traceroute Explained

(Up-to-date source of this post.)

traceroute shows the route the packets have to take to get to a destination host. For example:

$ traceroute sdf.lonestar.org
traceroute to sdf.lonestar.org (, 30 hops max, 60 byte packets
 1 (  5.475 ms  6.020 ms  6.647 ms
 2  st-static-srk231.87-197-192.telecom.sk (  8.832 ms  15.973 ms  15.933 ms
< ... >
20  ge8-7.distb1.sea2.hopone.net (  186.286 ms  186.246 ms  175.897 ms
21  SDF.ORG (  174.879 ms  174.283 ms  174.816 ms

But what does the output mean exactly and how does traceroute work?

It displays the sequence of gateways (showing the name and the IP address) through which an IP packet travels to reach its destination. The three numbers are the round trip times for each gateway. You can sometimes see the following instead of the number of miliseconds:

  • * -- no response (error packet) received [congestion or ICMP packet was dropped because it has a low priority]
  • * * * -- no "time exceed" messages received at all [gateway is down, firewall discards the packets or packets are slow to return]
  • !N, !H, !P -- "network unreachable", "host unreachable", "protocol unreachable" - in any of these cases usually this is the last gateway you can get to [routing problem or a broken network link]

traceroute works by sending three packets to each gateway on its route. These packets have artificially low TTL field (actually "hop count to live") set. The first three packets have TTL of 1. When they reach the gateway their TTL is descreased and when it reaches 0 the gateway discards the packet and sends back an ICMP "time exceeded" message. The originating hosts exctracts the gateway's IP address from the header of the error packet and resolves it to a name by using the DNS. This process repeats until the destination is reached or the gateway number limit (30) is exceeded.