How ARP works

A routing switch needs to know a destination's MAC address when forwarding traffic, because the routing switch encapsulates the IP packet in a Layer 2 packet (MAC layer packet) and sends the Layer 2 packet to a MAC interface on a device directly attached to the routing switch. The device can be the packet's final destination or the next-hop router toward the destination.

The routing switch encapsulates IP packets in Layer 2 packets regardless of whether the ultimate destination is locally attached or is multiple router hops away. Since the routing switch's IP route table and IP forwarding cache contain IP address information but not MAC address information, the routing switch cannot forward IP packets based solely on the information in the route table or forwarding cache. The routing switch needs to know the MAC address that corresponds with the IP address of either the packet's locally attached destination or the next-hop router that leads to the destination.

For example, to forward a packet whose destination is multiple router hops away, the routing switch must send the packet to the next-hop router toward its destination, or to a default route or default network route if the IP route table does not contain a route to the packet's destination. In each case, the routing switch must encapsulate the packet and address it to the MAC address of a locally attached device, the next-hop router toward the IP packet's destination.

To obtain the MAC address required for forwarding a datagram, the routing switch does the following:
  • First, the routing switch looks in the ARP cache (not the static ARP table) for an entry that lists the MAC address for the IP address. The ARP cache maps IP addresses to MAC addresses. The cache also lists the port attached to the device and, if the entry is dynamic, the age of the entry. A dynamic ARP entry enters the cache when the routing switch receives an ARP reply or receives an ARP request (which contains the sender's IP address and MAC address.) A static entry enters the ARP cache from the static ARP table (which is a separate table) when the interface for the entry comes up. To ensure the accuracy of the ARP cache, each dynamic entry has its own age timer. The timer is reset to zero each time the routing switch receives an ARP reply or ARP request containing the IP address and MAC address of the entry. If a dynamic entry reaches its maximum allowable age, the entry times out and the software removes the entry from the table. Static entries do not age-out and can be removed only by you.

  • If the ARP cache does not contain an entry for the destination IP address, the routing switch broadcasts an ARP request out all of its IP interfaces. The ARP request contains the IP address of the destination. If the device with the IP address is directly attached to the routing switch, the device sends an ARP response containing its MAC address. The response is a unicast packet addressed directly to the routing switch. The routing switch places the information from the ARP response into the ARP cache. ARP requests contain the IP address and MAC address of the sender, so all devices that receive the request learn the MAC address and IP address of the sender and can update their own ARP caches accordingly.

    The ARP request broadcast is a MAC broadcast, which means the broadcast goes only to devices that are directly attached to the routing switch. A MAC broadcast is not routed to other networks. However, some routers, including routing switches, can be configured to reply to ARP requests from one network on behalf of devices on another network. For more information, see About enabling proxy ARP.


If the routing switch receives an ARP request packet that it is unable to deliver to the final destination because of the ARP time-out, and no ARP response is received (the routing switch knows of no route to the destination address), the routing switch sends an ICMP Host Unreachable message to the source.