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7.9: Address Resolution Protocol - ARP

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  • If a host or router A finds that the destination IP address D = DIP matches the network address of one of its interfaces, it is to deliver the packet via the LAN (probably Ethernet). This means looking up the LAN address (MAC address) DLAN corresponding to DIP. How does it do this?

    One approach would be via a special server, but the spirit of early IPv4 development was to avoid such servers, for both cost and reliability issues. Instead, the Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) is used. This is our first protocol that takes advantage of the existence of LAN-level broadcast; on LANs without physical broadcast (such as ATM), some other mechanism (usually involving a server) must be used.

    The basic idea of ARP is that the host A sends out a broadcast ARP query or “who-has DIP?” request, which includes A’s own IPv4 and LAN addresses. All hosts on the LAN receive this message. The host for whom the message is intended, D, will recognize that it should reply, and will return an ARP reply or “is-at” message containing DLAN. Because the original request contained ALAN, D’s response can be sent directly to A, that is, unicast.


    Additionally, all hosts maintain an ARP cache, consisting of ⟨IPv4,LAN⟩ address pairs for other hosts on the network. After the exchange above, A has ⟨DIP,DLAN⟩ in its table; anticipating that A will soon send it a packet to which it needs to respond, D also puts ⟨AIP,ALAN⟩ into its cache.

    ARP-cache entries eventually expire. The timeout interval used to be on the order of 10 minutes, but Linux systems now use a much smaller timeout (~30 seconds observed in 2012). Somewhere along the line, and probably related to this shortened timeout interval, repeat ARP queries about a timed-out entry are first sent unicast, not broadcast, to the previous Ethernet address on record. This cuts down on the total amount of broadcast traffic; LAN broadcasts are, of course, still needed for new hosts. The ARP cache on a Linux system can be examined with the command ip -s neigh; the corresponding windows command is arp -a.

    The above protocol is sufficient, but there is one further point. When A sends its broadcast “who-has D?” ARP query, all other hosts C check their own cache for an entry for A. If there is such an entry (that is, if AIP is found there), then the value for ALAN is updated with the value taken from the ARP message; if there is no pre-existing entry then no action is taken. This update process serves to avoid stale ARP-cache entries, which can arise is if a host has had its Ethernet interface replaced. (USB Ethernet interfaces, in particular, can be replaced very quickly.)

    ARP is quite an efficient mechanism for bridging the gap between IPv4 and LAN addresses. Nodes generally find out neighboring IPv4 addresses through higher-level protocols, and ARP then quickly fills in the missing LAN address. However, in some Software-Defined Networking (2.8   Software-Defined Networking) environments, the LAN switches and/or the LAN controller may have knowledge about IPv4/LAN address correspondences, potentially making ARP superfluous. The LAN (Ethernet) switching network might in principle even know exactly how to route via the LAN to a given IPv4 address, potentially even making LAN addresses unnecessary. At such a point, ARP may become an inconvenience. For an example of a situation in which it is necessary to work around ARP, see 18.9.5

    7.9.1 ARP Finer Points

    Most hosts today implement self-ARP, or gratuitous ARP, on startup (or wakeup): when station A starts up it sends out an ARP query for itself: “who-has A?”. Two things are gained from this: first, all stations that had A in their cache are now updated with A’s most current ALAN address, in case there was a change, and second, if an answer is received, then presumably some other host on the network has the same IPv4 address as A.

    Self-ARP is thus the traditional IPv4 mechanism for duplicate address detection. Unfortunately, it does not always work as well as might be hoped; often only a single self-ARP query is sent, and if a reply is received then frequently the only response is to log an error message; the host may even continue using the duplicate address! If the duplicate address was received via DHCP, below, then the host is supposed to notify its DHCP server of the error and request a different IPv4 address.

    RFC 5227 [] has defined an improved mechanism known as Address Conflict Detection, or ACD. A host using ACD sends out three ARP queries for its new IPv4 address, spaced over a few seconds and leaving the ARP field for the sender’s IPv4 address filled with zeroes. This last step means that any other host with that IPv4 address in its cache will ignore the packet, rather than update its cache. If the original host receives no replies, it then sends out two more ARP queries for its new address, this time with the ARP field for the sender’s IPv4 address filled in with the new address; this is the stage at which other hosts on the network will make any necessary cache updates. Finally, ACD requires that hosts that do detect a duplicate address must discontinue using it.

    It is also possible for other stations to answer an ARP query on behalf of the actual destination D; this is called proxy ARP. An early common scenario for this was when host C on a LAN had a modem connected to a serial port. In theory a host D dialing in to this modem should be on a different subnet, but that requires allocation of a new subnet. Instead, many sites chose a simpler arrangement. A host that dialed in to C’s serial port might be assigned IP address DIP, from the same subnet as C. C would be configured to route packets to D; that is, packets arriving from the serial line would be forwarded to the LAN interface, and packets sent to CLAN addressed to DIP would be forwarded to D. But we also have to handle ARP, and as D is not actually on the LAN it will not receive broadcast ARP queries. Instead, C would be configured to answer on behalf of D, replying with ⟨DIP,CLAN⟩. This generally worked quite well.

    Proxy ARP is also used in Mobile IP, for the so-called “home agent” to intercept traffic addressed to the “home address” of a mobile device and then forward it (eg via tunneling) to that device. See 7.13   Mobile IP.

