Introducing DHCP

What is DHCP?
Every device that connects to a network needs an IP address. Network administrators assign static IP addresses to routers, servers, and other network devices whose locations (physical and logical) are not likely to change. Administrators enter static IP addresses manually when they configure devices to join the network. Static addresses also enable administrators to manage those devices remotely.
However, computers in an organization often change locations, physically and logically. Administrators are unable to keep up with having to assign new IP addresses every time an employee moves to a different office or cubicle. Desktop clients do not require a static address. Instead, a workstation can use any address within a range of addresses. This range is typically within an IP subnet. A workstation within a specific subnet can be assigned any address within a specified range. Other items such as the subnet mask, default gateway, and Domain Name System (DNS) server are assigned a value which is common either to that subnet or entire administrated network. For example, all hosts within the same subnet will receive different host IP addresses, but will receive the same subnet mask and default gateway IP address."
Network Fundamentals that DHCP makes the process of assigning new IP addresses almost transparent. DHCP assigns IP addresses and other important network configuration information dynamically. Because desktop clients typically make up the bulk of network nodes, DHCP is an extremely useful and timesaving tool for network administrators. RFC 2131 describes DHCP.
Administrators typically prefer a network server to offer DHCP services, because these solutions are scalable and relatively easy to manage. However, in a small branch or SOHO location, a Cisco router can be configured to provide DHCP services without the need for an expensive dedicated server. A Cisco IOS feature set called Easy IP offers an optional, full-featured DHCP server.
DHCP Operation
Providing IP addresses to clients is the most fundamental task performed by a DHCP server. DHCP includes three different address allocation mechanisms to provide flexibility when assigning IP addresses:
Manual Allocation: The administrator assigns a pre-allocated IP address to the client and DHCP only communicates the IP address to the device.
Automatic Allocation: DHCP automatically assigns a static IP address permanently to a device, selecting it from a pool of available addresses. There is no lease and the address is permanently assigned to a device.
Dynamic Allocation: DHCP automatically dynamically assigns, or leases, an IP address from a pool of addresses for a limited period of time chosen by the server, or until the client tells the DHCP server that it no longer needs the address.
This section focuses on dynamic allocation.
DHCP works in a client/server mode and operates like any other client/server relationship. When a PC connects to a DHCP server, the server assigns or leases an IP address to that PC. The PC connects to the network with that leased IP address until the lease expires. The host must contact the DHCP server periodically to extend the lease. This lease mechanism ensures that hosts that move or power off do not hold onto addresses that they do not need. The DHCP server returns these addresses to the address pool and reallocates them as necessary.
When the client boots or otherwise wants to join a network, it completes four steps in obtaining a lease. In the first step, the client broadcasts a DHCPDISCOVER message. The DHCPDISCOVER message finds DHCP servers on the network. Because the host has no valid IP information at bootup, it uses L2 and L3 broadcast addresses to communicate with the server.
When the DHCP server receives a DHCDISCOVER message, it finds an available IP address to lease, creates an ARP entry consisting of the MAC address of the requesting host and the leased IP address, and transmits a binding offer with a DHCPOFFER message. The DHCPOFFER message is sent as a unicast, using the L2 MAC address of the server as the source address and the L2 address of the client as the destination.
Note: Under certain circumstances, the DHCP message exchange from the server may be broadcasted and not unicasted.
When the client receives the DHCPOFFER from the server, it sends back a DHCPREQUEST message. This message has two purposes: lease origination and lease renewal and verification. When used for lease origination, the DHCPREQUEST of the client is requesting that the IP information be verified just after it has been assigned. The message provides error checking to ensure that the assignment is still valid. The DHCPREQUEST also serves as a binding acceptance notice to the selected server and an implicit decline to any other servers that may have provided the host a binding offer.
Many enterprise networks use multiple DHCP servers. The DHCPREQUEST message is sent in the form of a broadcast to inform this DHCP server and any other DHCP servers about the accepted offer.
On receiving the DHCPREQUEST message, the server verifies the lease information, creates a new ARP entry for the client lease, and replies with a unicast DHCPACK message. The DHCPACK message is a duplicate of the DHCPOFFER, except for a change in the message type field. When the client receives the DHCPACK message, it logs the configuration information and performs an ARP lookup for the assigned address. If it does not receive a reply, it knows that the IP address is valid and starts using it as its own.
Clients lease the information from the server for an administratively defined period. Administrators configure DHCP servers to set the leases to time out at different intervals. Most ISPs and large networks use default lease durations of up to three days. When the lease expires, the client must ask for another address, although the client is typically reassigned the same address.
The DHCPREQUEST message also addresses the dynamic DHCP process. The IP information sent in the DHCPOFFER might have been offered to another client during the dynamic allocation. Each DHCP server creates pools of IP addresses and associated parameters. Pools are dedicated to individual, logical IP subnets. The pools allow multiple DHCP servers to respond and IP clients to be mobile. If multiple servers respond, a client can choose only one of the offers.


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