Path MTU Discovery (PMTUD) is a standardized technique in computer networking for determining the maximum transmission unit (MTU) size on the network path between two Internet Protocol (IP) hosts, usually with the goal of avoiding IP fragmentation. PMTUD was originally intended for routers in Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), however all modern operating systems use it on endpoints. In IPv6 this function has been explicitly delegated to the end points of a communications session.
For IPv4 packets, Path MTU Discovery works by setting the Don't Fragment (DF) option bit in the IP headers of outgoing packets. Then, any device along the path whose MTU is smaller than the packet will drop it, and send back an Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) Fragmentation Needed (Type 3, Code 4) message containing its MTU, allowing the source host to reduce its Path MTU appropriately. The process is repeated until the MTU is small enough to traverse the entire path without fragmentation.
IPv6 routers do not support fragmentation or the Don't Fragment option. For IPv6, Path MTU Discovery works by initially assuming the path MTU is the same as the MTU on the link layer interface through which the traffic is being sent. Then, similar to IPv4, any device along the path whose MTU is smaller than the packet will drop the packet and send back an ICMPv6 Packet Too Big (Type 2) message containing its MTU, allowing the source host to reduce its Path MTU appropriately. The process is repeated until the MTU is small enough to traverse the entire path without fragmentation.
If the Path MTU changes after the connection is set up and is lower than the previously determined Path MTU, the first large packet will cause an ICMP error and the new, lower Path MTU will be found. Conversely, if PMTUD finds that the path allows a larger MTU than is possible on the lower link, the OS will periodically reprobe to see if the path has changed and now allows larger packets. On both Linux and Windows this timer is set by default to ten minutes.
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