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MAC Addresses

The source and destination Ethernet address fields play a huge role in how Ethernet LANs work. The general idea for each is relatively simple: The sending node puts its own address in the source address field and the intended Ethernet destination device’s address in the destination address field. The sender transmits the frame, expecting that the Ethernet LAN, as a whole, will deliver the frame to that correct destination.

Ethernet addresses, also called Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, are 6-byte-long (48-bit-long) binary numbers. For convenience, most computers list MAC addresses as 12-digit hexadecimal numbers. Cisco devices typically add some periods to the number for easier readability as well; for example, a Cisco switch might list a MAC address as 0000.0C12.3456.

Most MAC addresses represent a single NIC or other Ethernet port, so these addresses are often called a unicast Ethernet address. The term unicast is simply a formal way to refer to the fact that the address represents one interface to the Ethernet LAN. (This term also contrasts with two other types of Ethernet addresses, broadcast and multicast, which will be defined later in this section.)

The entire idea of sending data to a destination unicast MAC address works well, but it works only if all the unicast MAC addresses are unique. If two NICs tried to use the same MAC address, there could be confusion. (The problem would be like the confusion caused to the postal service if you and I both tried to use the same mailing address—would the postal service deliver mail to your house or mine?) If two PCs on the same Ethernet tried to use the same MAC address, to which PC should frames sent to that MAC address be delivered?

Ethernet solves this problem using an administrative process so that, at the time of manufacture, all Ethernet devices are assigned a universally unique MAC address. Before a manufacturer can build Ethernet products, it must ask the IEEE to assign the manufacturer a universally unique 3-byte code, called the organizationally unique identifier (OUI). The manufacturer agrees to give all NICs (and other Ethernet products) a MAC address that begins with its assigned 3-byte OUI. The manufacturer also assigns a unique value for the last 3 bytes, a number that manufacturer has never used with that OUI. As a result, the MAC address of every device in the universe is unique.

Note: The IEEE also calls these universal MAC addresses global MAC addresses.

Ethernet addresses go by many names: LAN address, Ethernet address, hardware address, burned-in address, physical address, universal address, or MAC address. For example, the term burned-in address (BIA) refers to the idea that a permanent MAC address has been encoded (burned into) the ROM chip on the NIC. As another example, the IEEE uses the term universal address to emphasize the fact that the address assigned to a NIC by a manufacturer should be unique among all MAC addresses in the universe. In addition to unicast addresses, Ethernet also uses group addresses. Group addresses identify more than one LAN interface card. A frame sent to a group address might be delivered to a small set of devices on the LAN, or even to all devices on the LAN. In fact, the IEEE defines two general categories of group addresses for Ethernet:

Published on Thu 29 March 2012 by Daisy Batty in Networking with tag(s): mac addresses ethernet