MTU Networking and Maximum TCP Packet Size

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Definition: The MTU is the maximum size of a single data unit (e.g., a frame) of digital communications. MTU sizes are inherent properties of physical network interfaces, normally measured in bytes. The MTU for Ethernet, for instance, is 1500 bytes. Some types of networks (like Token Ring) have larger MTUs, and some types have smaller MTUs, but the values are fixed for each physical technology.

Higher-level network protocols like TCP/IP can be configured with a maximum packet size, a parameter independent of the physical layer MTU over which TCP/IP runs.

Unfortunately, many network devices use the terms interchangeably. On both home broadband routers and Xbox Live enabled game consoles, for example, the parameter called MTU is in fact the maximum TCP packet size and not the physical MTU.

In Microsoft Windows, the maximum packet size for protocols like TCP can be set in the Registry. If this value is set too low, streams of network traffic will be broken up into a relatively large number of small packets that adversely affects performance. Xbox Live, for example, requires the value of MTU (packet size) by at least 1365 bytes. If the maximum TCP packet size is set too high, it will exceed the network's physical MTU and also degrade performance by requiring that each packet is subdivided into smaller ones (a process known as fragmentation). Microsoft Windows computers default to a maximum packet size of 1500 bytes for broadband connections and 576 bytes for dial-up connections.

Performance problems may also occur if the TCP "MTU" setting on the home broadband router differs from the setting on individual devices connected to it.

Also Known As: Maximum Transmission Unit