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This article discusses the various types of networks, the methods for connnecting networks, how network data is moved from network to network, and the protocols used on today's popular networks. It is excerpted from chapter one of the book The Definitive Guide to Linux Networking Programming, written by Keir Davis et. al. (Apress, 2004; ISBN: 1590593227).

  1. Fundamentals (of Linux Networking)
  2. Addressing
  3. Internet Addresses
  4. Internet Protocol
  5. Protocol Layering
  6. User Datagram Protocol
  7. The Client-Server Model
  8. The Domain Name System
By: Apress Publishing
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October 27, 2005

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We’ve discussed the concept of two or more computers communicating over a network, and we’ve discussed the concept of abstracting the low-level concerns of internetworking so that as far as one computer is concerned, the other computer could be located nearby or on the other side of the world. Because every packet contains the address of the source and the destination, the actual physical distance between two network nodes really doesn’t matter, as long as a transmission path can be found between them. Sounds good, but how does one computer find the other? How does one node on the network “call” another node?

For communication to occur, each node on the network must have its own address. This address must be unique, just as someone’s phone number is unique. For example, while two or more people might have 555-9999 as their phone number, only one person will have that phone number within a certain area code, and that area code will exist only once within a certain country code. This accomplishes two things: it ensures that within a certain scope each number is unique, and it allows each person with a phone to have a unique number.

Ethernet Addresses

Ethernets are no different. On an Ethernet, each node has its own address. This address must be unique to avoid conflicts between nodes. Because Ethernet resources are shared, every node on the network receives all of the communications on the network. It is up to each node to determine whether the communication it receives should be ignored or answered based on the destination address. It is important not to confuse an Ethernet address with a TCP/IP or Internet address, as they are not the same. Ethernet addresses are physical addresses tied directly to the hardware interfaces connected via the Ethernet cable running to each node.

An Ethernet address is an integer with a size of 48 bits. Ethernet hardware manufacturers are assigned blocks of Ethernet addresses and assign a unique address to each hardware interface in sequence as they are manufactured. The Ethernet address space is managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Assuming the hardware manufacturers don’t make a mistake, this addressing scheme ensures that every hardware device with an Ethernet interface can be addressed uniquely. Moving an Ethernet interface from one node to another or changing the Ethernet hardware interface on a node changes the Ethernet address for that node. Thus, Ethernet addresses are tied to the Ethernet device itself, not the node hosting the interface. If you purchase a network card at your local computer store, that network card has a unique Ethernet address on it that will remain the same no matter which computer has the card installed.

Let’s look at an example using a computer running Linux.

 [user@host user]$ /sbin/ifconfig eth0 eth0     Link encap:Ethernet HWaddr 00:E0:29:5E:FC:BE
         inet addr: Bcast: Mask:
         RX packets:35772 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
         TX packets:24414 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
         collisions:0 txqueuelen:100
         RX bytes:36335701 (34.6 Mb) TX bytes:3089090 (2.9 Mb)
         Interrupt:5 Base address:0x6000

Using the/sbin/ifconfigcommand, we can get a listing of the configuration of our eth0 interface on our Linux machine. Your network interface might have a different name than eth0, which is fine. Just use the appropriate value, or use the–aoption toifconfigto get a listing of all of the configured interfaces if you don’t know the name of yours. The key part of the output, though, is the first line. Notice the parameter labeledHWaddr. In our example, it has a value of00:E0:29:5E:FC:BE, which is the physical Ethernet address of this node. Remember that we said an Ethernet address is 48 bits. Our example address has six hex values. Each hex value has a maximum of 8 bits, or a value range from 00 to FF.

But what does this tell us? As mentioned previously, each hardware manufacturer is assigned a 24-bit value by the IEEE. This 24-bit value (3 octets) must remain consistent across all hardware devices produced by this manufacturer. The manufacturer uses the remaining 3 octets as a sequential number to create a unique, 48-bit Ethernet address. Let’s see what we can find out about our address.

Open a web browser and go to this address:http://standards.ieee.org/regauth/oui/index.shtml. In the field provided, enter the first 3 octets of our example address, in this case 00-e0-29 (substitute a hyphen [-] for the colon [:]). Click Search, and you’ll see a reply that looks like this:

                      6 HUGHES
                      IRVINE CA 92718
                      UNITED STATES

That’s pretty descriptive. It tells us that the hardware manufacturer of our network interface is Standard Microsystems, also known as SMC. Using the same form, you can also search by company name. To illustrate how important it is that these numbers be managed, try searching with a value similar to 00-e0-29, such as 00-e0-27. Using 27, you’ll find that the manufacturer is Dux, Inc. Thus, as each manufacturer is creating their products, they’ll increase the second half of the Ethernet address sequentially to ensure that each device has a unique value. In our case, the second half of our address is 5E-FC-BE, which is our hardware interface’s unique identifier. If the results of your search don’t match the vendor of your network card, keep in mind that many companies resell products produced by another or subcontract their manufacturing to someone else.

