If you hope for a snail mail letter to arrive at the location you intend, you make sure to include the recipient’s exact address, including the house and street number, city, zip code, and country. This is how the USPS knows how to route your letter. But what is an IP address in the digital world, and how is it similar to an address in the physical world?
On the Internet, every single device on an external or internal network requires its own “address” to receive data packets from other devices and communicate with them. IP addresses make this possible. An IP address, however, looks very different from the physical addresses you’re used to writing on letters and envelopes.
In this guide, we’ll answer the question, “what is an IP address?” You’ll also learn how IP addresses are used, what they look like, how to find your own IP address, and a lot more.
If you want to finally know exactly what an IP address is and why they are so important, take a few minutes and continue reading.
What Is an IP Address?
An IP address, or simply an IP, stands for internet protocol address. The idea behind the IP address is based on long-standing Internet protocol that is the Internet’s underlying foundation. It points to the address of a web server, computer, printer, or other device and gives it an identifiable address that’s 100% unique and unrepeated by any other device on an external or internal network.
A single IP address can also be used to designate an entire group of different devices during a multicast or a broadcast. While single computers are also, at times, assigned several different IP addresses, every individual IP within a specific network can only be used once simultaneously.
How Is an IP Address Created?
Currently, there are two different IP address versions in use. Each of them looks quite different from one another. But what both versions have in common is that they have a device component (for a specific computer or device) and a network component (for routing IPs).
Right now, the IP addresses in use mostly follow IPv4 (Internet Protocol Version 4) and are made up of 32 bits. Because of this, an IPv4 address refers to a 32-digit binary number. An example would look like this:
11000000 10101000 10110010 00011111
But to make an IP address easier to read, it’s assigned a combination of four different figures that range in value from 0 – 255 and are broken up by decimal points. This means that the assigned IP address for the above example would be:
The IPv4 format allows for a total of about 4.3 billion unique IP addresses. And while this number is a lot less than the total number of worldwide devices, every device in the world will never be used at the same moment and many are only used within the confines of private networks. As such, the available number of IP addresses using IPv4 has been mostly sufficient to this point.
IP Addresses May Be Changing in the Future
Because of the growth of the IoT (Internet of Things) in recent years, 4.3 billion different available IP addresses using IPv4 may not be enough in the near future.
In today’s world, more devices every single day are connecting to the Internet. These devices require their own unique IP address, which has caused a scarcity of new IPv4 addresses. Because of this, IPv6 has been introduced to be the successor of IPv4.
IPv6 enables an incomprehensible 340 undecillion (this number has 37 zeros) different IP addresses. This will provide an inexhaustible number of IP addresses for the future requirements of the IoT and further technological growth in the decades to come.
IP addresses that follow the IPv6 protocol have 128 bits instead of the 32 bits contained in an IPv4 address. Because of this, the new IPv6 version would need to be written or typed as a 128-digit binary number.
Of course, a number that long is impractical because it’s far too long. Because of this, hexadecimal notation gets applied to the IP address to compress the total of 128 bits into eight separate blocks with 16 bits, each separated from the other by using colons.
The result is an IPv6 device address that would look something like this:
In this example, letters A – F are hex digits. When omitting each zero at the beginning of each block and replacing a series of consecutive 0000 blocks with a couple of colons (::), the format of an IPv6 address is simplified.
In the example above, the IP address “shorthand” is:
This is what the future of IP addresses will look like.
Device and Network Components of IP Addresses
When you send out a snail mail letter, it isn’t enough to only give the city and country of the intended recipient. A full address also needs to have a house number, street name, and even a floor or suite number.
This principle is the same for transmitting data. For data packets to arrive at the correct destination, IP addresses are required to specify the correct network and the targeted device (or host) within the desired network.
By utilizing the device component and network component identifiers built into an IP address, a router can easily identify where a data packet is intended to go, then successfully deliver it.
How an IP Address Is Used
IP addresses enable the identification and addressing of devices on external or internal networks. Because of this, they provide the ability to transport information from a sender to the correct recipient.
When a specific device looks to send out a packet of data, the router associated with the device will orient itself on the header of the IP. It then reconciles the source with the target. When both of the components on the network match up, the sender and receiver are connected on the same network and the data packet gets sent.
When this doesn’t work correctly, the router (which is sort of like the post office of the Internet) will contact the worldwide DNS, or Domain Name System. The DNS is responsible for online name resolution by translating individual device names into valid IP addresses, and vice versa.
For example, when someone accesses a website, the Domain Name System is what provides the unique IP that’s associated with a URL. When you navigate to www.siteexample.com, for instance, the domain name gets converted into an IPv4 address of 188.8.131.52 and IPv6 address of 2707:2900:210:1:250:1897:24b7:1979. Then, the data packet gets sent to the router of the recipient via several different subnets, networks and routers.
How IP Addresses Get Assigned
An organization called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, is the highest body that assigns IP addresses. IANA is a department within the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN.
They have total control over all IP address availability and assign blocks of addresses to five different Regional Internet Registries, or RIRs.
These RIRs are:
- APNIC (Asia Pacific Network Information Centre)
- AfriNIC (African Network Information Centre)
- ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers)
- LACNIC (Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Centre)
- RIPE NCC (Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre)
These RIRs then pass the IP addresses on to providers or end-users.
Types of IP Addresses
Typically, a distinction is made between static and dynamic IP addresses. You can also find special-purpose IP addresses, which are mostly used in private networks.
Dynamic IP Address
A dynamic IP address is most often used for standard Internet browsing.
