Tips 59

A packet and a packet switch network

A packet is the unit of data that is routed between an origin and a destination on the Internet or any other packet-switched network. When any file (e-mail message, HTML file, Graphics Interchange Format file, Uniform Resource Locator request, and so forth) is sent from one place to another on the Internet, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) layer of TCP/IP divides the file into "chunks" of an efficient size for routing. Each of these packets is separately numbered and includes the Internet address of the destination. The individual packets for a given file may travel different routes through the Internet. When they have all arrived, they are reassembled into the original file (by the TCP layer at the receiving end).

A packet-switching scheme is an efficient way to handle transmissions on a connectionless network such as the Internet. An alternative scheme, circuit-switched, is used for networks allocated for voice connections. In circuit-switching, lines in the network are shared among many users as with packet-switching, but each connection requires the dedication of a particular path for the duration of the connection.

"Packet" and "datagram" are similar in meaning. A protocol similar to TCP, the User Datagram Protocol(UDP) uses the term datagram.

Packet-switched describes the type of network in which relatively small units of data called packet are routed through a network based on the destination address contained within each packet. Breaking communication down into packets allows the same data path to be shared among many users in the network. This type of communication between sender and receiver is known as connectionless (rather than dedicated). Most traffic over the Internet uses packet switching and the Internet is basically a connectionless network.

Contrasted with packet-switched is circuit-switched, a type of network such as the regular voice telephone network in which the communication circuit (path) for the call is set up and dedicated to the participants in that call. For the duration of the connection, all resources on that circuit are unavailable for other users. Voice calls using the Internet's packet-switched system are possible. Each end of the conversation is broken down into packets that are reassembled at the other end.

Another common type of digital network that uses packet-switching is the X.25 network, a widely installed commercial wide area network protocol. Internet protocol packets can be carried on an X.25 network. The X.25 network can also support virtual circuits in which a logical connection is established for two parties on a dedicated basis for some duration. A permanent virtual circuit (Permanent Virtual Circuit) reserves the path on an ongoing basis and is an alternative for corporations to a system of leased line. A permanent virtual circuit is a dedicated logical connection but the actual physical resources can be shared among multiple logical connections or users.