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Unnumbered Ethernet Interfaces, DHCP Edition

Last week we explored the basics of unnumbered IPv4 Ethernet interfaces, and how you could use them to save IPv4 address space in routed access networks. I also mentioned that you could simplify the head-end router configuration if you’re using DHCP instead of per-host static routes.

Obviously you’d need a smart DHCP server/relay implementation to make this work. Simplistic local DHCP server would allocate an IP address to a client requesting one, send a response and move on. Likewise, a DHCP relay would forward a DHCP request to a remote DHCP server (adding enough information to allow the DHCP server to select the desired DHCP pool) and forward its response to the client.

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Unnumbered Ethernet Interfaces

Imagine an Internet Service Provider offering Ethernet-based Internet access (aka everyone using fiber access, excluding people believing in Russian dolls). If they know how to spell security, they might be nervous about connecting numerous customers to the same multi-access network, but it seems they have only two ways to solve this challenge:

  • Use private VLANs with proxy ARP on the head-end router, forcing the customer-to-customer traffic to pass through layer-3 forwarding on the head-end router.
  • Use a separate routed interface with each customer, wasting three-quarters of their available IPv4 address space.

Is there a third option? Can’t we pretend Ethernet works in almost the same way as dialup and use unnumbered IPv4 interfaces?

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Packet Forwarding and Routing over Unnumbered Interfaces

In the previous blog posts in this series, we explored whether we need addresses on point-to-point links (TL&DR: no), whether it’s better to have interface or node addresses (TL&DR: it depends), and why we got unnumbered IPv4 interfaces. Now let’s see how IP routing works over unnumbered interfaces.

The Challenge

A cursory look at an IP routing table (or at CCNA-level materials) tells you that the IP routing table contains prefixes and next hops, and that the next hops are IP addresses. How should that work over unnumbered interfaces, and what should we use for the next-hop IP address in that case?

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Back to Basics: Unnumbered IPv4 Interfaces

In the previous blog post in this series, we explored some of the reasons IP uses per-interface (and not per-node) IP addresses. That model worked well when routers had few interfaces and mostly routed between a few LAN segments (often large subnets of a Class A network assigned to an academic institution) and a few WAN uplinks. In those days, the WAN networks were often implemented with non-IP technologies like Frame Relay or ATM (with an occasional pinch of X.25).

The first sign of troubles in paradise probably occurred when someone wanted to use a dial-up modem to connect to a LAN segment. What subnet (and IP address) do you assign to the dial-up connection, and how do you tell the other end what to use? Also, what do you do when you want to have a bank of modems and dozens of people dialing in?

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Back to Basics: The History of IP Interface Addresses

In the previous blog post in this series, we figured out that you might not need link-layer addresses on point-to-point links. We also started exploring whether you need network-layer addresses on individual interfaces but didn’t get very far. We’ll fix that today and discover the secrets behind IP address-per-interface design.

In the early days of computer networking, there were three common addressing paradigms:

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Back to Basics: Do We Need Interface Addresses?

In the world of ubiquitous Ethernet and IP, it’s common to think that one needs addresses in packet headers in every layer of the protocol stack. We have MAC addresses, IP addresses, and TCP/UDP port numbers… and low-level addresses are assigned to individual interfaces, not nodes.

Turns out that’s just one option… and not exactly the best one in many scenarios. You could have interfaces with no addresses, and you could have addresses associated with nodes, not interfaces.

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