The Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) is a supporting protocol in the Internet protocol suite. It is used by network devices, including routers, to send error messages and operational information indicating, for example, that a requested service is not available or that a host or router could not be reached. ICMP differs from transport protocols such as TCP and UDP in that it is not typically used to exchange data between systems, nor is it regularly employed by end-user network applications (with the exception of some diagnostic tools like ping and traceroute).
ICMP is part of the Internet protocol suite as defined in RFC 792. ICMP messages are typically used for diagnostic or control purposes or generated in response to errors in IP operations (as specified in RFC 1122). ICMP errors are directed to the source IP address of the originating packet.
For example, every device (such as an intermediate router) forwarding an IP datagram first decrements the time to live (TTL) field in the IP header by one. If the resulting TTL is 0, the packet is discarded and an ICMP time exceeded in transit message is sent to the datagram’s source address.
Many commonly used network utilities are based on ICMP messages. The traceroute command can be implemented by transmitting IP datagrams with specially set IP TTL header fields, and looking for ICMP time exceeded in transit and Destination unreachable messages generated in response. The related ping utility is implemented using the ICMP echo request and echo reply messages.
ICMP uses the basic support of IP as if it were a higher level protocol, however, ICMP is actually an integral part of IP. Although ICMP messages are contained within standard IP packets, ICMP messages are usually processed as a special case, distinguished from normal IP processing. In many cases, it is necessary to inspect the contents of the ICMP message and deliver the appropriate error message to the application responsible for transmission of the IP packet that prompted the sending of the ICMP message.
ICMP is a network layer protocol. There is no TCP or UDP port number associated with ICMP packets as these numbers are associated with the transport layer above.