Networking 101: Understanding the Internet Protocol

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Welcome back! This edition of Networking 101 will give you the IP knowledge required to understand routing issues. Most everything on the Internet uses IP, and unlike Ethernet, knowing this protocol is pivotal to understanding how networking works with regards to the big picture. In upcoming articles, Networking 101 will explore TCP and UDP, routing theories, and then delve into the specific routing protocols. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Internet Protocol (IP) sits directly on top of layer 2, and is responsible for getting datagrams to their destination. Originally defined in RFC 791, IP has changed and been clarified a few times since, but the fundamental design remains the same. The IP layer does not provide any type of flow-control or sequencing capabilities—that’s left to the upper layers. We’ll be using “datagram” to refer to an entire IP message, and “packet” to identify an individual IP packet.

IP sends and receives packets to and from IP addresses, but doesn’t promise reliable delivery. There is no concept of “retries” in the IP layer. For various reasons, packets may be lost, corrupted, duplicated, delivered out of order or otherwise delayed. IP is also responsible for dealing with IP options and giving feedback in the form of ICMP error and control messages, explained last week in our look at ICMP.

The IP header, 20 bytes long, comes immediately after the layer 2 header (because IP is layer 3). The IP data portion holds everything else, including a TCP or UDP packet in its entirety. Also note that the IP header can exceed 20 bytes, if IP options are used.

IP is pretty straightforward, in that IP’s goal is simple: get a datagram to the destination, and don’t worry about anything but sending it to the next hop router. In reality, IP is more complex; else the header wouldn’t have so many fields. Sorry for this, but scrutinizing the IP header is important. The fields, starting at the top (first bit) are:

  • Version: The version of IP being used. As expected, an IPv4 packet will have this field set to “4.”
  • Header Length: Specifies the length of the header in 4-byte multiples. Options are rarely used, so you can expect to see a value of 5 here, meaning the header is 20 bytes long.
  • Type of Service: Rarely used, but theoretically this field is designed to give routers hints about how they should queue the IP datagram. Mainly for quality of service purposes, hosts may choose to set various options, such as: low delay, high throughput, or high reliability. These options are ignored by most routers.
  • Total Length: Specifies the length of the entire IP packet, including header, in bytes. Because this is a 16-bit number, IP packet length is limited to 65KB. This number represents the IP packet in question, not the entire IP datagram.
  • IP Datagram ID: Sometimes called the Fragment Identifier, this is an identifier used to check what IP datagram a specific IP packet belongs to. This field is necessary if IP hopes to combine individual IP packets back into a single datagram.
  • Flags: The Don’t Fragment (DF) bit lives here, and is used to instruct routers to not fragment an IP packet. More Fragments (MF) is also available.
  • Fragment Offset: The offset of this fragment in the original datagram, in 64-bit blocks.
  • TTL (Time to Live): The number of hops remaining in an IP packet’s life before it is destroyed. The TTL is what keeps undeliverable IP packets from floating around on the Internet forever.
  • Protocol Type: Specifies the next protocol, i.e. the header that will be encountered in the IP packet’s payload.
  • Header Checksum: A checksum of the header, but not the data.
  • IP Source: The IP address of the host that originally sent the IP packet.
  • IP Destination: The IP address of the host the IP packet is destined for.
  • IP Options: Things such as loose source routing can be added to the end of an IP header.

When a router receives an IP packet it will first check the packet’s destination. If the router has a route to the destination, it will decrement the TTL, recalculate the checksum and then ship the packet on its way. If something went awry, the corresponding ICMP error will be sent, and the packet will get discarded. In its simplest form, that’s how IP operates: It just repeats those steps for every packet it encounters.

IP fragmentation is really the key to IP functionality, and exploring fragmentation is also educational: It gives real meaning to those header fields. Not every network passing an IP packet around is capable of sending the same sizes of packets. Various layer 2 frame formats allow different amounts of data to be sent at once. The largest MTU (define) allowed is 65KB, and the smallest is 68 bytes. RFC 1122 says that all hosts must be able to reassemble datagrams that are up to 576 bytes, but should in fact be able to reassemble datagrams that are the size of the interface’s MTU.

When shipping an IP datagram over the Internet, you have no idea what the MTU will happen to be along every layer 2 link. Your ISP might be connected via Ethernet to a tier 1 ISP, but the remote site you’re trying to access could be on an ISDN link. Therefore, your IP packets will have to be fragmented before the last hop. Fragmentation can happen many times, too. If we wanted to send a 2000 byte packet to a remote site connected via ISDN, we would originally fragment the packet to fit on our 1500 byte link. We will still send an IP packet larger than 576 bytes (ISDN’s MTU), so the last router before the ISDN link will have to fragment it as well.

Also recall that IP is not a reliable protocol, so if any IP fragment gets lost along the way, the entire datagram must be resent. IP has no way to request the missing portion, so when something bad happens the result can be a large increase in traffic because of the retransmissions that will likely happen. Sometimes congested routers will have to drop a packet, and if that packet happens to be part of a 65K datagram, then entire thing must be resent. The upper protocol, TCP or other, will normally know if an entire datagram is missing, and can request a retransmission. However, TCP cannot tell if a fragment is missing, since the IP datagram will be incomplete and never sent upstairs to TCP. If TCP never receives the packet, it will eventually be resent. It is clear that the loss of a small portion of a 65K packet doesn’t help alleviate a congested link, but rather contributes to more traffic. UDP applications commonly don’t exceed 576 bytes for the sending size, and this helps two things. First, there aren’t many links with MTUs smaller than 576, so it is likely that the IP datagram will not be fragmented. Second, remember that 576 is the magical number for all end systems speaking IP: they all must be able to reassemble datagrams up to this size. Devices with limited memory may have trouble with anything larger, so this is actually worth considering.

Let’s pretend we’re a host, and we’d like to send an IP datagram of 1550 bytes (1530 data + 20 header), but our MTU is 1500 bytes. We’ll have to send two fragments, and the relevant IP headers will look like this:

•  fragment 0, offset = 0, size = 1480, MF bit set.
•  fragment 1, offset = 1480, size = 50

The IP ID and IP addresses in the fragments are always the same as the original IP datagram, but the header checksum, offset, and length fields will definitely change. When the other end gets the first packet and sees that it is a fragment, it will wait to get the rest, reassemble them, and then pass them up the stack to the next protocol.

After this is sent, we won’t hear anything more about it, assuming the DF bit isn’t set in the IP flags. But what happens if somewhere along the link the MTU is 400 bytes? Before the 1480 byte packet can be sent, the router on this link will fragment it too. Path MTU, discussed last week, is used to get around the problem of intermediate routers having to fragment packets. Fragmentation takes time and precious resources on routers. The main reason we want to avoid excessive fragmentation is simply because of the extra delay that’s inevitably introduced.

Reassembly is always done at the final destination, so intermediate routers don’t need to store IP datagrams. This also means that IP packets can be routed independently, over different paths without cause for concern. This is an important concept to understand–it makes IP very versatile. No matter what order the receiver gets the packets, it will be able to reassemble them based on the offset field in the IP header.

And now that we understand fragmentation, we find that it begs the question “does IP really hide the link-layer?”

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