What is an IP Address?
Even if you’re not extremely internet savvy, you’ve likely heard about IP addresses by now. If the term rings a bell, but you’re not sure what IP address stands for, we’ve prepared a full breakdown of the concept.
IP is short for “Internet Protocol,” a set of rules bywhich information is shared within a network. We need IP addresses to send specific data to a correct destination, which comes with a unique set of challenges.
But before we discuss how to find your IP address and whether you should keep it private, we should elaborate on the IP address structure and IP address types.
Summary: IP addresses consist of four numbers, separated by periods, for instance “184.108.40.206”. Their purpose is to ensure information is distributed accurately within a private or public network. Websites, routers and devices all have a unique IP address. The most common version is IPv4, but this is slowly replaced by IPv6, as we are running out of IPv4 numbers.
How Do IP Addresses Work and Why We Need Them?
One of the biggest misconceptions about IP addresses is that the numbers assigned are entirely random.
But that’s not accurate, as the numbers are produced mathematically and assigned by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA,) a non-profit organization that oversees the allocation of IP addresses globally.
The organization was founded in the late 1980s, while the internet was still in its early days. The IANA is also responsible for managing the Domain Name System (DNS) and other internet numbers and protocols.
But what is the importance of an IP address? Imagine your home IP address as a destination, similar to your mailing address. Without it, the information your request online wouldn’t be able to reach your device.
An IP address connects to every website you browse, email you read, and pictures and videos you view. Essentially, the internet wouldn’t be able to function without IP addresses. Besides, what is the internet other than a vast, global computer network that relies on rules and protocols?
How Is an Internet Protocol Address Structured?
Every IP number represents a unique address assigned to a device within a local network. We’ve mentioned that IP addresses contain four hexadecimal digits, divided by periods, and that the numbers aren’t random.
Each digit within an IP address can range from 0 to 255, so the combinations can range between 0.0.0. to 255.255.255.255. Regardless of the number assigned, IP addresses are made up of two parts: Network ID and Host ID.
The first three numbers of the IP address identify the network infrastructure you use to connect to the internet.
These numbers are allocated by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and contain information on whether your device is connected via a local network, public internet, or you’re on the company’s Wi-Fi.
The fourth number in any Internet Protocol Address represents a device connected to the same network. If more than one device is connected to a particular network, each will have the same Network ID but a different Host ID. However, it’s crucial to point out that an IP address is only valid if it contains both Network and Host ID.
IP Address Classification
We’ve answered the question about what an IP address is and that IP addresses have certain rules. But Internet Protocol Addresses have different classifications based on their type, how they are used within a network, and how they are assigned to a host.
There are other, special types of IP addresses we’ll explain below. However, it’s important to differentiate two versions of IP addresses first: IPV4 and IPV6.
IPV4 IP Address
This is the original version of the Internet Protocol Address and it’s widely used in the internet network. IPV4 IP addresses have been exhausted, though experts have found a way to conserve them.
The Network Address Translation (NAT) is a technique that splits the Network and Host IDs using a type of network mask also known as a subnet mask.
IPV6 IP Address
IPV4 has million addresses, but when issues with exhaustion occur, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF,) an organization responsible for the technical standards of the internet protocol suite, can up with another solution.
IPV6 is the new version of the IP scheme and offers several important benefits. Relying on IPV6 means there are no IP address collisions that are often caused by private addresses.
The routing is also more efficient, and it has a higher levels of built-in privacy protection. Finally, this version of an Internet Protocol Address doesn’t require Network Address Translation as there are trillions of IPV6 available.
Types of IP Addresses
Before going into more details on types of IP addresses, we should point out that any person or business that connects to the internet via an Internet Service Provider has a consumer IP address. Consumer IP addresses have two types, based on the network location – public and private addresses, and we’ll take a closer look at both.
Private IP Addresses
All internet-connected devices have private IP addresses. That includes all smartphones, computers, tablets, smart TVs, printers, and every other internet-enabled device.
Every network router needs a way to identify each device specifically, therefore it generates multiple private IP addresses.
The router automatically allocated a private IP address, but this type of Internet Protocol address can also be set manually on devices.
Public IP Addresses
A public IP address is the main address associated with your local network. Your connected device has its private IP address, but your public IP address is provided by the Internet Service Provider which usually has a large pool of public IP addresses they allocate to clients.
Essentially, your public IP address is what other devices outside your home network, recognize as your IP address space. It’s also very important to differentiate two types of public IP addresses – dynamic IP addresses and static IP addresses.
Dynamic IP Addresses
Your ISP provides you with a public address, but that address can change every time your device is connected to the internet. A dynamic IP address changes regularly and automatically and if you need a new dynamic IP address, all you need to do is reset your router.
The reason why ISPs do this is to save money, as generating new IP addresses works through automated configuration. Other benefits of dynamic addresses are increased security and more flexibility when it comes to implementation.
