced and sent together with the data before transferring data. The recipient then calculates its checksum from the received data and compares it with the checksum. If they don’t match, it signals that something went wrong in the transmission.
  • Data fidelity: Checksums confirm that the entire dataset has been correctly transferred. If any part of the data is lost or altered during transmission, the checksum will likely not match, indicating a problem.
  • Error localisation: In some circumstances, checksums might help determine where mistakes occurred. By breaking the data into smaller chunks and calculating checksums for each chunk, faults can be traced to specific data segments.
  • Quick verification: Checksums are generally quick and easy to calculate. This makes them efficient for checking data integrity, especially when working with enormous amounts of information.
  • Security: In cryptographic applications, checksums are used to produce digital signatures and verify the authenticity of data. Strong cryptographic checksums provide a layer of protection against unwanted alterations.

Checksum Algorithm Types

Types of Checksum Algorithms

Several checksum algorithms detect errors in data transmissions and verify data integrity. Here are some common types:

  • Longitudinal Parity Check: This is the simplest checksum procedure. It splits the input into “words” with a specified amount of bits and computes the exclusive or (XOR) of all those words. The result is attached to the message as an additional word.
  • Fletcher’s Checksum: Fletcher’s checksum technique is designed to identify flaws that affect many bits at once. It employs a mix of addition and modulo operations to generate the checksum.
  • Adler-32: Adler-32 is a checksum method that fairly balances speed and error detection capability. It employs modular arithmetic techniques to calculate the checksum.
  • Cyclic Redundancy Checks (CRCs): CRCs are commonly used checksum algorithms that can identify various mistakes. They employ polynomial division to calculate the checksum.
  • Cryptographic Hash Functions: Cryptographic hash functions, for example, MD5, SHA-1, SHA-256, and SHA-512, find utility in creating cryptographic checksums. These algorithms conduct multiple mathematical processes to obtain a fixed-length hash value that works as a checksum to validate the integrity of a file.

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Step-By-Step Guide to the Checksum Error-Detection Technique 

The checksum approach needs a checksum generator and a checksum checker on the sender and receiver sides, respectively. The process entails splitting the data into fixed-sized segments and employing a 1’s complement to find the sum of these segments. The calculated sum is then transmitted simultaneously with the data to the addressee. 

At the receiver’s end, the same operation is repeated, and if all zeroes are reached in the total, the data is legitimate. If the result is non-zero, it signals the data comprises a mistake, and the receiver rejects it. 

The checksum identifies all the faults involving an odd number of bits and the mistakes involving an even number of bits. The main problem of the checksum technique is that the error goes unnoticed if one or more bits of a subunit are erroneous.

The checksum error-detection method involves the following steps:

  • Checksum generator: The sender employs a checksum generator to determine the checksum of the data to be delivered.
  • Adding checksum to data: The checksum is attached to the data and transmitted to the recipient.
  • Checksum checker: The receiver uses a checksum checker to confirm whether the correct data is received.
  • Dividing data into subunits: The receiver separates the received data unit into multiple subunits of equal length.
  • Adding subunits: The receiver adds all these subunits, including the checksum as one of the subunits.
  • Complementing resulting bit: The resulting bit is then complemented.
  • Error detection: The data is error-free if the complemented result is zero. If the result is non-zero, it signifies the data includes an error, and the receiver rejects it.

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Checksum on the Sender’s End [Step wise]

The sender side performs the checksum procedure by dividing the original data into blocks, adding them, complementing the result, and getting the checksum. The checksum is subsequently added to the original data bit and data transmission resumes.

On the sender side, the following processes are involved in the checksum error-detection approach:

  • Divide the original data into n-bit chunks in each block.
  • Add all k data blocks together.
  • The addition result is supplemented by the complement of one.
  • The data acquired is called the checksum.
  • Combine the checksum value with the original data bit.
  • Start the data transfer.

Checksum at the Receiver End [Step wise]

Here are the step-by-step instructions for checksum at the receiver side:

  • Divide the supplied data into ‘k’ pieces.
  • Add the checksum value to each of the ‘k’ data blocks.
  • The addition result is supplemented by the complement of one.
  • If the result is 0, there are no mistakes in the data received from the sender, and the receiver accepts the data.
  • If the result is non-zero, the data includes an error, and the receiver rejects it.

