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Friday, August 1, 2008

Network Interface Cards

Network Interface Cards

Your network interface card is also frequently called a NIC. Currently, the most common types of NIC used in the home and office are Ethernet and wireless Ethernet cards.

The Meaning of the NIC Link Light

The link light signifies that the NIC card has successfully detected a device on the other end of the cable. This indicates that you are using the correct type of cable and that the duplex has been negotiated correctly between the devices at both ends.

Duplex Explained

Full duplex data paths have the capability of allowing the simultaneous sending and receiving of data. Half duplex data paths can transmit in both directions too, but in only one direction at a time.
Full duplex uses separate pairs of wires for transmitting and receiving data so that incoming data flows don't interfere with outgoing data flows.
Half duplex uses the same pairs of wires for transmitting and receiving data. Devices that want to transmit information have to wait their turn until the "coast is clear" at which point they send the data. Error-detection and data-retransmission mechanisms ensure that the data reaches the destination correctly and are specifically designed to remedy data corruption caused when multiple devices start transmitting at the same time.
A good analogy for full duplex communications is the telephone, in which both parties can speak at the same time. Half duplex on the other hand is more like a walkie-talkie in which both parties have to wait until the other is finished before they can speak.
Data transfer speeds will be low and error levels will be high if you have a device at one end of a cable set to full duplex and a device at the other end of the cable set to half duplex.
Most modern network cards can autonegotiate duplex with the device on the other end of the wire. It is for this reason that duplex settings aren't usually a problem for Linux servers.

The MAC Address

The media access control (MAC) address can be equated to the serial number of the NIC. Every IP packet is sent out of your NIC wrapped inside an Ethernet frame that uses MAC addresses to direct traffic on your locally attached network.
MAC addresses therefore have significance only on the locally attached network. As the packet hops across the Internet, its source/destination IP address stays the same, but the MAC addresses are reassigned by each router on the way using a process called ARP.

How ARP Maps the MAC Address to Your IP Address

The Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) is used to map MAC addresses to network IP addresses. When a server needs to communicate with another server it does the following steps:
  1. The server first checks its routing table to see which router provides the next hop to the destination network.
  2. If there is a valid router, let's say with an IP address of, the server checks its ARP table to see whether it has the MAC address of the router's NIC. You could very loosely view this as the server trying to find the Ethernet serial number of the next hop router on the local network, thereby ensuring that the packet is sent to the correct device.
  3. If there is an ARP entry, the server sends the IP packet to its NIC and tells the NIC to encapsulate the packet in a frame destined for the MAC address of the router.
  4. If there is no ARP entry, the server issues an ARP request asking that router respond with its MAC address so that the delivery can be made. When a reply is received, the packet is sent and the ARP table is subsequently updated with the new MAC address.
  5. As each router in the path receives the packet, it plucks the IP packet out of the Ethernet frame, leaving the MAC information behind. It then inspects the destination IP address in the packet and use its routing table to determine the IP address of the next router on the path to this destination.
  6. The router then uses the "ARP-ing" process to get the MAC address of this next hop router. It then reencapsulates the packet in an Ethernet frame with the new MAC address and sends the frame to the next hop router. This relaying process continues until the packet reaches the target computer.
  7. If the target server is on the same network as the source server, a similar process occurs. The ARP table is queried. If no entry is available, an ARP request is made asking the target server for its MAC address. Once a reply is received, the packet is sent and the ARP table is subsequently updated with the new MAC address.
  8. The server will not send the data to its intended destination unless it has an entry in its ARP table for the next hop. If it doesn't, the application needing to communicate will issue a timeout or time exceeded error.
  9. As can be expected, the ARP table contains only the MAC addresses of devices on the locally connected network. ARP entries are not permanent and will be erased after a fixed period of time depending on the operating system used.
Chapter 3, "Linux Networking", which covers Linux network topics, shows how to see your ARP table and the MAC addresses of your server's NICs.

Common ARP Problems When Changing A NIC

You may experience connectivity problems if you change the MAC address assigned to an IP address. This can happen if you swap a bad NIC card in a server, or replace a bad server but have the new one retain the IP address of the old.
Routers typically save learned MAC to IP address map entries in a cache and won't refresh them unless a predefined period of time has elapsed. Changing the NIC, while retaining the IP address can cause problems as the router will continue to send frames onto the network with the correct target IP address but the old target MAC address. The server with the new NIC won't respond as the frame's target MAC doesn't match it's own.
This problem can be fixed in one of two ways. You can delete all the ARP entries in the router's cache. The second solution is to log into the server's console and ping it's gateway. The router will detect the MAC to IP address change and it will readjust its ARP table.

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