The Network Access Layer is the lowest layer of the TCP/IP protocol hierarchy. The protocols in this layer provide the means for the system to deliver data to the other devices on a directly attached network. It defines how to use the network to transmit an IP datagram.
Unlike higher-level protocols, Network Access Layer protocols must know the details of the underlying network (its packet structure, addressing, etc.) to correctly format the data being transmitted to comply with the network constraints. The TCP/IP Network Access Layer can encompass the functions of all three lower layers of the OSI Reference Model (Network, Data Link, and Physical).
The Network Access Layer is often ignored by users. The design of TCP/IP hides the function of the lower layers, and the better known protocols (IP, TCP, UDP, etc.) are all higher-level protocols. As new hardware technologies appear, new Network Access protocols must be developed so that TCP/IP networks can use the new hardware. Consequently, there are many access protocols - one for each physical network standard.
Functions performed at this level include encapsulation of IP datagrams into the frames transmitted by the network, and mapping of IP addresses to the physical addresses used by the network. One of TCP/IP's strengths is its addressing scheme that uniquely identifies every host on the Internet. This IP address must be converted into whatever address is appropriate for the physical network over which the datagram is transmitted.
Two examples of RFCs that define network access layer protocols are:
RFC 826, Address Resolution Protocol (ARP), which maps IP addresses to Ethernet addresses
RFC 894, A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams over Ethernet Networks, which specifies how IP datagrams are encapsulated for transmission over Ethernet networks
As implemented in UNIX, protocols in this layer often appear as a combination of device drivers and related programs. The modules that are identified with network device names usually encapsulate and deliver the data to the network, while separate programs perform related functions such as address mapping.