In computer networking and telecommunications, packet switching is a communications paradigm in which packets (messages or fragments of messages) are individually routed between nodes, with no previously established communication path.

Packet switching was invented by Donald Davies and Paul Baran in the early 1960s.

A packet is a block of user data together with necessary address and administration information attached, to allow the network to deliver the data to the correct destination. One data connection will usually carry a stream of packets of data that will not necessarily be all routed the same way over the physical network.

Analogous to a physical packet sent through the post with the address written on the outside, this provides the information the network (the postal service) needs to get the packet to the correct destination.

Packets are routed to their destination through the most expedient route (as determined by some routing algorithm). Not all packets travelling between the same two hosts, even those from a single message, will necessarily follow the same route.

The destination computer reassembles the packets into their appropriate sequence. Packet switching is used to optimise the use of the bandwidth available in a network and to minimise the latency. Ethernet, X.25 and Frame relay are international standard layer 2 packet switching networks.

Notably, the Internet is a packet-switched network, running the Internet protocol layer 3 protocol over a variety of other network technologies.

Also called connectionless. Opposite of circuit switched or connection-oriented networking, although technologies such as MPLS are beginning to blur the boundaries between the two.

See also: Public switched data network


This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, used with permission. Update as needed.