Internet Core Protocols: The Definitive Guide
Help for Network AdministratorsBy Eric Hall
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IP Addressing Fundamentals
IP uses an anarchic and highly-distributed model, with every device an equal peer to every other device on the global Internet. This structure was one of IP's original design goals, as it proved to be useful with a variety of systems, did not require a centralized management system (which would never have scaled well), and provided for fault-tolerance on the network (no central management means no single point of failure).
In order for systems to locate each other in this distributed environment, nodes are given explicit addresses that uniquely identify the particular network the system is on, and uniquely identify the system to that particular network. When these two identifiers are combined, the result is a globally-unique address.
This concept is illustrated in Figure B-1. In this example, the network is numbered 192.168.10, and the two nodes are numbered 10 and 20. Taken together, the fully-qualified IP addresses for these systems would be 192.168.10.10 and 192.168.10.20.
Figure B-1. The two parts of an IP address
Subnet Masks and CIDR Networks
IP addresses are actually 32-bit binary numbers (for example, 11000000101010000000000100010100). Each 32-bit IP address consists of two subaddresses, one identifying the network and the other identifying the host to the network, with an imaginary boundary separating the two.
The location of the boundary between the network and host portions of an IP address is determined through the use of a subnet mask. A subnet mask is another 32-bit binary number, which acts like a filter when it is applied to the 32-bit IP address. By comparing a subnet mask with an IP address, systems can determine which portion of the IP address relates to the network, and which portion relates to the host. Anywhere the subnet mask has a bit set to "1", the underlying bit in the IP address is part of the network address. Anywhere the subnet mask is set to "0", the related bit in the IP address is part of the host address.
For example, assume that the IP address 11000000101010000000000100010100 has a subnet mask of 11111111111111111111111100000000. In this example, the first 24 bits of the 32-bit IP address are used to identify the network, while the last 8 bits are used to identify the host on that network.
The size of a network (i.e., the number of host addresses available for use on it) is a function of the number of bits used to identify the host portion of the address. If a subnet mask shows that 8 bits are used for the host portion of the address block, a maximum of 256 possible host addresses are available for that specific network. Similarly, if a subnet mask shows that 16 bits are used for the host portion of the address block, a maximum of 65,536 possible host addresses are available for use on that network.
If a network administrator needs to split a single network into multiple virtual networks, the bit-pattern in use with the subnet mask can be changed to allow as many networks as necessary. For example, assume that we want to split the 24-bit 192.168.10.0 network (which allows for 8 bits of host addressing, or a maximum of 256 host addresses) into two smaller networks. All we have to do in this situation is change the subnet mask of the devices on the network so that they use 25 bits for the network instead of 24 bits, resulting in two distinct networks with 128 possible host addresses on each network. In this case, the first network would have a range of network addresses between 192.168.10.0 -192.168.10.127, while the second network would have a range of addresses between 192.168.10.128 -192.168.10.255.
Networks can also be enlarged through the use of a technique known as "supernetting," which works by extending the host portion of a subnet mask to the left, into the network portion of the address. Using this technique, a pair of networks with 24-bit subnet masks can be turned into a single large network with a 23-bit subnet mask. However, this works only if you have two neighboring 24-bit network blocks, with the lower network having an even value (when the network portion of the address is shrunk, the trailing bit from the original network portion of the subnet mask will fall into the host portion of the new subnet mask, so the new network mask will consume both networks). For example, it is possible to combine the 24-bit 192.168.10.0 and 192.168.11.0 networks together since the loss of the trailing bit from each network (00001010 vs. 00001011) produces the same 23-bit subnet mask (0000101x), resulting in a consolidated 192.168.10.0 network. However, it is not possible to combine the 24-bit 192.168.11.0 and 192.168.12.0 networks, since the binary values in the seventh bit position (00001011 vs. 00001100) do not match when the trailing bit is removed.
In the modern networking environment defined by RFC 1519 [Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR)], the subnet mask of a network is typically annotated in written form as a "slash prefix" that trails the network number. In the subnetting example in the previous paragraph, the original 24-bit network would be written as 192.168.10.0/24, while the two new networks would be written as 192.168.10.0/25 and 192.168.10.128/25. Likewise, when the 192.168.10.0/24 and 192.168.11.0/24 networks were joined together as a single supernet, the resulting network would be written as 192.168.10.0/23. Note that the slash prefix annotation is generally used for human benefit; infrastructure devices still use the 32-bit binary subnet mask internally to identify networks and their routes.
