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7.5: Fragmentation

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    If you are trying to interconnect two LANs (as IP does), what else might be needed besides Routing and Addressing? IPv4 (and IPv6) explicitly assumes all packets are composed on 8-bit bytes (something not universally true in the early days of IP; to this day the RFCs refer to “octets” to emphasize this requirement). IP also defines bit-order within a byte, and it is left to the networking hardware to translate properly. Neither byte size nor bit order, therefore, can interfere with packet forwarding.

    There is one more feature IPv4 must provide, however, if the goal is universal connectivity: it must accommodate networks for which the maximum packet size, or Maximum Transfer Unit, MTU, is smaller than the packet that needs forwarding. Otherwise, if we were using IPv4 to join Token Ring (MTU = 4kB, at least originally) to Ethernet (MTU = 1500B), the token-ring packets might be too large to deliver to the Ethernet side, or to traverse an Ethernet backbone en route to another Token Ring. (Token Ring, in its day, did commonly offer a configuration option to allow Ethernet interoperability.)

    So, IPv4 must support fragmentation, and thus also reassembly. There are two potential strategies here: per-link fragmentation and reassembly, where the reassembly is done at the opposite end of the link (as in ATM), and path fragmentation and reassembly, where reassembly is done at the far end of the path. The latter approach is what is taken by IPv4, partly because intermediate routers are too busy to do reassembly (this is as true today as it was in 1981 when RFC 791 [] was published), partly because there is no absolute guarantee that all fragments will go to the same next-hop router, and partly because IPv4 fragmentation has always been seen as the strategy of last resort.

    An IPv4 sender is supposed to use a different value for the IDENT field for different packets, at least up until the field wraps around. When an IPv4 datagram is fragmented, the fragments keep the same IDENT field, so this field in effect indicates which fragments belong to the same packet.

    After fragmentation, the Fragment Offset field marks the start position of the data portion of this fragment within the data portion of the original IPv4 packet. Note that the start position can be a number up to 216, the maximum IPv4 packet length, but the FragOffset field has only 13 bits. This is handled by requiring the data portions of fragments to have sizes a multiple of 8 (three bits), and left-shifting the FragOffset value by 3 bits before using it.

    As an example, consider the following network, where MTUs are excluding the LAN header:


    Suppose A addresses a packet of 1500 bytes to B, and sends it via the LAN to the first router R1. The packet contains 20 bytes of IPv4 header and 1480 of data.

    R1 fragments the original packet into two packets of sizes 20+976 = 996 and 20+504=544. Having 980 bytes of payload in the first fragment would fit, but violates the rule that the sizes of the data portions be divisible by 8. The first fragment packet has FragOffset = 0; the second has FragOffset = 976.

    R2 refragments the first fragment into three packets as follows:

    • first: size = 20+376=396, FragOffset = 0
    • second: size = 20+376=396, FragOffset = 376
    • third: size = 20+224 = 244 (note 376+376+224=976), FragOffset = 752.

    R2 refragments the second fragment into two:

    • first: size = 20+376 = 396, FragOffset = 976+0 = 976
    • second: size = 20+128 = 148, FragOffset = 976+376=1352

    R3 then sends the fragments on to B, without reassembly.

    Note that it would have been slightly more efficient to have fragmented into four fragments of sizes 376, 376, 376, and 352 in the beginning. Note also that the packet format is designed to handle fragments of different sizes easily. The algorithm is based on multiple fragmentation with reassembly only at the final destination.

    Each fragment has its IPv4-header Total Length field set to the length of that fragment.

    We have not yet discussed the three flag bits. The first bit is reserved, and must be 0. The second bit is the Don’t Fragment, or DF, bit. If it is set to 1 by the sender then a router must not fragment the packet and must drop it instead; see 12.13 Path MTU Discovery for an application of this. The third bit is set to 1 for all fragments except the final one (this bit is thus set to 0 if no fragmentation has occurred). The third bit tells the receiver where the fragments stop.

    The receiver must take the arriving fragments and reassemble them into a whole packet. The fragments may not arrive in order – unlike in ATM networks – and may have unrelated packets interspersed. The reassembler must identify when different arriving packets are fragments of the same original, and must figure out how to reassemble the fragments in the correct order; both these problems were essentially trivial for ATM.

    Fragments are considered to belong to the same packet if they have the same IDENT field and also the same source and destination addresses and same protocol.

    As all fragment sizes are a multiple of 8 bytes, the receiver can keep track of whether all fragments have been received with a bitmap in which each bit represents one 8-byte fragment chunk. A 1 kB packet could have up to 128 such chunks; the bitmap would thus be 16 bytes.

    If a fragment arrives that is part of a new (and fragmented) packet, a buffer is allocated. While the receiver cannot know the final size of the buffer, it can usually make a reasonable guess. Because of the FragOffset field, the fragment can then be stored in the buffer in the appropriate position. A new bitmap is also allocated, and a reassembly timer is started.

    As subsequent fragments arrive, not necessarily in order, they too can be placed in the proper buffer in the proper position, and the appropriate bits in the bitmap are set to 1.

    If the bitmap shows that all fragments have arrived, the packet is sent on up as a completed IPv4 packet. If, on the other hand, the reassembly timer expires, then all the pieces received so far are discarded.

    TCP connections usually engage in Path MTU Discovery, and figure out the largest packet size they can send that will not entail fragmentation (12.13 Path MTU Discovery). But it is not unusual, for example, for UDP protocols to use fragmentation, especially over the short haul. In the Network File System (NFS) protocol, for example, UDP is used to carry 8 kB disk blocks. These are often sent as a single 8+ kB IPv4 packet, fragmented over Ethernet to five full packets and a fraction. Fragmentation works reasonably well here because most of the time the packets do not leave the Ethernet they started on. Note that this is an example of fragmentation done by the sender, not by an intermediate router.

    Finally, any given IP link may provide its own link-layer fragmentation and reassembly; we saw in 3.5.1 ATM Segmentation and Reassembly that ATM does just this. Such link-layer mechanisms are, however, generally invisible to the IP layer.

    This page titled 7.5: Fragmentation is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Peter Lars Dordal.

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