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A stateless protocol is a protocol in which each particular communication is handled as an independent event, unrelated to other similar communications.
The opposite of stateless protocol is a stateful protocol, where an individual communication is handled as part of a greater set of communications.
One way to explain stateless versus stateful protocol is that the stateless protocol requires less resources, because systems do not need to keep track of orienting information to link multiple communications together. At the same time, some stateful protocols have emerged because of inherent dangers with stateless protocols. For instance, stateful inspection and some network processes allow networks to understand whether traffic is an initial message or a response to a previous message. By using stateful protocols, systems can act more intelligently and gather more information about each individual transaction. This can help in identifying spam, fraudulent messages, or activities like hacking or phishing.
In terms of common Internet protocols, a variety of stateless and stateful protocols can be stacked or joined together. Simple protocols like IP or Internet protocol are stateless, while others like Border Gateway Protocol or BGP are stateful protocols. Each can work together in a greater system for analyzing network traffic over the Internet. Another way to think of stateless or stateful protocol is looking at the function of a given server. If that server can hold metadata about individual transactions and apply it, it could be said to be functioning in a stateful way.