All networks must reserve any host addresses that are made up entirely of either ones or zeros, to be used by the networks themselves. This is so that each subnet will have a network-specific address (the all-zeroes address) and a broadcast address (the all-ones address). For example, a /24 network allows for 8 bits of host addresses, but only 254 of the 256 possible addresses are available for use. Similarly, /25 networks have a maximum of 7 bits for host addresses, with 126 of the 128 possible addresses available (the all-ones and all-zeroes addresses from each subnet must be set aside for the subnets themselves).
Table B-1 shows some of the most common subnet masks, and the number of hosts available on them after subtracting the all-zeroes and all-ones addresses.
Table B-1: Common Subnet Masks and Their Host Counts
Subnet Mask (Slash Prefix)
Subnet Mask (Dotted Decimal)
Network Bits in Subnet Mask
Host Bits in Subnet Mask
Hosts per Net
All the systems on the same subnet must use the same subnet mask in order to communicate with each other directly. If they use different subnet masks they will think they are on different networks, and will not be able to communicate with each other without going through a router first. Hosts on different networks can use different subnet maks, although the routers will have to be aware of the subnet masks in use on each of the segments.
Subnet masks are used only by systems that need to communicate with the network directly. For example, external systems do not need to be aware of the subnet masks in use on your internal networks, since those systems will route data to your networks by way of your parent network's address block. As such, remote routers need to know only about your provider's subnet mask. For example, if you have a small network that uses only a /28 prefix that is a subset of your ISP's /20 network, remote routers need to know only about your upstream provider's /20 network, while your upstream provider needs to know your subnet mask in order to get the data to your local /28 network.
The Legacy of Network Classes
The use of variable-length subnet masks as described in the preceding section was introduced to the Internet community in 1993 by RFC 1519 as a methodology for maximizing the utilization of limited IPv4 addresses. Even though this specification is nearly a decade old--and even though it is the addressing and routing architecture required by the modern Internet--many legacy systems and documents still refer to the "class-based" addressing architecture that preceded CIDR.
Under the old class-based architecture, network addresses are assigned according to fixed subnet mask values, called "classes." These classes are listed in Table B-2. Note that classes A, B, and C are used for end-user network assignments, while classes D and E do not contain end-user addresses.
Table B-2: Class-Based Subnet Masks
Subnet Mask (Slash Prefix)
Subnet Mask (Dotted Decimal)
Very large networks, always subnetted
Large networks, typically subnetted
Small networks, the most common class
Multicasting group addresses (no hosts)
Reserved for experimental purposes
The primary benefit of the class-based model is that routers do not have to be made explicitly aware of the subnet mask in use on a particular network. Whereas CIDR requires that each network route be accompanied by a subnet mask for the advertised network, under the class-based model routers only have to examine the destination IP address to determine the subnet mask associated with that address. By looking at the four leading bits from the destination address, a device can determine which class the destination address falls into, and use that information to determine its subnet mask. Once this information is gleaned, the device can determine which portion of the address refers to the network, and then look up the router for that network. This concept is illustrated in Table B-3.
Table B-3: The First Four Bits from the Major Network Classes
Possible Address Values
Nets per Class
Hosts per Net
The address-to-class mapping methodology is described in more detail here:
- Class A networks
- Class A addresses always have the first bit of their IP addresses set to "0". Since Class A networks have an 8-bit network mask, the use of a leading zero leaves only 7 bits for the network portion of the address, allowing for a maximum of 128 possible network numbers, ranging from 0.0.0.0 -127.0.0.0.0. However, many of the address blocks from this range have been set aside for other uses over time. In short, any IP address in the range of 0.x.x.x -127.x.x.x is considered a Class A address with a subnet mask of 255.0.0.0, although many of these addresses are considered invalid by Internet routers.
- Class B networks
- Class B addresses have their first bit set to "1" and their second bit set to "0". Since Class B addresses have a 16-bit network mask, the use of a leading "10" bit-pattern leaves 14 bits for the network portion of the address, allowing for a maximum of 16,384 networks, ranging from 22.214.171.124 -126.96.36.199. Several network addresses from this range have also been reserved over time. Any IP address in the range of 128.0.x.x -191.255.x.x is considered a Class B address with a subnet mask of 255.255.0.0, but many of these addresses are considered invalid by Internet routers.
- Class C networks
- Class C addresses have their first two bits set to "1" and their third bit set to "0". Since Class C addresses have a 24-bit network mask, this leaves 21 bits for the network portion of the address, allowing for a maximum of 2,097,152 network addresses, ranging from 192.0.0.0 -188.8.131.52. Many network address reservations have been made from the Class C pool, substantially reducing the number of Internet-legal Class C networks. Any IP address in the range of 192.0.0.x -223.225.255.x is considered a Class C address with a subnet mask of 255.255.255.0, but again many of these addresses are considered invalid by Internet routers.