When a customer uses their router to connect to the Internet, their ISP (internet service provider) gives them a random, currently-unallocated IP address. The IP address assignment will be either deleted after every session or automatically changed at standard intervals. This most often will happen every 24 hours.
When dynamic IP addresses change, Internet customers experience a brief forced Internet disconnection. This will typically occur between the hours of 2:00 – 3:00 am. During this period, online conversations or large downloads may be interrupted for a short time. However, the customer’s router is set to immediately reconnect after the IP address change is complete.
For the vast majority of Internet users, this process doesn’t even get noticed.
With providers having the ability to reuse IP addresses in this way, they need far fewer IP addresses than they have customers. This is because all customers of one ISP are never all online at the same exact time.
When coupled with IPv6 addresses, a dynamic address helps mitigate the address space scarcity of IPv4 addresses. Dynamic IP addresses are also less expensive than their static address counterparts. Dynamic IP’s save ISPs money by serving more Internet customers with fewer IP addresses.
Another huge benefit to dynamic IP addresses is the privacy in which they allow Internet users to browse the web. A dynamic IP address allows a user to browse more anonymously than a static IP.
On the downside, website owners aren’t necessarily fans of dynamic IP addresses. Because the addresses are changing all the time, they’re not suitable for accurately tracking the behavior of specific site visitors over time. Rather, cookies are generated and deleted after a given amount of time.
Only an internet service provider can track what their customers do based on their unique IP. But even this has been subject to many data protection disputes in recent years, especially when it concerns data retention for telecommunications companies.
Static IP Address
Static IP addresses always stay exactly the same, unless the owner of the IP decides to actively change their IP address.
These are used for things like website servers, which will always need to be accessed at a URL and associated IP address that never changes.
They’re also used in LANs (private networks) for communicating with local printers or other computers within a home network.
From the perspective of a website owner, a huge disadvantage of a static IP address is that it’s far easier for hackers to track and attack. However, dynamic IP addresses can’t be used for websites. This is why it’s important for WordPress site owners to download and install a WordPress security plugin like iThemes Security Pro to help keep your site safe.
Data Protection and IP Addresses
An IP address in and of itself doesn’t contain any specific user information. However, IP addresses can still be used to draw certain conclusions about an Internet user. Because of this, IP addresses are a constant subject of dispute for advocates of data privacy.
What IP Addresses Reveal About Users
First, it’s quite simple to link the IP address of a user to the specific internet service provider. For example, if a user’s IP address starts with numbers like 212, 91, and 81, their address is owned by Deutsche Telekom.
This can be determined by running a reverse DNS query or by using the command line tool called TRACERT.
Other numbers with an IP address will help indicate specific agencies or companies if you know which IP address spaces are assigned to them by the NIRs and LIRs responsible.
It’s possible, at least to some extent, to figure out the exact physical location of an IP address. This mostly depends on how close the specific user is to the next Internet dial-in node. For IP addresses in rural locations, you can only determine the location within a general area. However, within urban areas, actual geolocation is a lot more precise. This is because you can find dial-in nodes every couple hundred feet.
Is Your IP Address Considered Personal Data?
The short answer to this question is yes, your IP address is personal data. An IP address basically enables your ISP to track and monitor your stream of data. This makes storing IP addresses a relatively controversial issue.
The General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR determines that all IP addresses, whether static or dynamic, fall into the category of data that’s personally identifiable online. As such, special protection of individual IP addresses is required.
The result is very strict rules for the handling of data protection, like in e-commerce environments. For example, a website owner can only store and keep the IP address of a user if it is 100% necessary for the functionality and purpose of their site’s range of services and products. And only agencies specializing in security are given IP address access rights in the case of criminal matters.
Can You Conceal Your IP Address?
You can’t completely hide your IP address. But you can obfuscate it in a number of different ways.
Obfuscating an IP address has one basic principle: Individual data packets are initially redirected to a server that has its own address, then auto-forwarded to the intended recipient.
You can use the following tools for this specific purpose:
The Tor browser, which is based on the Firefox browser, will enable a user to anonymously browse the Internet. Unfortunately, since all of the data packets have to first go through a third-party network, data speeds can sometimes be slow.
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)
A VPN allows you to encrypt all data transmission.
When you browse the Internet using a VPN, the web servers you request only see the IP address that the VPN is using. They don’t see your individual IP address.
Using a proxy server will also allow you to accept data packets that are forwarded through the IP address of the server. This will hide your IP address.
How Do I Find My IP Address?
There are times when you may need to manually enter your IP address to configure things such as cloud services or email programs.
But where exactly do you find your own IP address?
Fortunately, the standard tools in your device’s operating system will sufficiently display your device’s local IP.
For Windows machines, all you’ll need to do is enter the command “ipconfig” into the machine’s input prompt. To do this, press the keys [Windows] + [R] and enter “cmd” directly into the console that’ll appear. Then type “ipconfig” and you’ll find your machine’s IP address.
If you’re a Mac user, all you need to do is navigate to System Settings > Network.
What Is an IP Address? Mystery Solved
You’re now an expert on IP addresses, what they’re used for, and why they’re so important in the world of the Internet.
And if you’re a WordPress site owner, understand that your site’s static IP address can quickly come under attack by a malicious hacker. To thwart their attempts before they succeed, make sure you’re running iThemes Security Pro on your site. It’s the only WordPress security solution you’ll need to keep your site safe and your data secure.
Kathryn Lang believes it is simple, and as an award-winning author and natural-born hopesmith, she shares tips on how to find your why, pursue your purpose, and live a bold, intentional life – always with a dash of twisted encouragement.