OSPF routes IP packets based solely on the destination IP address and IP Type of Service found in the IP packet header. IP packets are routed "as is" -- they are not encapsulated in any further protocol headers as they transit the Autonomous System. OSPF is a dynamic routing protocol. It quickly detects topological changes in the AS (such as router interface failures) and calculates new loop-free routes after a period of convergence. This period of convergence is short and involves a minimum of routing traffic.
In a link-state routing protocol, each router maintains a database describing the Autonomous System's topology. Each participating router has an identical database. Each individual piece of this database is a particular router's local state (e.g., the router's usable interfaces and reachable neighbors). The router distributes its local state throughout the Autonomous System by flooding.
All routers run the exact same algorithm, in parallel. From the topological database, each router constructs a tree of shortest paths with itself as root. This shortest-path tree gives the route to each destination in the Autonomous System. Externally derived routing information appears on the tree as leaves.
OSPF calculates separate routes for each Type of Service (TOS). When several equal-cost routes to a destination exist, traffic is distributed equally among them. The cost of a route is described by a single dimensionless metric.
OSPF allows sets of networks to be grouped together. Such a grouping is called an area. The topology of an area is hidden from the rest of the Autonomous System. This information hiding enables a significant reduction in routing traffic. Also, routing within the area is determined only by the area's own topology, lending the area protection from bad routing data. An area is a generalization of an IP subnetted network.
OSPF enables the flexible configuration of IP subnets. Each route distributed by OSPF has a destination and mask. Two different subnets of the same IP network number may have different sizes (i.e., different masks). This is commonly referred to as variable length subnetting. A packet is routed to the best (i.e., longest or most specific) match. Host routes are considered to be subnets whose masks are "all ones" (0xffffffff).
All OSPF protocol exchanges are authenticated. This means that only trusted routers can participate in the Autonomous System's routing. A variety of authentication schemes can be used; a single authentication scheme is configured for each area. This enables some areas to use much stricter authentication than others.
Externally derived routing data (e.g., routes learned from the Exterior Gateway Protocol (EGP)) is passed transparently throughout the Autonomous System. This externally derived data is kept separate from the OSPF protocol's link state data. Each external route can also be tagged by the advertising router, enabling the passing of additional information between routers on the boundaries of the Autonomous System.