In computer networking, the maximum transmission unit (MTU) of a communications protocol of a layer is the size (in bytes) of the largest protocol data unit that the layer can pass onwards. MTU parameters usually appear in association with a communications interface (NIC, serial port, etc.). Standards (Ethernet, for example) can fix the size of an MTU; or systems (such as point-to-point serial links) may decide MTU at connect time.
A larger MTU brings greater efficiency because each packet carries more user data while protocol overheads, such as headers or underlying per-packet delays, remain fixed; the resulting higher efficiency means a slight improvement in bulk protocol throughput. A larger MTU also means processing of fewer packets for the same amount of data. In some systems, per-packet-processing can be a critical performance limitation.
Large packets can occupy a slow link for some time, causing greater delays to following packets and increasing lag and minimum latency. For example, a 1500-byte packet, the largest allowed by Ethernet at the network layer (and hence over most of the Internet), ties up a 14.4k modem for about one second.
Large packets are also problematic in the presence of communications errors. Corruption of a single bit in a packet requires that the entire packet be retransmitted. At a given bit error rate larger packets are more likely to be corrupted. Retransmissions of a larger packet takes longer.
Table of MTUs of common media
Note: the MTUs in this section are given as the maximum size of IP packet that can be transmitted without fragmentation - including IP headers but excluding headers from lower levels in the protocol stack. The MTU must not be confused with the maximum datagram size (size of reassembled packet), which has a minimum value of 576 for IPv4 and of 1500 for IPv6.
IP (Internet protocol)
DARPA designed the Internet protocol suite to work over many networking technologies, each of which may have different sized packets. While a host will know the MTU of its own interface and possibly that of its peers (from initial handshakes), it will not initially know the lowest MTU in a chain of links to any other peers. Another potential problem is that higher-level protocols may create packets larger than a particular link supports.
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