In information technology, a packet is a formatted unit of data carried by a packet mode computer network. Computer communications links that do not support packets, such as traditional point-to-point telecommunications links, simply transmit data as a series of bytes, characters, or bits alone. When data is formatted into packets, the bitrate of the communication medium can better be shared among users than if the network were circuit switched. By using packet switched networking it is also harder to guarantee a lowest possible bitrate.

Example: IP packets[]

IP packets are composed of a header and payload. The IPv4 packet header consists of:

  1. 4 bits that contain the version, that specifies if it's an IPv4 or IPv6 packet,
  2. 4 bits that contain the Internet Header Length which is the length of the header in multiples of 4 bytes. Ex. 5 is equal to 20 bytes.
  3. 8 bits that contain the Type of Service, also referred to as Quality of Service (QoS), which describes what priority the packet should have,
  4. 16 bits that contain the length of the packet in bytes,
  5. 16 bits that contain an identification tag to help reconstruct the packet from several fragments,
  6. 3 bits that contain a zero, a flag that says whether the packet is allowed to be fragmented or not (DF: Don't fragment), and a flag to state whether more fragments of a packet follow (MF: More Fragments)
  7. 13 bits that contain the fragment offset, a field to identify which fragment this packet is attached to,
  8. 8 bits that contain the Time to live (TTL) which is the number of hops (router, computer or device along a network) the packet is allowed to pass before it dies (for example, a packet with a TTL of 16 will be allowed to go across 16 routers to get to its destination before it is discarded),
  9. 8 bits that contain the protocol (TCP, UDP, ICMP, etc...)
  10. 16 bits that contain the Header Checksum, a number used in error detection,
  11. 32 bits that contain the source IP address,
  12. 32 bits that contain the destination address.

After those, optional flags can be added of varied length, which can change based on the protocol used, then the data that packet carries is added. An IP packet has no trailer. However, an IP packet is often carried as the payload inside an Ethernet frame, which has its own header and trailer.


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