A subnet allows the flow of network traffic between hosts to be segregated based on a network configuration. By organizing hosts into logical groups, sub netting can improve network security and performance.

Subnet Mask

Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of sub netting is the subnet mask. Like IP addresses, a subnet mask contains four bytes (32 bits) and is often written using the same "dotted-decimal" notation. For example, a very common subnet mask in its binary representation:

11111111 11111111 11111111 00000000

... is typically shown in the equivalent, more readable form

Applying a Subnet Mask

A subnet mask neither works like an IP address, nor does it exist independently from them. Instead, subnet masks accompany an IP address and the two values work together. Applying the subnet mask to an IP address splits the address into two parts, an "extended network address" and a host address.

For a subnet mask to be valid, its leftmost bits must be set to '1'. For example,  

00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000

... is an invalid subnet mask because the leftmost bit is set to '0'.

Conversely, the rightmost bits in a valid subnet mask must be set to '0', not '1'. Therefore,

11111111 11111111 11111111 11111111

... is invalid.

All valid subnet masks contain two parts: the left side with all mask bits set to '1' (the extended network portion) and the right side with all bits set to '0' (the host portion), such as the first example above.

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