Detecting Checksum Errors: A Solved Example

Here is an example of using checksum for error detection:

Assume we wish to send the following 8-bit data: 11010011. We may employ a simple checksum approach to detect flaws in this message.

  • Separate the data into four-bit segments 1101 and 0011.
  • Using 1’s complement arithmetic, add the segments: 1101 + 0011 = 10000.
  • Remove the carry bit and take the result’s 1’s complement: 0111.
  • To generate the sent message, append the checksum to the original data: 110100110111.
  • Divide the received message into four 4-bit segments: 1101, 0011, and 0111.
  • Using 1’s complement arithmetic, add the segments: 1101 + 0011 + 0111 = 10011.
  • Remove the carry bit and take the result’s 1’s complement: 0110.
  • If the result is 0, the received frames are considered error-free. If the result is non-zero, it signifies the data includes an error, and the receiver rejects it.

This example demonstrates how to use a checksum to detect problems in data transport. Upper-layer protocols employ checksums as a reliable error detection approach.

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Sender End [Step wise]

Here is a step-by-step example of checksum error detection at the sender side:

  • Divide the data: Divide the original data into blocks of a specific number of bits.
  • Add the data blocks: Combine all of the data blocks.
  • Complement the result: Using 1’s complement, take the complement of the addition result.
  • Obtain the checksum: The checksum is the acquired data after complementing.

Let’s take an example to illustrate these steps:

  • Suppose we have the following data to be transmitted: 10110101.
  • Divide the data: Divide the data into blocks with a certain number of bits in each block. Let’s assume we divide it into 4-bit blocks: 1011 and 0101.
  • Add the data blocks: Add all the data blocks together: 1011 + 0101 = 10000.
  • Complement the result: Take the complement of the addition result using 1’s complement: 01111.
  • Obtain the checksum: The resulting data after complementing is known as the checksum. In this situation, the checksum is 01111.

The sender will then transfer the original data with the checksum to the recipient. The receiver will conduct the identical processes to produce the checksum and compare it with the received checksum to discover any flaws in the data transmission.

Note: This is only a simplified example of checksum error detection stages. In practice, more advanced algorithms and error detection methods may be used.

Receiver End [Step wise]

Here are the in-depth directions for the receiver side of a solved checksum error detection example:

  • Receive the sender’s data and checksum.
  • Divide the data into equal-sized pieces.
  • Add all of the blocks, including the checksum.
  • Take the sum’s complement.
  • If the complement is 0, the data is error-free and acceptable.
  • If the complement is greater than zero, the data is incorrect and should be disregarded.

Upper-layer protocols employ this form of error detection, deemed more trustworthy than other methods such as LRC, VRC, and CRC. Checksum error detection entails computing a number known as the checksum to determine whether or not the data transported from the sender to the receiver has been corrupted. The transmitter uses the checksum generator to check for mistakes, while the receiver uses the checksum checker. The checksum detects any faults involving an odd number of bits and errors involving an even number of bits.

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Checksums are vital for confirming the validity and integrity of data transmissions. They function by assigning a value to a piece of data or file that works as a form of fingerprint, which can be used to detect high-level faults inside data transmissions. Checksums are used in various applications, from software downloads to the fundamental technology that enables the internet to function.


Pavan Vadapalli

Blog Author
Director of Engineering @ upGrad. Motivated to leverage technology to solve problems. Seasoned leader for startups and fast moving orgs. Working on solving problems of scale and long term technology strategy.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1How does checksum validation work?

Checksum validation is a technique used to assess the authenticity of received data by computing a checksum of the data using an algorithm and comparing it with the transmitted checksum to detect whether there was a mistake in transmission.

2What are the advantages of checksum?

Checksums allow problems in transmission or transcription to be identified by applying a simple algorithm to the data. It detects errors in the transmission or storage of data by verifying data integrity.

3How many errors can checksum detect?

A 16-bit sum-of-words checksum can detect all single-bit errors and error bursts of 16 bits or less. However, it is crucial to note that checksums cannot detect all flaws, and errors may remain undiscovered.

4Which checksum method is best?

Establishing which checksum method is optimal is difficult as it depends on the unique use case and goals. However, cryptographic checksums based on hash functions such as MD5, SHA-1, SHA-256, and SHA-512 are routinely used and regarded as more reliable than other approaches.

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