Network Working Group
Request for Comments: 903
Finlayson, Mann, Mogul, Theimer
Stanford University
June 1984

A Reverse Address Resolution Protocol

Ross Finlayson, Timothy Mann, Jeffrey Mogul, Marvin Theimer

Computer Science Department

Stanford University

June 1984

Status of this Memo

This RFC suggests a method for workstations to dynamically find their protocol address (e.g., their Internet Address), when they know only their hardware address (e.g., their attached physical network address).

This RFC specifies a proposed protocol for the ARPA Internet community, and requests discussion and suggestions for improvements.

I. Introduction

Network hosts such as diskless workstations frequently do not know their protocol addresses when booted; they often know only their hardware interface addresses. To communicate using higher-level protocols like IP, they must discover their protocol address from some external source. Our problem is that there is no standard mechanism for doing so.

Plummer's "Address Resolution Protocol" (ARP) [1] is designed to solve a complementary problem, resolving a host's hardware address given its protocol address. This RFC proposes a "Reverse Address Resolution Protocol" (RARP). As with ARP, we assume a broadcast medium, such as Ethernet.

II. Design Considerations

The following considerations guided our design of the RARP protocol.

A. ARP and RARP are different operations. ARP assumes that every host knows the mapping between its own hardware address and protocol address(es). Information gathered about other hosts is accumulated in a small cache. All hosts are equal in status; there is no distinction between clients and servers.

On the other hand, RARP requires one or more server hosts to maintain a database of mappings from hardware address to protocol address and respond to requests from client hosts.

RFC 903 June 1984

B. As mentioned, RARP requires that server hosts maintain large databases. It is undesirable and in some cases impossible to maintain such a database in the kernel of a host's operating system. Thus, most implementations will require some form of interaction with a program outside the kernel.

C. Ease of implementation and minimal impact on existing host software are important. It would be a mistake to design a protocol that required modifications to every host's software, whether or not it intended to participate.

D. It is desirable to allow for the possibility of sharing code with existing software, to minimize overhead and development costs.

III. The Proposed Protocol

We propose that RARP be specified as a separate protocol at the data-link level. For example, if the medium used is Ethernet, then RARP packets will have an Ethertype (still to be assigned) different from that of ARP. This recognizes that ARP and RARP are two fundamentally different operations, not supported equally by all hosts. The impact on existing systems is minimized; existing ARP servers will not be confused by RARP packets. It makes RARP a general facility that can be used for mapping hardware addresses to any higher level protocol address.

This approach provides the simplest implementation for RARP client hosts, but also provides the most difficulties for RARP server hosts. However, these difficulties should not be insurmountable, as is shown in Appendix A, where we sketch two possible implementations for 4.2BSD Unix.

RARP uses the same packet format that is used by ARP, namely:

      ar$hrd (hardware address space) -  16 bits
      ar$pro (protocol address space) -  16 bits
      ar$hln (hardware address length) - 8 bits
      ar$pln (protocol address length) - 8 bits
      ar$op  (opcode) - 16 bits
      ar$sha (source hardware address) - n bytes,
                                       where n is from the ar$hln field.
      ar$spa (source protocol address) - m bytes,
                                       where m is from the ar$pln field.
      ar$tha (target hardware address) - n bytes
      ar$tpa (target protocol address) - m bytes

ar$hrd, ar$pro, ar$hln and ar$pln are the same as in regular ARP (see [1]).

RFC 903 June 1984

Suppose, for example, that 'hardware' addresses are 48-bit Ethernet addresses, and 'protocol' addresses are 32-bit Internet Addresses. That is, we wish to determine Internet Addresses corresponding to known Ethernet addresses. Then, in each RARP packet, ar$hrd = 1 (Ethernet), ar$pro = 2048 decimal (the Ethertype of IP packets), ar$hln = 6, and ar$pln = 4.

There are two opcodes: 3 ('request reverse') and 4 ('reply reverse'). An opcode of 1 or 2 has the same meaning as in [1]; packets with such opcodes may be passed on to regular ARP code. A packet with any other opcode is undefined. As in ARP, there are no "not found" or "error" packets, since many RARP servers are free to respond to a request. The sender of a RARP request packet should timeout if it does not receive a reply for this request within a reasonable amount of time.

The ar$sha, ar$spa, $ar$tha, and ar$tpa fields of the RARP packet are interpreted as follows:

When the opcode is 3 ('request reverse'):

ar$sha is the hardware address of the sender of the packet.

ar$spa is undefined.

ar$tha is the 'target' hardware address.

In the case where the sender wishes to determine his own

protocol address, this, like ar$sha, will be the hardware

address of the sender.

ar$tpa is undefined.

When the opcode is 4 ('reply reverse'):

ar$sha is the hardware address of the responder (the sender of the reply packet).

ar$spa is the protocol address of the responder (see the note below).

ar$tha is the hardware address of the target, and should be the same as that which was given in the request.

ar$tpa is the protocol address of the target, that is, the desired address.

Note that the requirement that ar$spa in opcode 4 packets be filled

RFC 903 June 1984

in with the responder's protocol is purely for convenience. For instance, if a system were to use both ARP and RARP, then the inclusion of the valid protocol-hardware address pair (ar$spa, ar$sha) may eliminate the need for a subsequent ARP request.

IV. References

   [1] Plummer, D., "An Ethernet Address Resolution Protocol",  RFC 826,
   MIT-LCS, November 1982.

Appendix A. Two Example Implementations for 4.2BSD Unix

The following implementation sketches outline two different approaches to implementing a RARP server under 4.2BSD.

A. Provide access to data-link level packets outside the kernel. The RARP server is implemented completely outside the kernel and interacts with the kernel only to receive and send RARP packets. The kernel has to be modified to provide the appropriate access for these packets; currently the 4.2 kernel allows access only to IP packets. One existing mechanism that provides this capability is the CMU "packet-filter" pseudo driver. This has been used successfully at CMU and Stanford to implement similar sorts of "user-level" network servers.

B. Maintain a cache of database entries inside the kernel. The full RARP server database is maintained outside the kernel by a user process. The RARP server itself is implemented directly in the kernel and employs a small cache of database entries for its responses. This cache could be the same as is used for forward ARP.

The cache gets filled from the actual RARP database by means of two new ioctls. (These are like SIOCIFADDR, in that they are not really associated with a specific socket.) One means: "sleep until there is a translation to be done, then pass the request out to the user process"; the other means: "enter this translation into the kernel table". Thus, when the kernel can't find an entry in the cache, it puts the request on a (global) queue and then does a wakeup(). The implementation of the first ioctl is to sleep() and then pull the first item off of this queue and return it to the user process. Since the kernel can't wait around at interrupt level until the user process replies, it can either give up (and assume that the requesting host will retransmit the request packet after a second) or if the second ioctl passes a copy of the request back into the kernel, formulate and send a response at that time.