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MAC address (Media Access Control address)

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A Media Access Control address (MAC address) is a unique identifier assigned to network interfaces for communications on the physical network segment. MAC addresses are used for numerous network technologies and most IEEE 802 network technologies, including Ethernet. Logically, MAC addresses are used in the Media Access Control protocol sub-layer of the OSI reference model.

MAC addresses are most often assigned by the manufacturer of a network interface card (NIC) and are stored in its hardware, the card's read-only memory, or some other firmware mechanism. If assigned by the manufacturer, a MAC address usually encodes the manufacturer's registered identification number and may be referred to as the burned-in address. It may also be known as an Ethernet hardware address (EHA), hardware address or physical address. A network node may have multiple NICs and will then have one unique MAC address per NIC.

MAC addresses are formed according to the rules of one of three numbering name spaces managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): MAC-48, EUI-48, and EUI-64.

The original IEEE 802 MAC address comes from the original Xerox Ethernet addressing scheme. This 48-bit address space contains potentially 248 or 281,474,976,710,656 possible MAC addresses.

All three numbering systems use the same format and differ only in the length of the identifier. Addresses can either be universally administered addresses or locally administered addresses. A universally administered address is uniquely assigned to a device by its manufacturer; these are sometimes called burned-in addresses. The first three octets (in transmission order) identify the organization that issued the identifier and are known as the Organizationally Unique Identifier (OUI). The following three (MAC-48 and EUI-48) or five (EUI-64) octets are assigned by that organization in nearly any manner they please, subject to the constraint of uniqueness. The IEEE expects the MAC-48 space to be exhausted no sooner than the year 2100; EUI-64s are not expected to run out in the foreseeable future. A locally administered address is assigned to a device by a network administrator, overriding the burned-in address. Locally administered addresses do not contain OUIs.

Universally administered and locally administered addresses are distinguished by setting the second-least-significant bit of the most significant byte of the address. This bit is also referred to as the U/L bit, short for Universal/Local, which identifies how the address is administered. If the bit is 0, the address is universally administered. If it is 1, the address is locally administered. In the example address 06-00-00-00-00-00 the most significant byte is 06 (hex), the binary form of which is 00000110, where the second-least-significant bit is 1. Therefore, it is a locally administered address. Consequently, this bit is 0 in all OUIs.

If the least significant bit of the most significant octet of an address is set to 0 (zero), the frame is meant to reach only one receiving NIC. This type of transmission is called unicast. A unicast frame is transmitted to all nodes within the collision domain, which typically ends at the nearest network switch or router. Only the node with the matching hardware MAC address will accept the frame; network frames with non-matching MAC-addresses are ignored, unless the device is in promiscuous mode.

If the least significant bit of the most significant address octet is set to 1, the frame will still be sent only once; however, NICs will choose to accept it based on different criteria than a matching MAC address: for example, based on a configurable list of accepted multicast MAC addresses. This is called multicast addressing.

The distinction between EUI-48 and MAC-48 identifiers is purely nominal: MAC-48 is used for network hardware; EUI-48 is used to identify other devices and software.

MAC-48 network address

Diagram showing the structure of a MAC-48 network address, explicitly showing the positions of the multicast/unicast bit and the OUI/local address type bit.

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