Uncovering a 24-year-old bug in the Linux Kernel
When one side’s receive buffer (Recv-Q) fills up (in this case because the rsync process is doing disk I/O at a speed slower than the network’s), it will send out a zero window advertisement, which will put that direction of the connection on hold. When buffer space eventually frees up, the kernel will send an unsolicited window update with a non-zero window size, and the data transfer continues. To be safe, just in case this unsolicited window update is lost, the other end will regularly poll the connection state using the so-called Zero Window Probes (the persist mode we are seeing here).
Apparently, the bug was in the bulk receiver fast-path, a code path that skips most of the expensive, strict TCP processing to optimize for the common case of bulk data reception. This is a significant optimization, outlined 28 years ago² by Van Jacobson in his “TCP receive in 30 instructions” email. Apparently the Linux implementation did not update snd_wl1 while in the receiver fast path. If a connection uses the fast path for too long, snd_wl1 will fall so far behind that ack_seq will wrap around with respect to it. And if this happens while the receive window is zero, there is no way to re-open the window, as demonstrated above. What’s more, this bug had been present in Linux since v2.1.8, dating back to 1996!