Networking 101

This chapter should provide enough knowledge on networking to enable a systems administrator to connect a Linux server to a network and troubleshoot basic network-related problems. First, we will go over the basics of the 7-layer Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, which is a standard framework with which to describe communication system logical layers. Next, we will delve into each layer of the OSI model in more detail as it applies to the role of systems administration.

Before any discussion of networking, however, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the numbered Request for Comments (RFC) documents and how they apply to computer networking. These documents describe the technical specifics for every protocol you will run into (e.g., TCP, IP, HTTP, SMTP), and as such are the authoritative source for how computers communicate with one another.

The RFC Documents

Starting in 1969, the RFC document series describes standards for how computers communicate. The series gets its name from the RFC process, wherein industry experts publish documents for the community at large and solicit comments on them. If the Internet community finds errors in a document, a new, revised version is published. This new version obsoletes the prior versions. Some documents, such as the document specifying email messages, have had several revisions.

The RFC Editor manages the RFC archive, as well as associated standards. New documents go to the RFC Editor for publication [1], whether revision or new standard. These documents go through a standardization process, eventually becoming Internet-wide standards. Many of the networking protocols discussed in later chapters have RFCs governing their behavior, and each section should provide information on the relevant RFCs.

[1]This is a simplification, as there are actually many standards bodies involved in the process. The RFC Editor Publication Process document explains in full detail.

Important RFCs

There are a number of RFCs which don’t pertain to any specific technology but which are nevertheless seminal. These documents establish procedure or policy which have shaped everything after, and as such have a timeless quality. In some cases, later documents make references to them. This list is given in increasing numerical order, though is not exhaustive.

  • RFC 1796: Not All RFCs are Standards

    This document describes the different kinds of documents in the RFC series.

  • RFC 2026: The Internet Standards Process

    This document (and those that update it) describes in detail how RFCs are published and how they become Internet standards.

  • RFC 2119: Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels

    This document, referenced in many following RFCs, presents a common vocabulary for specifying the relationship between a standard and implementations of that standard. It provides keywords that specify how closely an implementation needs to follow the standard for it to be compliant.

  • RFC 5000: Internet Official Protocol Standards

    This document provides an overview of the current standards documented by the RFCs and which RFC is the most recent for each standard. This document is regularly updated with the current standards document status.

OSI 7-layer model (OSI Reference Model)

The early history of computer networking was marked by various proprietary implementations of networking hardware and the protocols that ran on them (such as for example, IBM’s “Systems Network Architecture” (SNA) and Digital Equipment Corp’s “DECnet”.) In the mid-1970’s, two standards organizations (the International Organization for Standardization, known as the “ISO”, and the International Telecommunications Union, known as the “ITU”) led a push to define a set of open interconnection standards, which became known as the “Open Systems Interconnection” (OSI) standard. While the actual protocols they developed did not become popular and are not in wide use today, the model they came up with has achieved wide popularity as a way of thinking about the network protocol stack. It’s important to understand that the OSI model is a conceptual model, and therefore more of a mental framework than a technical framework. It is useful primarily for troubleshooting and explanation purposes. While the OSI model may seem esoteric as you’re learning it, it will eventually prove invaluable to your daily work once you have a grasp of the concepts.

The OSI model describes seven layers of abstraction that enable software programs to communicate with each other on separate systems. The seven layers are designed to allow communication to occur between systems at a given level, without concern for how the lower levels are implemented. In this way, innovation on the protocols in the various layers can be achieved without modifying any other layer’s design and code. The job of each layer is to provide some service to the layer above by using the services provided by the layer below.

  • Layer 1 - Physical layer

    The physical layer describes the physical connections between devices. Most enterprise networks today implement Ethernet at the physical layer, described in IEEE 802.3 for wired connections and IEEE 802.11 for wireless networks. Other Layer 1 protocols that are no longer in wide use today are Token-Ring, and FDDI.

