The presentation layer is the sixth layer of the OSI Reference Model protocol stack, and second from the top. It is different from the other layers in two key respects. First, it has a much more limited and specific function than the other layers; it's actually somewhat easy to describe, hurray! Second, it is used much less often than the other layers; in many types of connections it is not required.
The name of this layer suggests its main function as well: it deals with the presentation of data. More specifically, the presentation layer is charged with taking care of any issues that might arise where data sent from one system needs to be viewed in a different way by the other system. It also takes care of any special processing that must be done to data from the time an application tries to send it until the time it is sent over the network.
Here are some of the specific types of data handling issues that the presentation layer handles:
- Translation: Networks can connect very different types of computers together: PCs, Macintoshes, UNIX systems, AS/400 servers and mainframes can all exist on the same network. These systems have many distinct characteristics and represent data in different ways; they may use different character sets for example. The presentation layer handles the job of hiding these differences between machines.
- Compression: Compression (and decompression) may be done at the presentation layer to improve the throughput of data. (There are some who believe this is not, strictly speaking, a function of the presentation layer.)
- Encryption: Some types of encryption (and decryption) are performed at the presentation layer. This ensures the security of the data as it travels down the protocol stack. For example, one of the most popular encryption schemes that is usually associated with the presentation layer is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol. Not all encryption is done at layer 6, however; some encryption is often done at lower layers in the protocol stack, in technologies such as IPSec.
The reason that the presentation layer is not always used in network communications is that the jobs mentioned above are simply not always needed. Compression and encryption are usually considered “optional”, and translation features are also only needed in certain circumstances. Another reason why the presentation layer is sometimes not mentioned is that its functions may be performed as part of the application layer.
The fact that the translation job done by the presentation layer isn't always needed means that it is common for it to be “skipped” by actual protocol stack implementations. This means that protocols at layer seven may talk directly with those at layer five. Once again, this is part of the reason why all of the functions of layers five through seven may be included together in the same software package, as described in the overview of layers and layer groupings.
Key Concept: The sixth OSI model layer is called the presentation layer. Protocols at this layer take care of manipulation tasks that transform data from one representation to another, such as translation, compression and encryption. In many cases, no such functions are required in a particular networking stack; if so, there may not be any protocol active at layer six.