The Internet is a vast source of information that is continuously updated and accessed via computers and other devices. For a device (also referred to as a host) to connect to the Internet, it is necessary that among other configurations, it must have an Internet Protocol (IP) address. The IP address is the computer's address on the Internet. A common comparison of an IP address is an individual's telephone number, which is an identifier for people to communicate with the individual. Up until the late 1980s, configuring a computer to connect to the Internet was a manual process. The protocol Bootstrap Protocol (BOOTP) was the first Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) network configuration tool used to prevent the task of having to manually assign IP addresses by automating the process.
While the introduction of the BOOTP network protocol was a welcome innovation for network administrators tasked with managing large numbers of computers on a network, it was the first attempt and a new and improved TCP/IP network protocol soon followed. This protocol is called Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). DHCP was not designed as a replacement for BOOTP, but an extension of its functionality.
How DHCP Works
As its name indicates, DHCP provides dynamic IP address assignment. What this means is that instead of having to rely on a specific IP address, a computer will be assigned one that is available from a subnet or "pool" that is assigned to the network. DHCP also extends BOOTP functionality to provide IP addresses that expire. BOOTP indirectly uses a form of leasing that never expired, but the term wasn't actually used until the introduction of DHCP. When DHCP assigns an IP address, it actually leases the identifier to the host computer for a specific amount of time. The default lease is five days, but a network administrator should evaluate their own particular circumstances to determine an appropriate lease.
In basic terms, the DHCP lease process works as follows:
- A network device attempts to connect to the Internet.
- The network requests an IP address.
- The DHCP server allocates (leases) the network device an IP address, which is forwarded to the network by a router.
- DHCP updates the appropriate network servers with the IP address and other configuration information.
- The network device accepts the IP address.
- The IP address lease expires.
- DHCP either reallocates the IP address or leases one that is available.
- The network device is no longer connected to the Internet.
- The IP address becomes an available address in the network pool of IP addresses.
To set up DHCP, you basically need a DHCP-supported client (at least one) and router, and a DHCP server. The client is a computer or other device on a network that requires an IP address and or other network configuration information. The router functions as a forwarding (or routing) agent of IP address requests from the DHCP server. The DHCP server is key to the entire operation. It is responsible for allocating, leasing, reallocating, and renewing IP addresses. Windows and Linux both support DHCP software.