  • Layer 2 - Data link layer

    The data link layer defines the basic protocol for communicating between two points on a network, that may consist of many intermediate devices and cables, possibly spanning a large geographic area. The IEEE 802.3 specification defines the data link layer, which includes the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses that allow hosts to address their data to one or more systems on the same Ethernet segment. The MAC address is a flat (non-hierarchical) 48-bit address, and therefore when a node sends out a MAC broadcast frame (usually written as FF:FF:FF:FF:FF:FF), all stations on the Layer 2 segment receive it. Therefore, a layer 2 segment is also known as a “broadcast domain”.

  • Layer 3 - Network layer

    The network layer is what allows many flat Layer 2 segments to be interconnected, and separates broadcast domains. It is this layer of the OSI model that enables the Internet to exist, using Internet Protocol (IP) addressing. Version 4 of the Internet Protocol (IPv4), most commonly found in today’s production networks, is described in RFC 791. Its successor, IP version 6 (IPv6) is described in RFC 2460. Both protocols utilize addresses that are hierarchical in nature, providing for a network portion of the address space, and also a host portion within the network.

    There are also two control protocols included in this layer; namely, the “Internet Control Message Protocol” (“ICMP”) as described in RFC 792, and “Internet Group Management Protocol” (“IGMP”), as described in RFC 1112. The ICMP protocol provides for Layer 3 device control messaging, and among other uses, allows small test packets to be sent to a destination for troubleshooting purposes, such as those used by the ubiquitous ping utility. The IGMP protocol is used to manage multicast groups, which implements “one-to-many” packet sending between interested systems.

  • Layer 4 - Transport layer

    The transport layer is where things really start to get interesting for the systems administrator. It is at the transport layer that the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) are defined. The TCP and UDP protocols allow data to be sent from one system to another using simple “socket” APIs that make it just as easy to send text across the globe as it is to write to a file on a local disk - a technological miracle that is often taken for granted.

  • Layer 5 - Session layer

    The purpose of the session layer is to provide a mechanism for ongoing conversations between devices using application-layer protocols. Notable Layer 5 protocols include Transport Layer Security / Secure Sockets Layer (TLS/SSL) and, more recently, Google’s SPDY protocol.

  • Layer 6 - Presentation layer

    The job of the presentation layer is to handle data encoding and decoding as required by the application. An example of this function is the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol, used to encode things other than unformatted ASCII text into email messages. Both the session layer and the presentation layer are often neglected when discussing TCP/IP because many application-layer protocols implement the functionality of these layers internally.

  • Layer 7 - Application layer

    The application layer is where most of the interesting work gets done, standing on the shoulders of the layers below. It is at the application layer that we see protocols such as Domain Name System (DNS), HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and Secure SHell (SSH). The various application-layer protocols are at the core of a good systems administrator’s knowledge base.

TCP/IP (ARPA) 4-layer model

When the ARPAnet project spawned TCP/IP, which became the dominant network protocol stack used on the Internet, it was envisioned with a much simpler 4-layer stack (the ISO layers roughly map to the ARPA model as indicated below.) The elements of this stack from the lowest to highest are as follows:

  • Link Layer

    Basically a combination of the ISO Layer 1 (physical) and Layer 2 (data link) layers. This layer covers the physical network card in the computer (and the transmission medium between the computers) as well as the device driver in the operating system of the computer. As an example, both Ethernet and MAC are covered in this layer.

  • Network Layer

    This layer maps to the ISO’s Layer 3, and covers the movement of packets between networks. For this reason, it is also called the “Internet Layer”, and the main protocol used in this layer is named the “Internet Protocol”, or “IP” as it is commonly referred to. As discussed above, the ICMP and IGMP protocols are also included in this layer.

  • Transport Layer

    This layer maps to the ISO’s Layer 4, and covers the creation, management and teardown of “virtual circuits” or “flows” between end hosts. There are two different protocols in use at this layer as discussed above in the ISO Layer 4 section, namely, TCP and UDP.

  • Application Layer

    This layer maps to the ISO’s Layer 5 through Layer 7, and covers the application processes that use the network to communicate.

IP Addressing


Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) is the fourth version of the Internet protocol, the first version to be widely deployed. This is the version of the protocol you’re most likely to encounter, and the default version of the IP protocol in Linux.

