IP Datagram General Format
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Time To Live (TTL) Field
Since IP datagrams are sent from router to router as they travel across an internetwork, it is possible that a situation could result where a datagram gets passed from router A to router B to router C and then back to router A. Router loops are not supposed to happen, and rarely do, but are possible.
To ensure that datagrams don't circle around endlessly, the TTL field was intended to be filled in with a time value (in seconds) when a datagram was originally sent. Routers would decrease the time value periodically, and if it ever hit zero, the datagram would be destroyed. This was also intended to be used to ensure that time-critical datagrams wouldnt linger past the point where they would be stale.
In practice, this field is not used in exactly this manner. Routers today are fast and usually take far less than a second to forward a datagram; measuring the time that a datagram lives would be impractical. Instead, this field is used as a maximum hop count for the datagram. Each time a router processes a datagram, it reduces the value of the TTL field by one. If doing this results in the field being zero, the datagram is said to have expired. It is dropped, and usually an ICMP Time Exceeded message is sent to inform the originator of the message that this happened.
The TTL field is one of the primary mechanisms by which networks are protected from router loops (see the description of ICMP Time Exceeded messages for more on how TTL helps IP handle router loops.)
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