DHCP is the most common mechanism by which hosts are assigned their IPv4 addresses. DHCP started as a protocol known as Reverse ARP (RARP), which evolved into BOOTP and then into its present form. It is documented in RFC 2131. Recall that ARP is based on the idea of someone broadcasting an ARP query for a host, containing the host’s IPv4 address, and the host answering it with its LAN address. DHCP involves a host, at startup, broadcasting a query containing its own LAN address, and having a server reply telling the host what IPv4 address is assigned to it, hence the “Reverse ARP” name.
The DHCP response message is also likely to carry, piggybacked onto it, several other essential startup options. Unlike the IPv4 address, these additional network parameters usually do not depend on the specific host that has sent the DHCP query; they are likely constant for the subnet or even the site. In all, a typical DHCP message includes the following:
- IPv4 address
- subnet mask
- default router
- DNS Server
These four items are a standard minimal network configuration; in practical terms, hosts cannot function properly without them. Most DHCP implementations support the piggybacking of the latter three above, and a wide variety of other configuration values, onto the server responses.
The DHCP server has a range of IPv4 addresses to hand out, and maintains a database of which IPv4 address has been assigned to which LAN address. Reservations can either be permanent or dynamic; if the latter, hosts typically renew their DHCP reservation periodically (typically one to several times a day).
7.10.1 NAT, DHCP and the Small Office
If you have a large network, with multiple subnets, a certain amount of manual configuration is inevitable. What about, however, a home or small office, with a single line from an ISP? A combination of NAT (7.7 Network Address Translation) and DHCP has made autoconfiguration close to a reality.
The typical home/small-office “router” is in fact a NAT router (7.7 Network Address Translation) coupled with an Ethernet switch, and usually also coupled with a Wi-Fi access point and a DHCP server. In this section, we will use the term “NAT router” to refer to this whole package. One specially designated port, the external port, connects to the ISP’s line, and uses DHCP as a client to obtain an IPv4 address for that port. The other, internal, ports are connected together by an Ethernet switch; these ports as a group are connected to the external port using NAT translation. If wireless is supported, the wireless side is connected directly to the internal ports.
Isolated from the Internet, the internal ports can thus be assigned an arbitrary non-public IPv4 address block, eg 192.168.0.0/24. The NAT router typically contains a DCHP server, usually enabled by default, that will hand out IPv4 addresses to everything connecting from the internal side.
Generally this works seamlessly. However, if a second NAT router is also connected to the network (sometimes attempted to extend Wi-Fi range, in lieu of a commercial Wi-Fi repeater), one then has two operating DHCP servers on the same subnet. This often results in chaos, though is easily fixed by disabling one of the DHCP servers.
While omnipresent DHCP servers have made IPv4 autoconfiguration work “out of the box” in many cases, in the era in which IPv4 was designed the need for such servers would have been seen as a significant drawback in terms of expense and reliability. IPv6 has an autoconfiguration strategy (8.7.2 Stateless Autoconfiguration (SLAAC)) that does not require DHCP, though DHCPv6 may well end up displacing it.
7.10.2 DHCP and Routers
It is often desired, for larger sites, to have only one or two DHCP servers, but to have them support multiple subnets. Classical DHCP relies on broadcast, which isn’t forwarded by routers, and even if it were, the DHCP server would have no way of knowing on what subnet the host in question was actually located.
This is generally addressed by DHCP Relay (sometimes still known by the older name BOOTP Relay). The router (or, sometimes, some other node on the subnet) receives the DHCP broadcast message from a host, and notes the subnet address of the arrival interface. The router then relays the DHCP request, together with this subnet address, to the designated DHCP Server; this relayed message is sent directly (unicast), not broadcast. Because the subnet address is included, the DHCP server can figure out the correct IPv4 address to assign.
This feature has to be specially enabled on the router.