IPv4 uses a 32-bit address space most typically represented in 4 dotted decimal notation, each octet contains a value between 0-255, and is separated by a dot. An example address is below:

There are several other representations, like dotted hexadecimal, dotted octal, hexadecimal, decimal, and octal. These are infrequently used, and will be covered in later sections.


The Internet has experienced tremendous growth from its beginnings in research at universities to its use in e-commerce and other applications today. As a result, more and more IPv4 addresses were given out to enable users to connect to the Internet. However, despite the number of IPv4 addresses being a large number (4294967296), they are slowly running out.

Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) is the latest version of the Internet protocol which aims to address the IPv4 address exhaustion problem.

Probably the most obvious difference of IPv6 to IPv4 is the representation of addresses. Unlike IPV4, IPv6 uses a hexadecimal format to represent a 128-bit address. The format is grouped into 8 hextets separated by a colon. For example:



Both TCP RFC 793 and UDP RFC 768 provide data transfer between processes through ports. These process ports can be on the same computer or separate computers connected by a network. TCP provides the following: reliability, flow control, and connections (see Example Difference 1 below). UDP is less feature-rich, it does its work with a header that only contains a source port, destination port, a length, and a checksum. TCP provides its capabilities by sending more header data, more packets between ports and performing more processing. UDP requires less header data in the individual packets and requires fewer packets on the network to do its work. UDP does no bookkeeping about the fate of the packets sent from a source. They could be dropped because of a full buffer at a random router between the source and destination and UDP wouldn’t account for it in itself (other monitoring systems can be put in place to do the accounting, however that is beyond the UDP protocol).

The choice of protocols to use is often based on whether the risk of losing packets in real-time without immediate alerting is acceptable. In some cases UDP may be acceptable, such as video or audio streaming where programs can interpolate over missing packets. However, TCP will be required due to its reliable delivery guarantee in systems that support banking or healthcare.

  • Example 1

    The TCP protocol requires upfront communication and the UDP protocol does not. TCP requires an initial connection, known as the “three way handshake”, in order to begin sending data. That amounts to one initial packet sent between ports from initiator of the communication to the receiver, then another packet sent back, and then a final packet sent from the initiator to the receiver again. All that happens before sending the first byte of data. In UDP the first packet sent contains the first byte of data.

  • Example 2

    TCP and UDP differ in the size of their packet headers. The TCP header is 20 bytes and the UDP header is 8 bytes. For programs that send a lot of packets with very little data, the header length can be a large percentage of overhead data (e.g. games that send small packets about player position and state).

Subnetting, netmasks and CIDR

A subnet is a logical division of an IP network, and allows the host system to identify which other hosts can be reached on the local network. The host system determines this by the application of a routing prefix. There are two typical representations of this prefix: a netmask and Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR).

Netmasks typically appear in the dotted decimal notation, with values between 0-255 in each octet. These are applied as bitmasks, and numbers at 255 mean that this host is not reachable. Netmask can also be referred to as a Subnet Mask and these terms are often used interchangeably. An example IPv4 address with a typical netmask is below:

IP Address Netmask

CIDR notation is a two-digit representation of this routing prefix. Its value can range between 0 and 32. While having long been a staple in network equipment and used mainly by network engineers, CIDR notation can now be found in Linux (iproute’s ip command uses CIDR notation). In addition, CIDR notation is often encountered in discussions, as it’s quicker and simpler to reference than a netmask. Below is the same example as above with CIDR notation:

IP Address CIDR /24

As a server administrator, it is helpful to understand subnetting so as to communicate more effectively with network engineers, and to design networks yourself. There are many guides online for learning how to subnet, each with different approaches and tricks. A full subnetting guide is out of the scope of this document.

