Reverse Address Resolution and the TCP/IP Reverse Address Resolution Protocol (RARP)
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The TCP/IP Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) is used when a device needs to determine the layer two (hardware) address of some other device but has only its layer three (network, IP) address. It broadcasts a hardware layer request and the target device responds back with the hardware address matching the known IP address. In theory, it is also possible to use ARP in the exact opposite way. If we know the hardware address of a device but not its IP address, we could broadcast a request containing the hardware address and get back a response containing the IP address.
Of course the obvious question is: why would we ever need to do this? Since we are dealing with communication on an IP internetwork, we are always going to know the IP address of the destination of the datagram we need to sendit's right there in the datagram itself. We also know our own IP address as well. Or do we?
In a traditional TCP/IP network, every normal host on a network knows its IP address because it is stored somewhere on the machine. When you turn on your PC, the TCP/IP protocol software reads the IP address from a file, which allows your PC to learn and start using its IP address. However, there are some devices, such as diskless workstations, that don't have any means of storing an IP address where it can be easily retrieved. When these units are powered up they know their physical address only (because it's wired into the hardware) but not their IP address.
The problem we need to solve here is what is commonly called bootstrapping in the computer industry. This refers to the concept of starting something from a zero state; it is analogous to pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This is seemingly impossible, just as it seems paradoxical to use a TCP/IP protocol to configure the IP address that is needed for TCP/IP communications. However, it is indeed possible to do this, by making use of broadcasts, which allow local communication even when the target's address is not known.
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Version 3.0 - Version Date: September 20, 2005
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