Packets are modest-sized buffers of data, transmitted as a unit through some shared set of links. Of necessity, packets need to be prefixed with a header containing delivery information. In the common case known as datagram forwarding, the header contains a destination address; headers in networks using so-called virtual-circuit forwarding contain instead an identifier for the connection. Almost all networking today (and for the past 50 years) is packet-based, although we will later look briefly at some “circuit-switched” options for voice telephony.
At the LAN layer, packets can be viewed as the imposition of a buffer (and addressing) structure on top of low-level serial lines; additional layers then impose additional structure. Informally, packets are often referred to as frames at the LAN layer, and as segments at the Transport layer.
The maximum packet size supported by a given LAN (eg Ethernet, Token Ring or ATM) is an intrinsic attribute of that LAN. Ethernet allows a maximum of 1500 bytes of data. By comparison, TCP/IP packets originally often held only 512 bytes of data, while early Token Ring packets could contain up to 4 kB of data. While there are proponents of very large packet sizes, larger even than 64 kB, at the other extreme the ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) protocol uses 48 bytes of data per packet, and there are good reasons for believing in modest packet sizes.
One potential issue is how to forward packets from a large-packet LAN to (or through) a small-packet LAN; in later chapters we will look at how the IP (or Internet Protocol) layer addresses this.
Generally each layer adds its own header. Ethernet headers are typically 14 bytes, IP headers 20 bytes, and TCP headers 20 bytes. If a TCP connection sends 512 bytes of data per packet, then the headers amount to 10% of the total, a not-unreasonable overhead. For one common Voice-over-IP option, packets contain 160 bytes of data and 54 bytes of headers, making the header about 25% of the total. Compressing the 160 bytes of audio, however, may bring the data portion down to 20 bytes, meaning that the headers are now 73% of the total; see 20.11.4 RTP and VoIP.
In datagram-forwarding networks the appropriate header will contain the address of the destination and perhaps other delivery information. Internal nodes of the network called routers or switches will then try to ensure that the packet is delivered to the requested destination.
The concept of packets and packet switching was first introduced by Paul Baran in 1962 ([PB62]). Baran’s primary concern was with network survivability in the event of node failure; existing centrally switched protocols were vulnerable to central failure. In 1964, Donald Davies independently developed many of the same concepts; it was Davies who coined the term “packet”.
It is perhaps worth noting that packets are buffers built of 8-bit bytes, and all hardware today agrees what a byte is (hardware agrees by convention on the order in which the bits of a byte are to be transmitted). 8-bit bytes are universal now, but it was not always so. Perhaps the last great non-byte-oriented hardware platform, which did indeed overlap with the Internet era broadly construed, was the DEC-10, which had a 36-bit word size; a word could hold five 7-bit ASCII characters. The early Internet specifications introduced the term octet (an 8-bit byte) and required that packets be sequences of octets; non-octet-oriented hosts had to be able to convert. Thus was chaos averted. Note that there are still byte-oriented data issues; as one example, binary integers can be represented as a sequence of bytes in either big-endian or little-endian byte order (11.1.5 Binary Data). RFC 1700 specifies that Internet protocols use big-endian byte order, therefore sometimes called network byte order.