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DHCP stands for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. Sounds intimidating, doesn't it? It's not that bad. Actually, you use DHCP everyday. So, you probably should know what it is and how it works. A DHCP server, when enabled on a computer network, will assign IP addresses and network configuration information to computers when they come onto the network and request it. If you think of a computer network as a cruise ship, a DHCP server sits there like the cruise director with a clipboard, handing out temporary name tags to guests as they arrive.
The cruise director greets them, provides them with a number, and some rules about what rooms they can get in to and what they can't. The kids, for example, get a special wristband that lets them into the kids' area, and adults get another wristband that let them into other areas. Maybe the ship's staff come in and get exactly the same name tag every time, because the cruise director needs them to be consistently identifiable by the guests. Now, if we flip this analogy over to a computer network, that works in a similar way.
The DHCP server can hand out all the information the guest devices need to function on the network. The server can give them different information, depending upon what network they've connected to, or it can even give a client system the exact same address, every time it connects, based on some predefined identification information. The benefit of this is that a network administrator doesn't have to keep track of a bunch of static IP addresses. Instead, the DHCP server can just hand out necessary information as it's needed.
This also makes it really easy to change network information, as you only have to change the information on the DHCP server and perhaps a few manually addressed devices if you need to change your network design. So, super cool, right? All right! So, let's get a few terms out of the way, and then we'll get to configuring it. If you need to set up DHCP, you can do so with many different devices. For example, using an AirPort Base Station, any commercial residential router, or using a server.
We're going to look at how to do this using Mac OS X Server. But many of the principles will still apply regardless of which device you use to set up DHCP. DHCP hands out a bunch of network information. But the most important thing that most people think about is the IP address. We defined what an IP address is in the DNS chapter. But basically, it's a number that provides an address other computers can use to find your computer on a network.
The word Dynamic in DHCP indicates that the IP will be dynamic or changing. Now, I understand, change is scary, but that's okay, because any machine getting a dynamic address probably doesn't need to be at the same address all the time anyway. By the way, that's why you generally want to put printers and servers on static IP addresses, whether configured with DHCP, or manually. You don't want them moving around on you.
DHCP also hands out subnet information, which is important, because the subnet tells your computer how many other devices might be in the area. It, in conjunction with your IP address, defines where your computer is on the network, and how many other addresses your computer should look for to find stuff that's close to you. You can set up DHCP on many different devices, in many different ways. Though many of the principles of what we're about to do will apply to any DHCP server.
What we're going to do now is look at how to do this using Mac OS X Server.
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