MavEtJu's Distorted View of the World

All about MAC addresses

Posted on 2011-03-17 18:00:00
Tags: Networking, Apple, Cisco

The "FreeBSD laptop as a Wireless Access Point for an iPhone" project I wrote earlier about has made me some followers, mostly they have no idea where the free internet connection comes from. But, based on the amount of download measured on it, they are enjoying it. One of the methods to determine how many people are on it is to use the output of the "arp -na" command: Every MAC address you see there is a mobile device which is associated with the wireless access-point you created.

One thing which you can do with that data is to match it against manufacturers. Very boring for non-networking techies... Don't read the rest :-)

MAC addresses consist of 12 hex-digits (48 bits) which are split in two parts: A six hex-digit (24 bits) prefix and a six hex-digit sequence number.

The MAC (or OUI as the IEEE calls it) prefix database can be found on the website of the IEEE at http://standards.ieee.org/regauth/oui/oui.txt. It contains at the moment of writing 14765 prefixes. The manuf(acturers) file from the Wireshark project can be found at http://anonsvn.wireshark.org/wireshark/trunk/manuf and contains 18321 prefixes plus a handful of shared prefixes.

Why is the one from the Wireshark project larger? Not really sure, but if you look at the registration costs it (US$ 1750 for a public registrered prefix OR US$ 1750 plus US$ 2100 per year for a private registered prefix) must be part of it. So it could be that the list from the Wireshark project has determined a bunch of the private ones. And unlike IP space which you can register in advance, you can't get a new prefix until you have certificated that you have used 95% of the sequence numbers.

Some statistics based on grep and cut and wc:

 Number of prefixes	Company
		503	Cisco
		122	Shenzhen
		112	Motorola
		109	Nokia Danmark A/S
		84	Samsung Electronics
		84	Apple
		78	Intel Corp
		59	Advanced (??)
		61	Hewlett Packard
		51	Private

"Advanced" could be a mistake in here, since it matches Advanced This and Advanced That. "Private" means a company who pays the US$ 2100 per year. Shenzhen has the same issue as "Advanced", it is a large bunch of companies in the Shenzhen city in China (near Hongkong). Apple was the company I didn't expect in the Top 10, but considering their iPhone / iPad success, it shouldn't surprise much.

Every prefix has 2 ** 24 entries in it, or 16 777 216 (about 16 million if you are conservate, or 17 million if you are optimistic), making there 1.4 billion Apple MAC addresses in the world. That number is not the number of Apple devices, since you need one per network interface: Ethernet, wireless or Bluetooth.

But the other number of Cisco is much more impressive: 8 438 939 648 MAC addresses. More than the next five in the list together.

Unfortunately the list of prefixes does not contain any assignment dates, it would have been interested to see what happened when LANs based on switching instead of hubs became the norm (and thus Cisco when Cisco started to sell their switches) and when mobile devices like the iPhone became popular, it would have boosted the allocation rate by Apple for sure.

MAC prefix exhaustion?

Unlike other technologies, and IPv4 comes in mind here, the MAC address prefix pool is pretty much unlimited but also only slowly being touched: There are 2 ** 22 or 4 194 304 prefixes. The number is 22, not 24 because two bits in the first byte of the prefix are used to determine if the MAC address is globally unique one or a special one. And right now, a good 35 years after the invention of Ethernet and Tokenring there are not even 19 thousand used.

The other causes are of the more strict rules the IEEE handles: You get a single prefix and don't get more until you have informed us officially that you have used 95% of them, and of course that you actually need to produce (and sell) something which uses a MAC address.

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