- Class D networks
- Class D addresses are used for multicasting applications, as described in Chapter 4, Multicasting and the Internet Group Management Protocol. Class D addresses have their first three bits set to "1" and their fourth bit set to "0". Class D addresses are 32-bit network addresses, meaning that all the values within the range of 184.108.40.206 -220.127.116.11 are used to uniquely identify multicast groups. There are no host addresses within the Class D address space, since all the hosts within a group share the group's IP address for receiver purposes.
- None of the network addresses were reserved in the original allocations, although a variety of subsequent multicast addressing schemes have resulted in reservations. Refer to the IANA pages at http://www.isi.edu/in-notes/iana/assignments/multicast-addresses for information on these reservation schemes. In short, each multicast address exists as a 32-bit network address, so any address within the range of 18.104.22.168 -22.214.171.124 is a Class D multicast address.
- Class E networks
- Class E addresses are defined as experimental and reserved for future testing purposes. They have never been documented or utilized in a standard way.
The number of networks available to each of the subnet classes--and the number of hosts possible on each of those networks--varies widely between the classes. As we saw in Table B-3, there are only a few Class A networks available, although each of them can have millions of possible hosts. Conversely, there are a couple of million possible Class C networks, but they can serve only 254 devices each (after subtracting for the all-ones and all-zeroes host addresses).
All told, there are around 4.3 billion IP addresses (less, if you don't consider Class D and E addresses, which cannot be used as host addresses). Unfortunately, the class-based, legacy addressing scheme places heavy restrictions on the distribution of these addresses.
Every time a Class A address is assigned to an organization, almost 17 million host addresses go with it. If all 126 Class A networks were assigned, two billion of the possible addresses would be gone. If all the available Class B networks were assigned, another billion host addresses would be gone as well. This is true regardless of whether the host addresses within those network blocks are used or not; the network address is published along with its routing information, so all host addresses within the network are reachable only through that route.
Class C addresses represent the biggest problem, however, for two reasons. First of all, there are fewer IP addresses available in all the Class C networks than there are in the other classes (only about 536 million possible host addresses from all the Class C networks combined). Second, Class C networks are the most popular, since they reflect the size of the majority of LANs in use.
Every time a Class C address is assigned, 256 addresses go with it. Organizations that have 3 segments but only 60 devices are wasting over 700 possible addresses (3 segments × 256 maximum IP addresses = 768 addresses - 60 active nodes = 708 inactive addresses). Whether all the addresses are actually put to use or not is irrelevant; they are assigned to a specific network and cannot be used by anybody else. This problem is even worse with Class B addresses, since an organization with a few hundred nodes might be given a Class B address, in which case it is wasting several thousand IP addresses.
Remember, however, that TCP/IP networks are inherently router-based, and it takes much less overhead to keep track of a few networks than millions of them. If all the addresses were assigned using Class C networks, routers would have to remember and process 16 million network routes; this would quickly overwhelm even the fastest of routers, and network traffic would either slow to a crawl or fail completely. Having larger network classes allows routers to work with smaller routing tables.
Remember also that the original architecture of the Internet consisted mostly of large networks connecting to each other directly, and didn't look much like the hierarchical design used today. It was easy to give one huge address block to the military and another to Stanford University. In that model, routers had to remember only one IP address for each network, and could reach millions of hosts through each of those routes.
Today, however, things are considerably different, and organizations of all sizes are connecting to the Internet. Some networks are still quite large, requiring many thousands of network numbers, while some are quite small, consisting of only a handful of PCs. In this environment class-based routing does not scale well, although there still exists the need for bundled networks so that routers do not have to remember millions of separate routers and network paths.
This problem has been resolved through the use of variable-length subnet masks, as described in the earlier section "Subnet Masks and CIDR Networks." When variable-length subnet masks are used instead of predefined subnet masks, blocks of addresses can be assigned to organizations using a subnet mask that is appropriate for the number of devices on that network. If a network has only 8 PCs, it only needs a network block with a 28-bit subnet mask, which provides it with 16 addresses (14 of which are usable by the hosts).
In this context, CIDR-based addressing rules do not care about the "class" to which a network address appears to belong. Instead, CIDR-aware systems rely on the explicit presence of a subnet mask to make packet-forwarding decisions, and use the class only as a last-ditch effort in the event that the subnet mask is not explicitly defined in the network's routing tables.