The Ethernet address can also take on two other special values. In addition to being the unique address of a single physical interface, it can be a broadcast address for the network itself as well as a multicast address. The broadcast address is reserved for sending to all nodes on a network simultaneously. Multicast addresses allow a limited form of broadcasting, where a subset of network nodes agrees to respond to the multicast address.

The Ethernet address is also known as the MAC address. MAC stands for Media Access Control. Because our Ethernet is a shared network, only one node can “talk” at any one time using the network. Before a node transmits information, it first “listens” to the network to see if any other node is using the network. If so, it waits a randomly chosen amount of time and then tries to communicate again. If no other node is using the network, our node sends its message and awaits a reply. If two nodes “talk” at the same time, a collision occurs. Collisions on shared networks are normal and are handled by the network itself so as not to cause problems, provided the ratio of collisions to communications does not get too high. In the case of Ethernets, a collision rate higher than 60 percent is typically cause for concern. Each MAC address must be unique, so a node about to transmit can compare addresses to check whether another node is already transmitting. Thus, the MAC address (Ethernet address) helps control the collision rate and allows nodes to determine if the network is free to use.


We’ve discussed that the Internet is a network built by physically connecting other networks. To connect our networks together, we use a special device called a gateway. Any Ethernet node can conceivably act as a gateway, though many do not. Gateways have two or more physical network interfaces and do a particular job, just as their name implies: they relay packets destined for other networks, and they receive packets destined for nodes on one of their own networks. Building on our earlier diagram, here’s how it looks when you connect two networks together with a gateway (see Figure 1-4).

Figure 1-4.  Two connected networks with a gateway

Gateways can also be called routers, since they route packets from one network to another. If you consider that all networks are equal, then the notion of transmitting packets from one to the other becomes a little easier. No longer is it necessary for our network nodes to understand how to find every other node on remote networks. Maintaining that amount of ever-changing information on every computer connected to every network would be impossible. Instead, nodes on our local network only need to know the address of the gateway. That is, local nodes only need to know which node is the “exit” or “gate” to all other networks. The gateway takes on the task of correctly routing packets with foreign destinations to either the remote network itself or another gateway. For example, consider Figure 1-5, which shows three interconnected networks.

Figure 1-5.  Multiple networks, multiple gateways

In this diagram, we have three networks: Red, Green, and Blue. There are two gateways, Foo and Bar. If a node on the Red network wants to send a packet to a node on the Green or Blue network, it does not need to keep track of the addresses on either network. It only needs to know that its gateway to any other network besides its own is Foo. The packets destined for the remote network are sent to Foo, which then determines whether the packet is destined for the Green network or the Blue network. If Green, the packet is sent to the appropriate node on the Green network. If Blue, however, the packet is sent to Bar, because Foo only knows about the Red and Green networks. Any packet for any other network needs to be sent to the next gateway, in this case Bar. This scenario is multiplied over and over and over in today’s network environment, and it significantly decreases the amount of information that each network node and gateway has to manage.

Likewise, the reverse is true. When the receiver accepts the packet and replies, the same decision process occurs. The sender determines if the packet is destined for its own network or a remote network. If remote, then the packet is sent to the network’s gateway, and from there to either the receiver or yet another gateway. Thus, a gateway is a device that transmits packets from one network to another.

Gateways seem simple, but as we’ve mentioned, asking one device to keep track of the information for every network that’s connected to every other network is impossible. So how do our gateways do their job without becoming hopelessly buried by information? The gateway rule is critical: network gateways route packets based on destination networks, not destination nodes.

Thus, our gateways aren’t required to know how to reach every node on all the networks that might be connected. A particular set of networks might have thousands of nodes on it, but the gateway doesn’t need to keep track of all of them. Gateways only need to know which node on their own network will move packets from their network to some other network. Eventually, the packets reach their destination network. Since all devices on a particular network check all packets to see if the packets are meant for them, the packets sent by the gateway will automatically get picked up by the destination host without the sender needing to know any specifics except the address of its own gateway. In short, a node sending data needs to decide one thing: whether the data is destined for a local network node or remote network node. If local, the data is sent between the two nodes directly. If remote, the data is sent to the gateway, which in turn makes the same decision until the data eventually gets picked up by the recipient.

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