MAC addresses are used as a network address for most IEEE 802 network technologies, including Ethernet. Logically, MAC addresses are used in the media access control protocol sublayer of the OSI reference model.

MAC addresses are most often assigned by the manufacturer of a network interface controller (NIC) and are stored in its hardware, such as the card's read-only memory or some other firmware mechanism. If assigned by the manufacturer, a MAC address usually encodes the manufacturer's registered identification number and may be referred to as the burned-in address. It may also be known as an Ethernet hardware address (EHA), hardware address or physical address. This can be contrasted to a programmed address, where the host device issues commands to the NIC to use an arbitrary address. An example is a SOHO router, for which the ISP grants access to only one MAC address (used previously to inserting the router) so the router must use that MAC address on its Internet-facing NIC. Therefore the router administrator configures a MAC address to override the burned-in one.

A network node may have multiple NICs and each must have one unique MAC address per NIC. MAC addresses are formed according to the rules of one of three numbering name spaces managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): MAC-48, EUI-48, and EUI-64. The IEEE claims trademarks on the names EUI-48 and EUI-64, in which EUI is an abbreviation for Extended Unique Identifier.

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