    One delicate aspect of the ARP protocol is that stations are required to respond to a broadcast query. In the absence of proxies this theoretically should not create problems: there should be only one respondent. However, there were anecdotes from the Elder Days of networking when a broadcast ARP query would trigger an avalanche of responses. The protocol-design moral here is that determining who is to respond to a broadcast message should be done with great care. (RFC 1122 [] section 3.2.2 addresses this same point in the context of responding to broadcast ICMP messages.)

    ARP-query implementations also need to include a timeout and some queues, so that queries can be resent if lost and so that a burst of packets does not lead to a burst of queries. A naive ARP algorithm without these might be:

    To send a packet to destination DIP, see if DIP is in the ARP cache. If it is, address the packet to DLAN; if not, send an ARP query for D

    To see the problem with this approach, imagine that a 32 kB packet arrives at the IP layer, to be sent over Ethernet. It will be fragmented into 22 fragments (assuming an Ethernet MTU of 1500 bytes), all sent at once. The naive algorithm above will likely send an ARP query for each of these. What we need instead is something like the following:

    To send a packet to destination DIP:
    If DIP is in the ARP cache, send to DLAN and return
    If not, see if an ARP query for DIP is pending.
    If it is, put the current packet in a queue for D.
    If there is no pending ARP query for DIP, start one,
    again putting the current packet in the (new) queue for D

    We also need:

    If an ARP query for some CIP times out, resend it (up to a point)
    If an ARP query for CIP is answered, send off any packets in C’s queue

    7.9.2 ARP Security

    Suppose A wants to log in to secure server S, using a password. How can B (for Bad) impersonate S?

    Here is an ARP-based strategy, sometimes known as ARP Spoofing. First, B makes sure the real S is down, either by waiting until scheduled downtime or by launching a denial-of-service attack against S.

    When A tries to connect, it will begin with an ARP “who-has S?”. All B has to do is answer, “S is-at B”. There is a trivial way to do this: B simply needs to set its own IP address to that of S.

    A will connect, and may be convinced to give its password to B. B now simply responds with something plausible like “backup in progress; try later”, and meanwhile use A’s credentials against the real S.

    This works even if the communications channel A uses is encrypted! If A is using the SSH protocol (22.10.1   SSH), then A will get a message that the other side’s key has changed (B will present its own SSH key, not S’s). Unfortunately, many users (and even some IT departments) do not recognize this as a serious problem. Some organizations – especially schools and universities – use personal workstations with “frozen” configuration, so that the filesystem is reset to its original state on every reboot. Such systems may be resistant to viruses, but in these environments the user at A will always get a message to the effect that S’s credentials are not known.

    7.9.3 ARP Failover

    Suppose you have two front-line servers, A and B (B for Backup), and you want B to be able to step in if A freezes. There are a number of ways of achieving this, but one of the simplest is known as ARP Failover. First, we set AIP = BIP, but for the time being B does not use the network so this duplication is not a problem. Then, once B gets the message that A is down, it sends out an ARP query for AIP, including BLAN as the source LAN address. The gateway router, which previously would have had ⟨AIP,ALAN⟩ in its ARP cache, updates this to ⟨AIP,BLAN⟩, and packets that had formerly been sent to A will now go to B. As long as B is trafficking in stateless operations (eg html), B can pick up right where A left off.

    7.9.4 Detecting Sniffers

    Finally, there is an interesting use of ARP to detect Ethernet password sniffers (generally not quite the issue it once was, due to encryption and switching). To find out if a particular host A is in promiscuous mode, send an ARP “who-has A?” query. Address it not to the broadcast Ethernet address, though, but to some nonexistent Ethernet address.

    If promiscuous mode is off, A’s network interface will ignore the packet. But if promiscuous mode is on, A’s network interface will pass the ARP request to A itself, which is likely then to answer it.

    Alas, Linux kernels reject at the ARP-software level ARP queries to physical Ethernet addresses other than their own. However, they do respond to faked Ethernet multicast addresses, such as ff:ff:ff:00:00:00 or ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:fe.

    7.9.5 ARP and multihomed hosts

    If host A has two interfaces iface1 and iface2 on the same LAN, with respective IP addresses A1 and A2, then it is common for the two to be used interchangeably. Traffic addressed to A1 may be received via iface2 and vice-versa, and traffic from A1 may be sent via iface2. In 7.2.1   Multihomed hosts this is described as the weak end-system model; the idea is that we should think of the IP addresses A1 and A2 as bound to A rather than to their respective interfaces.

    In support of this model, ARP can usually be configured (in fact this is often the default) so that ARP requests for either IP address and received by either interface may be answered with either physical address. Usually all requests are answered with the physical address of the preferred (ie faster) interface.

    As an example, suppose A has an Ethernet interface eth0 with IP address and a faster Wi-Fi interface wlan0 with IP address (although Wi-Fi interfaces are not always faster). In this setting, an ARP request “who-has” would be answered with wlan0’s physical address, and so all traffic to A, to either IP address, would arrive via wlan0. The eth0 interface would go essentially unused. Similarly, though not due to ARP, traffic sent by A with source address might depart via wlan0.

    This situation is on Linux systems adjusted by changing arp_ignore and arp_announce in /proc/sys/net/ipv4/conf/all.