Understanding Address Resolution Protocol: A Guide to ARP

29 June 2022

Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) maps an IP address, such as IPv4, to a physical MAC address. Operating at the link layer of the Internet Protocol (IP), ARP ensures data packets reach the correct physical device on a local area network (LAN). When devices need to communicate on the same network, ARP identifies the recipient’s MAC address, enabling accurate data frame routing. This involves ARP requests and replies: a device broadcasts an ARP request, and the target device responds with its MAC address.

What is Address Resolution Protocol (ARP)?

ARP ensures data packets reach the correct physical device on a local area network (LAN).

The Variations of ARP

ARP has several variations, each tailored for specific functions. This article defines these types, highlights ARP’s significance, explains its operating mechanisms, and examines ARP security threats.

The Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) converts Internet Protocol (IP) addresses into Media Access Control (MAC) addresses. This conversion is vital for network communication.

Internet-connected applications use IP addresses to send data, but actual communication occurs via hardware MAC addresses. Without ARP, devices and software couldn’t exchange data.

OSI: The Open System Interconnection Model

ARP translates the software address (IP address) to the physical address (MAC address) of the host connected to the network. ARP exists as the link layer protocol in the Open System Interconnection (OSI) model.

The conceptual OSI model defines the standard of communication between different computer systems. This model uses layers to visualize how various systems employ standard protocols in their communication with each other.

In the OSI model, MAC addresses are a sublayer within the data link layer (therefore, known as data link addresses). The data link layer is responsible for maintaining the connection between two physically connected devices and allows them to transfer data. Meanwhile, IP addresses belong to the network layer. The network layer forwards packets through different routers.

However, destination decisions can’t be based on IP addresses. On the same network, an IP address maps the data link layer address of another computer.

Here’s where ARP comes into play. Since IP version 4 (IPv4) addresses have different lengths (32-bit) than MAC addresses (48-bit), ARP translates these addresses to facilitate the information exchange.

Essentially, without ARP, a host would not be able to figure out the hardware address of another host.

The Evolution of ARP

ARP has significantly advanced to meet the demands of modern networks. Today, it incorporates ARP spoofing detection tools and Dynamic ARP Inspection (DAI) to prevent unauthorized ARP table manipulations and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Efficiency enhancements have enabled ARP to support larger and more complex networks. With the advent of IPv6, the Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP) has further streamlined network management.

In virtualized environments, ARP ensures seamless communication between virtual machines (VMs) and host systems, integrating effectively with emerging technologies like cloud computing. In cloud settings, ARP plays a crucial role in facilitating VM communication and dynamic resource provisioning, adapting to VM mobility and evolving network configurations.

However, ARP security still faces challenges, such as VM escape attacks and ARP spoofing, due to shared resources and multi-tenancy.

Stay updated with the latest tech insights and data-driven analysis to navigate these evolving network dynamics.

How Does ARP Work?

When a source device needs to send an IPv4 packet, ARP performs two essential tasks. First, the ARP program checks the ARP cache table, which contains IPv4 to MAC address mappings. If this lookup doesn’t find a matching MAC address, the source server generates an ARP message and broadcasts it on the Local Area Network (LAN).

ARP Request

An ARP request facilitates communication between devices on the network when a source device cannot find the necessary data in the ARP cache table. This table maintains records of IP and MAC addresses for devices on the same network. The ARP protocol autonomously updates this table upon receiving ARP responses. All operating systems within a network maintain ARP caches. Due to the limited size of the ARP cache, it periodically purges old entries to accommodate new ones.

Example of the ARP Process

Consider two computers in a LAN connected via Ethernet cables and network switches, without any intervening gateways or routers. Host 1 needs to send a packet to Host 2. Host 1 uses DNS to obtain Host 2’s IP address but requires the MAC address to send the packet. It first checks the cached ARP table for Host 2’s MAC address. If found, Host 1 sends the IP packet via an Ethernet frame using the destination MAC address.

If the MAC address is not cached, Host 1 sends an ARP request to discover the MAC address associated with Host 2’s IP. Host 2 responds with the requested MAC address. Host 1 then updates its ARP table and delivers the IP packets.

In Wi-Fi networks, ARP operates over the wireless medium, resolving IP addresses to MAC addresses to facilitate communication. However, wireless environments are vulnerable to issues like ARP spoofing, interference, hidden node problems, and cache poisoning. We will delve into these issues later in the article.

