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Table Of Contents  The TCP/IP Guide
 9  The Open System Interconnection (OSI) Reference Model
      9  OSI Reference Model Layers

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OSI Reference Model Layers
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Physical Layer (Layer 1)
(Page 1 of 2)

The lowest layer of the OSI Reference Model is layer 1, the physical layer; it is commonly abbreviated “PHY”. The physical layer is special compared to the other layers of the model, because it is the only one where data is physically moved across the network interface. All of the other layers perform useful functions to create messages to be sent, but they must all be transmitted down the protocol stack to the physical layer, where they are actually sent out over the network.

Note: The physical layer is also “special” in that it is the only layer that really does not apply specifically to TCP/IP. Even in studying TCP/IP, however, it is still important to understand its significance and role in relation to the other layers where TCP/IP protocols reside.

Understanding the Role of the Physical Layer

The name “physical layer” can be a bit problematic. Because of that name, and because of what I just said about the physical layer actually transmitting data, many people who study networking get the impression that the physical layer is only about actual network hardware. Some people may say the physical layer is “the network interface cards and cables”. This is not actually the case, however. The physical layer defines a number of network functions, not just hardware cables and cards.

A related notion is that “all network hardware belongs to the physical layer”. Again, this isn't strictly accurate. All hardware must have some relation to the physical layer in order to send data over the network, but hardware devices generally implement multiple layers of the OSI model, including the physical layer but also others. For example, an Ethernet network interface card performs functions at both the physical layer and the data link layer.

Physical Layer Functions

The following are the main responsibilities of the physical layer in the OSI Reference Model:

  • Definition of Hardware Specifications: The details of operation of cables, connectors, wireless radio transceivers, network interface cards and other hardware devices are generally a function of the physical layer (although also partially the data link layer; see below).

  • Encoding and Signaling: The physical layer is responsible for various encoding and signaling functions that transform the data from bits that reside within a computer or other device into signals that can be sent over the network.

  • Data Transmission and Reception: After encoding the data appropriately, the physical layer actually transmits the data, and of course, receives it. Note that this applies equally to wired and wireless networks, even if there is no tangible cable in a wireless network!

  • Topology and Physical Network Design: The physical layer is also considered the domain of many hardware-related network design issues, such as LAN and WAN topology.

In general, then, physical layer technologies are ones that are at the very lowest level and deal with the actual ones and zeroes that are sent over the network. For example, when considering network interconnection devices, the simplest ones operate at the physical layer: repeaters, conventional hubs and transceivers. These devices have absolutely no knowledge of the contents of a message. They just take input bits and send them as output. Devices like switches and routers operate at higher layers and look at the data they receive as being more than voltage or light pulses that represent one or zero.

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Data Link Layer (Layer 2)
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Version 3.0 - Version Date: September 20, 2005

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