Dynamic Host Control Protocol (DHCP) provides a framework for passing configuration information dynamically to hosts on a TCP/IP network. A DHCP client is a host that uses DHCP to obtain configuration parameters such as an IP address.
A DHCP relay agent is any host that forwards DHCP packets between clients and servers. Relay agents are used to forward requests and replies between clients and servers when they are not on the same physical subnet. Relay agent forwarding is distinct from the normal forwarding of an IP router, where IP datagrams are switched between networks somewhat transparently. By contrast, relay agents receive DHCP messages and then generate a new DHCP message to send on another interface.
The figure below shows the basic steps that occur when a DHCP client requests an IP address from a DHCP server. The client, Host A, sends a DHCPDISCOVER broadcast message to locate a DHCP server. A relay agent forwards the packets between the DHCP client and server. A DHCP server offers configuration parameters (such as an IP address, a MAC address, a domain name, and a lease for the IP address) to the client in a DHCPOFFER unicast message.
Figure 1. DHCP Request for an IP Address from a DHCP Server
A DHCP client may receive offers from multiple DHCP servers and can accept any one of the offers; however, the client usually accepts the first offer it receives. Additionally, the offer from the DHCP server is not a guarantee that the IP address will be allocated to the client; however, the server usually reserves the address until the client has had a chance to formally request the address.
The client returns a formal request for the offered IP address to the DHCP server in a DHCPREQUEST broadcast message. The DHCP server confirms that the IP address has been allocated to the client by returning a DHCPACK unicast message to the client.
The formal request for the offered IP address (the DHCPREQUEST message) that is sent by the client is broadcast so that all other DHCP servers that received the DHCPDISCOVER broadcast message from the client can reclaim the IP addresses that they offered to the client.
If the configuration parameters sent to the client in the DHCPOFFER unicast message by the DHCP server are invalid (a misconfiguration error exists), the client returns a DHCPDECLINE broadcast message to the DHCP server.
The DHCP server will send to the client a DHCPNAK denial broadcast message, which means the offered configuration parameters have not been assigned, if an error has occurred during the negotiation of the parameters or the client has been slow in responding to the DHCPOFFER message (the DHCP server assigned the parameters to another client) of the DHCP server.