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IP Protocol Header Fundamentals Explained with Diagrams

IP protocol is one of the main protocols in the TCP/IP stack.

It is in the form of IP datagrams that all the TCP, UDP, ICMP and IGMP data travels over the network.

IP is connection less and unreliable protocol. It is connection less in the sense that no state related to IP datagrams is maintained either on source or destination side and it is unreliable in the sense that it not guaranteed that an IP data gram will get delivered to the destination or not.

If an IP datagram encounters some error at the destination or at some intermediate host (while traveling from source to destination) then the IP datagram is generally discarded and an ICMP error message is sent back to the source.

IP Layer in TCP/IP Suite

As can be seen from the image above, the IP protocol sits at the layer-2 of TCP/IP protocol suite ie the Internet layer. Another point worth noting here is how the data is packed in TCP/IP suite. If we analyze the figure above, we see :

  • The application layer sends the data (to be transferred to remote destination ) to the transport layer.
  • The transport layer puts its header in the beginning and sends this complete packet (TCP-header + app-data) to the IP layer.
  • On the same lines, The IP layer puts its header in front of the data received from TCP (Note that data received from TCP = TCP-header + app-data).
  • So now the structure of IP datagram becomes IP-header + TCP-header + app-data.
  • This IP datagram is passed to the ethernet layer which on the same lines adds its own header to IP datagram and then the whole packet is transmitted over network.

On the destination host, the reverse process happens. This means that each layer reads its own header in the packet and then strips the header so that finally application receives the app-data.

IP Header

  • Protocol Version(4 bits) : This is the first field in the protocol header. This field occupies 4 bits. This signifies the current IP protocol version being used. Most common version of IP protocol being used is version 4 while version 6 is out in market and fast gaining popularity.
  • Header Length(4 bits) : This field provides the length of the IP header. The length of the header is represented in 32 bit words. This length also includes IP options (if any). Since this field is of 4 bits so the maximum header length allowed is 60 bytes. Usually when no options are present then the value of this field is 5. Here 5 means five 32 bit words ie 5 *4 = 20 bytes.
  • Type of service(8 bits) : The first three bits of this field are known as precedence bits and are ignored as of today. The next 4 bits represent type of service and the last bit is left unused. The 4 bits that represent TOS are : minimize delay, maximize throughput, maximize reliability and minimize monetary cost.
  • Total length(16 bits): This represents the total IP datagram length in bytes. Since the header length (described above) gives the length of header and this field gives total length so the length of data and its starting point can easily be calculated using these two fields. Since this is a 16 bit field and it represents length of IP datagram so the maximum size of IP datagram can be 65535 bytes. When IP fragmentation takes place over the network then value of this field also changes. There are cases when IP datagrams are very small in length but some data links like ethernet pad these small frames to be of a minimum length ie 46 bytes. So to know the exact length of IP header in case of ethernet padding this field comes in handy.
  • Identification(16 bits): This field is used for uniquely identifying the IP datagrams. This value is incremented every-time an IP datagram is sent from source to the destination. This field comes in handy while reassembly of fragmented IP data grams.
  • Flags(3 bits): This field comprises of three bits. While the first bit is kept reserved as of now, the next two bits have their own importance. The second bit represents the ‘Don’t Fragment’ bit. When this bit is set then IP datagram is never fragmented, rather its thrown away if a requirement for fragment arises. The third bit represents the ‘More Fragment’ bit. If this bit is set then it represents a fragmented IP datagram that has more fragments after it. In case of last fragment of an IP datagram this bit is not set signifying that this is the last fragment of a particular IP datagram.
  • Fragment offset(13 bits): In case of fragmented IP data grams, this field contains the offset( in terms of 8 bytes units) from the start of IP datagram. So again, this field is used in reassembly of fragmented IP datagrams.
  • Time to live(8 bits) : This value represents number of hops that the IP datagram will go through before being discarded. The value of this field in the beginning is set to be around 32 or 64 (lets say) but at every hop over the network this field is decremented by one. When this field becomes zero, the data gram is discarded. So, we see that this field literally means the effective lifetime for a datagram on network.
  • Protocol(8 bits) : This field represents the transport layer protocol that handed over data to IP layer. This field comes in handy when the data is demultiplex-ed at the destination as in that case IP would need to know which protocol to hand over the data to.
  •  Header Checksum(16 bits) : This fields represents a value that is calculated using an algorithm covering all the fields in header (assuming this very field to be zero). This value is calculated and stored in header when IP data gram is sent from source to destination and at the destination side this checksum is again calculated and verified against the checksum present in header. If the value is same then the datagram was not corrupted else its assumed that data gram was received corrupted. So this field is used to check the integrity of an IP datagram.
  • Source and destination IP(32 bits each) : These fields store the source and destination address respectively. Since size of these fields is 32 bits each so an IP address os  maximum length of 32 bits can be used. So we see that this limits the number of IP addresses that can be used. To counter this problem, IP V6 has been introduced which increases this capacity.
  • Options(Variable length) : This field represents a list of options that are active for a particular IP datagram. This is an optional field that could be or could not be present. If any option is present in the header then the first byte is represented as follows :

