What is a 32-bit word?

So, most of you probably got here because you’re probably on your CCIE track and you’re hearing a ton about the 32-bit words in the IPv4 headers and looking for an answer to the topic. It is without question that most may never know exactly what they’re talking about when they say “word” and this can lead to some confusion. First, the definition of a word from Wikipedia is:

“A word is basically a fixed-sized group of digits (binary or decimal) that are handled as a unit by the instruction set or the hardware of the processor. The number of digits in a word (the word size, word width, or word length) is an important characteristic of any specific processor design or computer architecture.”

Essentially, this means each 32 bits, 32 different positions where the values can be 0 or 1 in binary, is a “WORD”. Thus, when they’re referencing the IPv4 header length in a packet capture, you’ll see the size of the header. That header size is calculated by looking at the raw header, generally the next position after the Type, and you’ll find a hexadecimal value, lets say D, which is 13. Thus, you have 13 different 32-bit words.

Now, 13*32=416. Take the 416/8=52 bytes in the IPv4 header. Why 8? There are 8 bits in each byte. So, the next time you hear someone mention there are X number of 32-bit words in an IPv4 header, you now have some idea of what they’re talking about.