Classful addressing

You may hear people refer to networks as “Class A”, “Class B”, or “Class C”. This is known as “Classful Addressing” and has been deprecated for decades, thanks to the introduction of CIDR in 1993 (RFC 1519). Classful addressing has the drawback of assuming that a network is drawn on very large boundaries. For example, in the table in the next section, each block would be a single network. One can see how using an entire /16 (65534 hosts) when only five hosts are needed would be wasteful. As such, CIDR was created, allowing people to create subnets only as large as required. For these reasons, one should not refer to any particular network block as a “Class X” (eg, should not be called a Class A network) as it is misleading at best, and incorrect at worst. You should always use CIDR notation to ensure accuracy.

Private address space (RFC 1918)

Certain ranges of addresses were reserved for private networks. Using this address space you cannot communicate with public machines without a NAT gateway or proxy. There are three reserved blocks:

First Address Last Address Netmask CIDR /8 /12 /16

Static routing


Network Address Translation, or NAT, is a technology that allows multiple internet-connected devices to share one common public IP address, while still retaining unique, individual private IP addresses. The distinction between public and private is integral to the understanding of the service that NAT provides and how it works.

In our Sample Network we can see that two firewall machines sit between the Internet and the other hosts in the network; traffic going in and out of the network will pass through these firewall machines. The addresses assigned to the firewalls ( and are private IPs and are visible to just the hosts within the network. A device on the external Internet will, instead, see the public IP address for each firewall. It’s important to note that none of the hosts within the network will have a public IP address, except for the firewalls and the DNS servers, since they are the only parts of the network that directly communicate with the external Internet.

When a device behind a NAT-enabled router sends a packet, the source IP address on the packet is the device’s local, private IP address. If the packet is going outside the local network, it will pass through a router, which will modify the source IP address to its own public IP address. When a response for the packet is received by the router, it needs to ensure that the response can be forwarded to the host that sent the packet in the first place. To do this, the router maintains a Translation Table. This table maps a device’s IP address and port to a port on the router itself. The router’s public IP address and the correct port number from the table are used as the source IP and port on the packet and then sent to the destination.

These maps are temporary and exist on a per-connection basis. This means that each connection opened by a device will have a unique port number on the device and a unique port number on the router as well. This port on the router is used as the public port for that connection. Once the connection terminates, the router is free to assign that port to another connection. However, the total number of available ports is limited to 65,536, so it is entirely possible that a router has no more free ports and cannot assign a new NAT address. This is commonly referred to as port exhaustion.

Similar to port exhaustion, timeouts can also affect the router’s ability to assign new NAT addresses. Each entry in the translation table has a timeout value which refers to the amount of time for which that entry can remain inactive and still keep its place in the table. An entry that has remained inactive for a period of time longer than the timeout will automatically be removed, freeing up space for a new one.

Networking cable

There are two main types of network cable in use today, namely copper and fiber-optic.


The most common type of network cables are what is known as “unshielded twisted pair” cables. They use 4 sets of twisted pairs of copper, relying on the twist with differential signaling to prevent noise and signal propagation between the pairs. The four pairs of twisted copper wires are encased in a plastic sheath.

There are different standards for copper network cables set by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Both organizations use the same naming convention (“Category __”) for the components, but unfortunately differ on the naming for the cable standards. The most common reference is the TIA’s, and the category designation is usually shortened to “Cat”, so you’ll hear references to “Cat5” or “Cat6” cable.

Copper Cable Standards

  • Category 5e (“Cat5”, ISO class D)
  • Category 6 (“Cat6”, ISO class E)
  • Category 6A (“Cat6A”, ISO class Ea)


Fiber is a generic term that refers to optical transport mediums. It comes in several types, all of which look identical but are generally incompatible.

Multimode vs Single Mode

Single-mode fiber has a small core diameter, which only allows one (a single) mode of light to be transmitted through the fiber. Using a single mode of light completely eliminates the possibility of light dispersion and associated signal loss, and so is used mainly for long-haul runs, such as the cables that run between buildings and cities. However, since single-mode fiber can only transmit one wavelength of light at a time, it typically involves much more expensive light generation sources (i.e., laser diode transmitters) and is very expensive to produce.