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
copy flag option class option num

  • In the description above, the ‘copy flag’ means that copy this option to all the fragments in case this IP datagram gets fragmented. The ‘option class’ represents the following values : 0 -> control, 1-> reserved, 2 -> debugging and measurement, and 3 -> reserved. Some of the options are given below :

class number length description
0 0 end of option list
0 1 no operation
0 2 11 security
0 3 var. loose source routing
0 9 var. strict source routing
0 7 var. record route
0 8 4 stream id
2 4 var. INTERNET time stamp

  • Data: This field contains the data from the protocol layer that has handed over the data to IP layer. Generally this data field contains the header and data of the transport layer protocols. Please note that each TCP/IP layer protocol attaches its own header at the beginning of the data it receives from other layers in case of source host and in case of destination host each protocol strips its own header and sends the rest of the data to the next layer.
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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • logoff March 26, 2012, 3:04 am

    It is important to say that IP was developed by IETF in the RFC 2460 (http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2460)

  • Himanshu Arora March 26, 2012, 10:23 am

    Thanks for your valuable comment!!

  • Rajesh kumar v April 23, 2012, 8:14 pm

    Nice explanation ..hats offf

  • vishnu August 19, 2013, 10:57 am

    Goood one …

  • Amit Saxena August 26, 2013, 5:23 am

    If I knew this article/website in 2004, I would have been topper in the class!
    Really a great stuff and in a very easy language.

    I love your site.

    Amit Saxena

  • AMOL PATIL September 5, 2013, 11:08 pm

    This is very sufficient info about IP.

  • Amir October 9, 2013, 12:53 am

    clear and helpful


  • sowmya March 20, 2014, 10:50 pm

    Clear Explanation…Nice

  • Rishabh March 23, 2015, 7:09 am

    If Version of IP is IPv6 then how structure of IP Datagram supposed to be look like (i mean in case of source and dest. IPs , clearly greater than 32 bits). ?

  • mallikarjun March 26, 2015, 8:43 am

    its clear and nice explanation…

    thank you….

  • mark April 11, 2015, 4:45 am

    below the tcp/ip suite diagram, the line states ip sits at l2. its wrong . ip sits in l3. i guess its just a typo. please correct that.

  • Anonymous May 25, 2015, 9:03 am

    Very described

    Suraj Pal

  • Anonymous June 18, 2015, 5:41 am


  • Auxillia December 15, 2015, 11:30 pm

    clearly explained.

  • rakesh January 19, 2016, 12:55 am

    Really good…. I need this kind of links for all networking topics to understand easily. 🙂

  • Anonymous December 7, 2016, 12:25 pm


  • sowmya.v February 11, 2017, 4:41 am

    Nice explanation

  • Linda March 14, 2017, 3:18 am

    Nice explanation thanq….

  • Anonymous May 3, 2017, 2:45 am