The Four Types of ARP

The Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) plays a crucial role in networking, and understanding its four main types is essential.

Proxy ARP

Proxy ARP handles requests from IP addresses outside the local network. When an external request packet arrives, a router enabled with Proxy ARP responds with its own MAC address instead of the target host’s. This means packets intended for the target host are first sent to the router, which then forwards them to the actual destination within the local network.

Gratuitous ARP

Gratuitous ARP occurs when an ARP response is sent without a preceding request. It’s used by a host to announce or update its IP-to-MAC address mapping across the network.

Reverse ARP (RARP)

Reverse ARP allows devices to request IPv4 addresses from the ARP gateway router table. This is particularly useful for new systems that lack memory to store their own IP addresses. The device broadcasts a RARP packet with its MAC address, and the RARP server replies with the corresponding IP address after consulting its mapping table.

Inverse ARP (InARP)

Inverse ARP works in reverse of traditional ARP by mapping IP addresses using associated hardware addresses. InARP is beneficial when a device knows the Data Link Connection Identifier (DLCI) of a remote router but not its own IP address.

Staying informed about the latest networking protocols ensures optimal performance and security in your tech infrastructure.

Potential Security Threats

ARP Spoofing

Often referred to as ARP cache poisoning or ARP poison routing, ARP spoofing is a malicious cyberattack in which attackers send deceptive ARP messages to a target LAN. This tactic associates the attacker’s MAC address with the IP address of a legitimate device on the network. Successful ARP poisoning enables the attacker’s computer to intercept data from the victim’s machine, causing significant harm without the owner’s awareness.

To mitigate ARP spoofing, use detection tools, static ARP entries, dynamic ARP inspection (DAI), switch port security (e.g., MAC address limiting), VLAN segmentation, and network traffic encryption.

Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attacks

Denial-of-service attacks aim to overwhelm servers, networks, and systems by inundating them with excessive traffic. A large-scale DoS attack, known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, employs more resources to incapacitate the system, blocking user access. Excessive ARP packets in a vulnerable network can trigger service overload.

Prevent DoS attacks with firewalls and intrusion detection/prevention systems, rate limiting, access controls, DDoS protection services, and network infrastructure redundancy.

Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) Attacks

In a man-in-the-middle attack, a cyberattacker intercepts communications between two parties to steal sensitive information.

Prevent MITM attacks by using encryption protocols for secure communication, deploying digital certificates and SSL/TLS, implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA), monitoring network traffic for anomalies, verifying the integrity of network devices, and avoiding unsecured public Wi-Fi networks or using VPNs.

Session Hijacking

ARP poisoning can lead to session hijacking attacks, where a cybercriminal takes over a user’s web session by stealing their session ID. This allows the attacker to impersonate the user and perform unauthorized actions.

To prevent session hijacking, use HTTPS for secure communication, enforce robust session management (e.g., session expiration timeouts), encrypt sensitive data transmissions, and implement multi-factor authentication (MFA).

ARP, In Short:

The Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) is crucial for mapping IP addresses to MAC addresses, facilitating seamless communication between devices within the same network. Without ARP, the transfer of data between software and hardware would be compromised.

ARP encompasses various types: Proxy ARP, Gratuitous ARP, Reverse ARP, and Inverse ARP, each playing a pivotal role in local area network functionality. However, ARP is susceptible to cyber threats such as spoofing, DoS attacks, Man-in-the-Middle attacks, and session hijackings. To safeguard ARP operations and uphold network integrity, implementing robust security measures is imperative.


  • What is Address Resolution Protocol (ARP)? ARP is a vital protocol that maps IP addresses to MAC addresses within a local network.
  • Why is ARP essential for network communication? ARP is crucial for network communication because it translates IP addresses to MAC addresses, allowing devices to address and communicate effortlessly within the same local network segment.
  • What are the 4 main types of ARP? Proxy, Gratuitous, Reverse, and Inverse ARP each serve specific roles in IP-to-MAC address mappings, ensuring robust network connectivity.
  • What are ARP-related security risks? Major ARP-related security threats include ARP spoofing, ARP cache poisoning, and the risk of man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • How can ARP spoofing attacks be prevented? Mitigate ARP spoofing by using detection tools, dynamic ARP inspection (DAI), static ARP entries, and implementing network segmentation and encryption strategies.

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