Multimode fiber has a larger core diameter (either 50u or 62.5u) and can therefore carry multiple modes (“multimode”) of light, which can be used to transmit much more information during a given timeslice. The drawback is that carrying multimode lightwaves causes light dispersion and associated signal loss, which limits its effective distance. Multimode is a less expensive fiber optic cable, that is typically useable with lower cost optical components. It is very common to see it used for building intra-building backbones, and system/switch to switch applications.

Multimode Fiber Standards

Multimode cables have classifications much like the copper cables discussed above; these are known as “Optical Multimode” (OM) classes. The four designations are:

  • OM1 - a “legacy” fiber class, the core being 62.5u, and cladding being 125u. The bandwidth that can be carried ranges from 160 to 500 MHz.
  • OM2 - a “legacy” fiber class, the core being 50u, and cladding being 125u. The bandwidth that can be carried is 500 MHz.
  • OM3 - a “modern” fiber class, the core being 50u, and cladding being 125u. The bandwidth that can be carried ranges from 1500 to 2000 MHz.
  • OM4 - a “modern” fiber class, the core being 50u, and cladding being 125u. The bandwidth that can be carried ranges from 3500 to 4700 MHz.

Optical Connector Types

LC and SC connectors are the two most common type of fiber connectors you will use.

LC stands for “Lucent Connector”, but is also referred to as “Little Connector”. They are typically used for high-density applications, and are the type of connector used on SFPs or XFPs. Typically the connector is packaged in a duplex configuration with each cable side by side, and have a latch mechanism for locking.

SC stands for “Subscriber Connector”, but are also known as “Square Connector”, or “Standard Connector”. This is the type of connector typically used in the telecom industry. They have a larger form factor than the LC connectors, and can be found in single and duplex configurations. SC connectors have a push/pull locking mechanism, and because of this, are also colloquially known as “Stab-and-Click” connectors.


The variety in optical fiber makes for a correspondingly large variety in optical fiber interface standards. Different interface types will impose different requirements on the fiber used and the length of the connection.

If optical fiber interfaces were incorporated directly into network equipment, the number of models made by the manufacturer would have to be multiplied by the number of interface standards in existence. For this reason, modern network hardware rarely incorporates such interfaces directly. Instead, pluggable transceiver modules are used as a layer of indirection between medium-dependent and medium-independent interfaces. This allows a transceiver slot to be provided supporting any desired interface standard, whether copper or fiber. There are some limitations to this, detailed below.

Various module types have been introduced over the years:

Name Introduced Speed Size
GBIC 1995 1 Gb/s Large
SFP 2001 1 Gb/s Small
XENPAK 2001 10 Gb/s Large
XFP 2002 10 Gb/s Small
SFP+ 2006 10 Gb/s Small
QSFP 2006 40 Gb/s Small
CFP 2009 100 Gb/s Large

There are a large number of compatibility issues with such modules. Some compatibility issues cause problems between two ends of a link; others cause problems between a module and its host device.

  • Transceivers are not generally compatible with lower speed versions of the same standard. A 1000BASE-T Ethernet card can interface with a 10BASE-T card, but a 1 Gb/s fiber transceiver cannot interface with a 10 or 100 Mb/s transceiver. In the case of fiber, this is generally due to the different wavelengths used; but even many copper transceivers do not support lower speeds, although some do. You should assume that any transceiver will only support the exact interface for which it is designed unless specified otherwise.
  • Modules are only made for the speed targeted by a format. For example, SFP+ modules are only made for 10 Gb/s standards, and not for lower speeds.
  • Some equipment may accept SFP modules in SFP+ slots, but this is not universal.
  • Vendor lock-in is widely practiced. Equipment may refuse to operate with the modules made by a different manufacturer. Workarounds are generally available, but this may complicate support or warranty arrangements.

These issues can create pathological cases. Suppose you have two switches which should be connected to one another. One is connected via a 1 Gb/s transceiver to fiber. The other only has SFP+ slots. If these slots also support SFP modules, then a 1 Gb/s SFP transceiver can be used, but if they do not, interconnection is impossible: all SFP+ modules target 10 Gb/s, and fiber transceivers do not support lower speeds.


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