Configuring network clients can be a chore, especially if there are a large number of them or a lot of itinerant users. DHCP dynamically manages this process, much to the relief of users and administrators alike!
Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) is standard protocol used by most networks to assign IP information to clients so administrators don't have to worry about assigning static IP addresses to each device.
For example, let's say you are the administrator of a corporate network and you have been tasked with creating a wireless network for guests so they can access the internet when they are at your company's location.
Imagine if you had to assign every address manually. Each guest user would have to physically hand you their phone, tablet, laptop, etc. and you would have to then log on to their device and configure the wireless network settings manually, typing in the IP address, subnet mask, default gateway, DNS server settings and whatever else they needed.
Since IP addresses must be unique on the network, you'd have to make sure you had a spreadsheet or notepad handy to record which IP addresses you had assigned so you didn't accidentally assign the same IP address more than once. Of course, this also means the guest users have to come back and let you remove the settings you configured so you could then note on your documentation that the IP address is available for you to assign to someone else.
Obviously, this would be a nightmare for everyone involved.
If you were to configure DHCP for that wireless network, all of this would be handled for you dynamically and your time can then be better spent handling another virus outbreak then explaining to users, yet again, that opening attachments in emails from emissaries of African royalty looking for help with financial transactions is still a bad idea.
So, how does all the magic happen?
In order for this to work, there are two DHCP components which must be able to communicate with each other: the DHCP Server and the DHCP Client. The DHCP client is software whose job is to simply ask a DHCP server for an IP address. The DHCP server is quite a bit more complex.
The DHCP Server is what manages the entire process. Its job is to listen for client requests and then give them the information they need to communicate with the network.
This information is stored in the DHCP Scope. The information the scope contains will be used by the clients to configure their network settings. Because of this, the scope must define, at minimum:
- A range of IP addresses which can be assigned to clients
- The subnet mask for the network
- The default gateway address to be used by the clients
The default gateway is actually optional, however without it, clients won't be able to connect to any other network, including those on the internet.
Other information typically defined in the scope include:
- The DNS servers the clients will use
- The default DNS domain name for the clients
- Time servers the clients will use for time synchronization
There are a ton of other options, but the ones I've listed are the most common.
Remembering that IP addresses assigned on the network must be unique, the DHCP server has to keep track of what IP addresses are currently in use so it doesn't hand out duplicates. It also has to make sure devices don't keep their IP addresses indefinitely, otherwise the server could eventually run out of addresses to assign.
Because of this, clients are not given an IP address to own. Instead, they are given a lease on an IP address. The Lease Duration is the amount of time the client can use that IP address. Clients will attempt to renew their lease before it expires, and the server will always renew it (with a few exceptions, of course).
There are times when it might be necessary to make sure certain devices always use the same IP address no matter what, but you still want that device to be configured via DHCP. To do this, simply create a DHCP Reservation. As the name suggests, a DHCP reservation reserves a specific IP address for a specific client (identified by its MAC address). A great example is a network printer. You can create the reservation in the DHCP scope and when you connect the printer to the network, it automatically gets configured with the correct information.
One other option worth mentioning are DHCP Exclusions. DHCP scopes can be configured to exclude IP addresses from being assigned to clients even though those addresses are part of the range of addresses the DHCP hands out. This way, if you have devices that must have a static IP address, but can't be configured via DHCP (or you just don't want to configure reservations), you can have that device on the network without worrying about its IP address being given to something else.
DHCP takes most of the work and worry out of managing client connectivity. Not only does it automatically configures clients with a host of administrator-defined options, it also documents the IP information for each client.
Put it all together, and DHCP is a powerful tool which should be in every network administrator's toolbox.
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