This IP address sub-type has a few drawbacks too, like when a DNS server struggles to work with it. Also, your own IP address with dynamic host configuration protocol cannot be accessed remotely, outside your network, which could be a problem for some users.
Static IP Addresses
The static address contrasts the dynamic IP address and stays constant, no matter how many times you reset your router or disconnect your device from the internet.
Once your ISP has provided your with a home with a specific IP address, it remains the same. A static IP address is often a better option for businesses that want to host a web server, or email server, which allows their customers to locate them via DNS.
Furthermore, a static IP address allows convenient remote access and offers more reliable communication.
A few disadvantages of a static IP address include higher cost, which means you may need to pay the ISP more, and they are unfortunately more prone to hacking.
Shared vs. Dedicated IP Addresses
Whether you’re using a private network or relying on a public internet connection, the internet address you’re visiting can either have a shared or dedicated IP.
So, what is the difference?
Shared IP Address
Every destination address is facilitated and maintained by a web hosting service. These platforms provide users with two choices, shared or dedicated web hosting.
If a website opts for shared hosting, they are assigned a shared IP address and shares that space with hundreds and sometimes thousands of other websites.
Having a shared IP address comes with several benefits, and cost-effectiveness is at the top of the list. Shared IP addresses are a great option for websites where internet traffic is easier to manage and there aren’t too many pages.
Dedicated IP Address
Many web hosting services allow users to purchase a dedicated IP address or addresses and have an entire web server for themselves. One of the more interesting perks of a dedicated IP is that you can visit your website by entering your own IP, as no one else is using it.
Dedicated IP addresses allow quicker and safer file transfer and reduce the chances of internal or external data breaches. However, dedicated IPs are not ideal for low-volume traffic, and they are generally more expensive than shared IP addresses.
IP Address Classification Based on Operational Characteristics
When it comes to end-to-end operational characteristics, there are four types of IP addresses, unicast, broadcast, multicast, and anycast IPs.
This addressing method works with both IPV4 and IPV6 versions of Internet Protocol Addresses. It describes the communication between one sender and one receiver and is commonly used with a single host or device.
This type of addressing is used in IPV4 and allows users to send and manage information to any destinations via single transmission. Broadcast addressing is not possible within the IPV6 version of the IP address.
A multicast IP works from one destination towards many and is primarily used to send information from one address to a group address.
An anycast network addressing scheme is a routing method that allows several servers to share the same IP address. When a data packet is sent to an anycast IP address, it delivers to the closest network interface.
IP Addresses and Security
You might have heard on the news or seen in a movie that someone was able to hack into an individual’s personal data by obtaining their IP address.
Naturally, you might have wondered if an IP address is unsafe and if there is a way you can protect your online presence. Cyber attackers have two ways of utilizing an IP address for nefarious purposes. First, a cybercriminal may use social engineering that causes users to unwittingly provide them with access to their private networks and IP addresses.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a hacker to figure out a way to get someone’s IP address. A typical example would be communicating with someone via a text messaging app where they can see your username, and then use online tools that can tell them your IP address based on the username.
Often, the reason why cyber criminals do that is to set up phishing scams that allow them to impersonate others and even extort money. By getting access to an IP address, a criminal can hack any internet-connected devices and steal personal information. Or the information can be used to online stalk another person.
Ways to Protect Your IP Address
These days, the popularity of virtual private networks (VPNs) is on the rise, and having access to streaming content from other countries is only one of the reasons.
One of the most important purposes of a Virtual Private Network is online security. Having access to a reliable VPN when traveling or when using public Wi-Fi can be a lifesaver.
A VPN hides your IP address and relocates your entire internet traffic to a designated server. It completely encrypts your online communications and gives you peace of mind.
Users can also rely on a proxy server, which masks your IP and allows others to see the address they provide, and not the one you’re using.
Other ways you can protect your IP address and online presence, in general, are to always create unique passwords and be more vigilant about avoiding malicious content and phishing scams.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an external IP address?
Essentially, an external IP address is another term for a public IP address. You might have also heard the term “internal IP address.” Indeed, that’s another way to refer to a private IP address. It’s also important to keep in mind that an IP address is going to be the same whether it’s established via a wireless or wired connection.
Can you change your IP address?
There are several ways one can change their IP address, and the simplest solution is to reset their router. However, that only works if your ISP allocates dynamic IP addresses and not static addresses. Other solutions include using a proxy server and sometimes it’s enough to install a browser extension. The most efficient way is to use a VPN, though choosing the right service can be challenging.
How do I find my IP address?
You can find your IP address in different ways. A quick and easy solution is to type into a search engine “What’s my IP address?” But that only gives you information on your public IP.
To find the private IP, you need to check the device you’re using. For example, you can find the IP address on an iPhone by going to Settings and tapping the “i” next to the name of the network you’re using.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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