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What is a MAC Address and How to Find It?

What is a MAC Address and How to Find It?

In modern networking, since MAC addresses play a critical role in enabling devices to communicate with each other, having an understanding of MAC addresses is essential for anyone involved in networking, from IT professionals to everyday computer users. 

These addresses are a fundamental component of modern networking, enabling communication across devices over local and wide-area networks. Considering their importance, most computer users need to necessarily know their existence and significance. This blog aims to afford a basic understanding of MAC addresses.

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What is a MAC Address?

A Media Access Control Address (MAC address) also known as an ethernet address, is an exclusive identifier allocated by manufacturers to network interfaces, serving the purpose of distinguishing devices within a network.

MAC addresses are assigned to devices by the manufacturers and embedded into the device’s hardware. This means that the MAC address of a device cannot be changed, unlike an IP address, which network administrators can assign or change.

MAC addresses are essential for network communication because they help in ensuring that data packets are sent to the correct device. On a network, every device has a unique MAC address to prevent data from being sent to the wrong device.

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Format of MAC Address

format of MAC address

Every MAC address comprises a series of bits that distinguish one device from another. The size of a MAC address is usually 48 bits, which means that there are 2^48 or over 281 trillion possible unique MAC addresses.

MAC addresses are structured in a specific format, consisting of six pairs of two hexadecimal digits separated by colons or hyphens. 

The initial three pairs of a MAC address indicate the manufacturer, while the remaining three pairs of digits are specific to each individual device. This format helps ensure that every MAC address is distinct.

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Types of MAC Addresses

Types of MAC Addresses

MAC addresses are grouped into three types, namely unicast, multicast, and broadcast. These types are discussed, in brief, in the below points:

Unicast MAC address

Unicast MAC address is used for one-to-one communication between two devices. When a device wants to send data to another device, it sends the data packet with the destination MAC address set to the unicast address of the receiving device.

Multicast MAC address

Multicast MAC address is utilized for one-to-many communication like between a sender and a group of devices. To send data from a device to multiple devices simultaneously, the device sends the data packet with the destination MAC address set to the multicast address of the group of devices. With multicast addresses, data can be sent to all devices in the group simultaneously.

Broadcast MAC address

Broadcast MAC address is used for one-to-all communication. When a device wants to send data to all devices on the computer network, it sends the data packet with the destination MAC address set to the broadcast address. All devices on the network receive the data packet and process it.

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How to Find the MAC Address

Having knowledge of locating the MAC address of a laptop is valuable for resolving network problems or establishing secure network connections. Discovering the MAC address of your laptop is a straightforward procedure that entails a few uncomplicated steps. Below is a guide on how to accomplish this:

  • Launch Command Prompt as Administrator– You can open the command prompt by clicking the “Start” button and typing “cmd” or “Command Prompt” in the search bar. Then, right click and select “Run as Administrator” which will open the command prompt window.
  • Type “ipconfig/all”- After opening the command prompt window, type “ipconfig/all” in the command line and press “Enter.” It will show you information on the network connections of your laptop.
  • Locate “Physical Address”- Find the “Physical Address” section within the list of information. This section will display the MAC address for the network adapter of your laptop. The MAC address comprises a unique 12-digit alphanumeric code separated by colons or dashes.

Alternatively, using the “getmac” command in a command prompt or terminal, you can easily locate the MAC address of your laptop. This unique identifier can be useful for various network-related tasks like troubleshooting, security, and network access configuration.

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Difference Between MAC Address and IP Address

Difference between MAC Address and IP Address
MAC AddressIP Address
A MAC address is a unique identifier assigned to a device’s network interface. An IP address is a unique identifier assigned to a device on a network that allows it to communicate with other devices.
The MAC address identifies a device on a local network.The IP address identifies a device on a global network or the Internet.
A MAC address is a 12-digit hexadecimal number separated by colons or dashes.An IP address is a series of four numbers separated by periods.
A MAC address is a hardware address unique to each device and cannot be changed.An IP Address is a logical address assigned to a device by a network administrator and can be changed.
MAC addresses are used at the OSI model’s data link layer, meaning they can only communicate with devices on the same local network.IP addresses are used at the network layer, which means they can be used to communicate with devices on different networks.

Characteristics of a MAC Address

Here are the key characteristics of a MAC address:

  • Uniqueness: A MAC address is globally unique, meaning that no two devices on the planet should have the same MAC address. This uniqueness is essential to ensure that each network device can be uniquely identified on the local network.
  • 48-Bit Address: A MAC address is typically represented as a 48-bit value (12 hexadecimal characters). The first 24 bits (6 characters) represent the organizationally unique identifier (OUI), which is assigned by the IEEE to manufacturers. The last 24 bits (6 characters) are assigned by the manufacturer to uniquely identify the network interface within their products.
  • Fixed Address: The MAC address is usually hard-coded into the network hardware by the manufacturer and cannot be easily changed by the end-user. However, some devices, like virtual machines, may allow users to configure a custom MAC address.
  • Hierarchical Structure: As mentioned earlier, the first 24 bits of the MAC address represent the OUI, which identifies the manufacturer or vendor of the network interface. The remaining 24 bits are used to uniquely identify the device within that manufacturer’s products.
  • Locally Administered Address: While most MAC addresses are assigned by hardware manufacturers, there are also locally administered MAC addresses. The least significant bit of the first octet (bit 0 of the first byte) determines whether the MAC address is universally assigned (0) or locally administered (1). Locally administered addresses are useful for certain networking scenarios, such as virtualization.

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In modern network communication, MAC addresses are crucial, as it allows data transmission between devices on different networks. If we understand the fundamentals of MAC addresses, we can better appreciate the technology that connects us and enables efficient data transfer and seamless communication between the various devices we use every day. 

Therefore, it’s important to recognize the significance of MAC addresses and how they help us stay in touch when we connect to a network in this interconnected world.

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About the Author

Application Architect

Rupinder is a certified IT expert in AWS and Azure, working as a DevOps Architect and specializing in cloud and infrastructure. He designs and builds entire IT setups for important apps in banking, insurance, and finance.