This results in substantially less wasted address space, although it also results in more routing entries that must be managed. However, another key part of the CIDR architecture is that network blocks are assigned hierarchically, with top-level service providers getting big network numbers (a large ISP may get a network with a /13 prefix, allowing a maximum of 524,288 host addresses for that network assignment), and those organizations can subnet their large networks into multiple smaller networks for their downstream customers.
This allows a single routing entry for the top-level ISP to be used for all the networks underneath it. Rather than the top-level routers having to store routing information for the 32,000+ individual /28 networks beneath the ISP, they have to remember only the routes for the /13 network.
Since the modern Internet now predominately uses CIDR addressing and routing, the most important thing to remember about the historical class-based addressing scheme is that it is a legacy design. Just about all of the modern operating systems and network infrastructure devices today fully support variable-length subnet masks. However, much of the older equipment still enforces the use of class-based addressing, and many training courses still teach this historical architecture as if it were current technology. For the most part, network administrators should not be concerned with network classes unless they are suffering problems with legacy equipment.
Internet-Legal Versus Private Addressing
Although the pool of IP addresses is somewhat limited, most companies have no problems obtaining them. However, many organizations have already installed TCP/IP products on their internal networks without obtaining "legal" addresses from the proper sources. Sometimes these addresses come from example books or are simply picked at random (several firms use networks numbered 126.96.36.199, for example). Unfortunately, since they are not legal, these addresses will not be usable when these organizations attempt to connect to the Internet. These firms will eventually have to reassign Internet-legal IP addresses to all the devices on their networks, or invest in address-translation gateways that rewrite outbound IP packets so they appear to be coming from an Internet-accessible host.
Even if an address-translation gateway is installed on the network, these firms will never be able to communicate with any site that is a registered owner of the IP addresses in use on the local network. For example, if you choose to use the 188.8.131.52/8 address block on your internal network, your users will never be able to access the computers at Stanford University, the registered owner of that address block. Any attempt to connect to a host at 36.x.x.x will be interpreted by the local routers as a request for a local system, so those packets will never leave your local network.
Not all firms have the luxury of using Internet-legal addresses on their hosts, for any number of reasons. For example, there may be legacy applications that use hardcoded addresses, or there may be too many systems across the organization for a clean upgrade to be successful. If you are unable to use Internet-legal addresses, you should at least be aware that there are groups of "private" Internet addresses that can be used on internal networks by anyone. These address pools were set aside in RFC 1918, and therefore cannot be "assigned" to any organization. The Internet's backbone routers are configured explicitly not to route packets with these addresses, so they are completely useless outside of an organization's internal network. The address blocks available are listed in Table B-4.
Table B-4: Private Addresses Provided in RFC 1918
Range of Addresses
Any addresses in 10.x.x.x
Addresses in the range of 172.16.x.x-172.31.x.x
Addresses in the range of 192.168.0.x-192.168.255.x
Since these addresses cannot be routed across the Internet, you must use an address-translation gateway or a proxy server in conjunction with them. Otherwise, you will not be able to communicate with any hosts on the Internet.
An important note here is that since nobody can use these addresses on the Internet, it is safe to assume that anybody who is using these addresses is also utilizing an address-translation gateway of some sort. Therefore, while you will never see these addresses used as destinations on the Internet, if your organization establishes a private connection to a partner organization that is using the same block of addresses you are, your firms will not be able to communicate. The packets destined for your partner's network will appear to be local to your network, and will never be forwarded to the remote network.
There are many other problems that arise from using these addresses, making their general usage difficult for normal operations. For example, many application-layer protocols embed addressing information directly into the protocol stream, and in order for these protocols to work properly, the address-translation gateway has to be aware of their mechanics. In the preceding scenario, the gateway has to rewrite the private addresses (which are stored as application data inside the application protocol), rewrite the UDP/TCP and IP checksums, and possibly rewrite TCP sequence numbers as well. This is difficult to do even with simple and open protocols such as FTP, and extremely difficult with proprietary, encrypted, or dynamic applications (these are problems for many database protocols, network games, and voice-over-IP services, in particular). These gateways almost never work for all the applications in use at a specific location.
It is always best to use formally-assigned, Internet-legal addresses whenever possible, even if the hosts on your network do not necessarily require direct Internet access. In those cases in which your hosts are going through a firewall or application proxy of some sort, the use of Internet-legal addresses causes the least amount of maintenance trouble over time. If for some reason this is not possible, use one of the private address pools described in Table B-4. Do not use random, self-assigned addresses if you can possibly avoid it, as this will only cause connectivity problems for you and your users.
1. These values do not reflect the reserved network addresses.
2. Multicast addresses are shared by all group members. Members do not have explicit addresses within the group.
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