IP Protocol Overview

IP is the Internet's most basic protocol. In order to function in a TCP/IP network, a network segment's only requirement is to forward IP packets. In fact, a TCP/IP network can be defined as a communication medium that can transport IP packets. Almost all other TCP/IP functions are constructed by layering atop IP. IP is documented in RFC 791, and IP broadcasting procedures are discussed in RFC 919.

IP is a datagram-oriented protocol, treating each packet independently. This means each packet must contain complete addressing information. Also, IP makes no attempt to determine if packets reach their destination or to take corrective action if they do not. Nor does IP checksum the contents of a packet, only the IP header.

IP provides several services:
  • Addressing. IP headers contain 32-bit addresses which identify the sending and receiving hosts. These addresses are used by intermediate routers to select a path through the network for the packet.

  • Fragmentation. IP packets may be split, or fragmented, into smaller packets. This permits a large packet to travel across a network which can only handle smaller packets. IP fragments and reassembles packets transparently.

  • Packet timeouts. Each IP packet contains a Time To Live (TTL) field, which is decremented every time a router handles the packet. If TTL reaches zero, the packet is discarded, preventing packets from running in circles forever and flooding a network.

  • Type of Service. IP supports traffic prioritization by allowing packets to be labeled with an abstract type of service.

  • Options. IP provides several optional features, allowing a packet's sender to set requirements on the path it takes through the network (source routing), trace the route a packet takes (record route), and label packets with security features.