Every device that seeks to connect and exchange information on the Internet, be it your smartphone, computer, or even smart fridge, is assigned a unique identifier. This identifier is an Internet Protocol address or IP address for short.
But what is an IP address? Why is it so crucial to our digital lives? And how does it affect our online interactions, privacy, and more? This article will explain everything you need to know about IP addresses. Why they’re important, how you get one and more.
What is an IP address?
An IP address, which stands for Internet Protocol address, is a unique identifier assigned to each device connected to a network. It serves two primary functions: host or network interface identification and location addressing. An IP address is similar to a home address for your computer on the Internet or local network, allowing it to communicate with other systems.
Two versions of IP addresses are in use today: IPv4 and IPv6. IPv4, the most commonly used, consists of a series of numbers separated by dots (e.g., 192.168.1.1). Due to the increasing number of devices online and the shortage of available addresses, IPv6 was developed to provide a much larger pool of addresses. An IPv6 address looks considerably different, with a longer string of hexadecimal numbers separated by colons (e.g., 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334).
When a device, like a computer or smartphone, wants to access a website, it sends a request to a server using its IP address. The server then responds using the IP address as a return address, much like sending and receiving traditional mail.
While users might not often see or think about their IP address in everyday use, it’s working diligently in the background, ensuring that data packets are delivered correctly, making our online experiences smooth and efficient.
Why are IP addresses important?
One of the main reasons why an IP address is so crucial is its role in facilitating two-way communication. When you access a website, your computer needs to know where to fetch the data, and the server hosting that data also needs to know where to send the requested information. This communication ensures the fluid online browsing experience we’ve come to rely on. Without a proper IP address system, our experience online would be chaotic, with data packets getting lost, much like a mail system without proper addresses.
Furthermore, IP addresses play a pivotal role in cybersecurity. Organisations can detect unusual traffic patterns by analysing IP addresses, potentially flagging malicious activities. For example, an unusually large amount of traffic emerging from a particular IP address could signify a cyberattack. On the flip side, IP addresses can also cause privacy concerns. Since IP addresses can be traced back to specific physical locations, they can be used to track an individual’s online activities.
Essentially, IP addresses are the backbone of our modern digital communication systems. They bring order to the otherwise chaotic nature of the Internet by ensuring each device has its unique place on the network. This order makes our online experiences smooth and efficient and introduces layers of security and traceability that are crucial in today’s interconnected world.
Types of IP addresses
In the world of networking, IP addresses aren’t one-size-fits-all. They’ve evolved and diversified to cater to various needs, ensuring seamless digital communication.
IPv4 vs. IPv6: The most evident distinction in IP addresses is between IPv4 and IPv6. IPv4, or Internet Protocol version 4, has been in use since the dawn of the Internet and is represented as a series of four numbers separated by dots. However, due to the exponential growth of internet-connected devices, we’ve been running out of unique IPv4 addresses. Enter IPv6 or Internet Protocol version 6. This newer version has a more complex structure, offering a virtually inexhaustible pool of addresses. Represented in a series of alphanumeric characters, an example of an IPv6 address might look like “1200:0000:AB00:1234:0000:2552:7777:1313”.
Public vs. Private IP Addresses: Not all IP addresses are accessible to the broader Internet. Public IP addresses are unique across the entire web, ensuring that all data travelling on the Internet reaches its correct destination. Conversely, private IP addresses are used within specific, closed networks, such as a home or office LAN (Local Area Network). These addresses can be duplicated in different networks, as they are not directly exposed to the Internet. Devices on the same private network communicate using these private IPs, but to reach the broader Internet, they utilise a shared public IP, usually provided by a router or modem.
Static vs. Dynamic IPs: The permanence of an IP address can also vary. A static IP address remains consistent over time. Servers often use them to ensure that users and other servers always know how to reach them. On the other hand, dynamic IP addresses are temporary and can change. Most devices on home networks have dynamic IPs assigned by the router every time they connect. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) predominantly use Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) to allocate dynamic IP addresses, efficiently using a limited number of public IP addresses.
How are IP addresses assigned?
ICANN and Regional Internet Registries
At the highest level, IP addresses are overseen by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is responsible for the global coordination of the Internet’s unique identifier system, including IP addresses.
ICANN allocates IP address blocks to Regional Internet Registries (RIRs). These RIRs are organisations that manage the allocation and registration of IP addresses within specific world regions. Examples include ARIN (covering North America), RIPE NCC (covering Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia), and APNIC (covering the Asia-Pacific region).
From RIRs to ISPs and Larger Organizations
Once RIRs receive these IP address blocks, they distribute them to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and large organisations within their designated region. ISPs, in turn, allocate IP addresses to their customers, ranging from large enterprises to individual households. For example, when you sign up for home internet service, your ISP assigns an IP address (or addresses) for your use. This could be a static IP address (which doesn’t change) or a dynamic IP address (which can change periodically).
Local Network Assignments: DHCP
Within smaller networks, like your home or office, IP addresses are assigned to individual devices by a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, which is often a function of your router.
When a device, like your smartphone or laptop, connects to the network, the DHCP server assigns it an IP address from a pool of available addresses. This address is typically “leased” to the device for a set period, and once the lease expires, the device may receive the same IP address or a different one from the pool.
These addresses are considered “private” IPs because they are used within internal networks and are not routable on the broader Internet. Instead, the router translates these addresses to its own “public” IP address when communicating externally, a process known as Network Address Translation (NAT).
Static IP Addresses
In some instances, static IP addresses are used for servers or services that require a consistent point of reference on the Internet. These addresses don’t change over time, ensuring the IP address remains constant for remote access, domain hosting, or other specific needs.
Geolocation and IP addresses
Geolocation, in the context of IP addresses, refers to the process of determining a device’s physical location based on its IP address. Each IP address can provide clues about the approximate geographical location of the device.
When an IP address is allocated to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), the regional Internet registry (RIR) involved often records the geographic area where the IP address will be used. Over time, companies have compiled databases that map IP addresses to specific locations, ranging from the country and city level to, in some cases, more precise locations, like a particular city block or even a specific building.
This IP-based geolocation is widely used in various online applications. For instance, streaming services often use it to enforce regional content licensing restrictions. E-commerce websites might use geolocation to estimate shipping costs or adjust prices based on the user’s country or city. News websites may provide local news or weather based on the viewer’s IP-derived location.
How do VPNs get IP addresses?
- Purchasing IP Blocks: VPN providers often acquire IP addresses by purchasing them in bulk from regional internet registries or from ISPs. These blocks of IPs can be exclusive to the VPN provider, ensuring that the addresses aren’t shared with other entities.
- Renting Server and IP Resources: Some VPN providers might rent server resources from data centres around the world. When they do this, they’re also typically renting the IP addresses associated with those servers. This approach allows VPNs to quickly scale and offer IP addresses from multiple locations.
- Dedicated vs. Shared IPs: A VPN provider may offer users the option between a dedicated IP or a shared IP. A dedicated IP means that the user gets a unique IP address that isn’t shared with others. In contrast, with a shared IP, multiple users might use the same IP address simultaneously. Shared IPs offer a higher level of anonymity, as activities cannot easily be traced back to a single user.
Just as ISPs often dynamically assign IP addresses to users (which can change each time a user reconnects), VPNs can operate similarly.
Depending on the VPN service and its configuration, when a user connects, they might be provided with a different IP address each time, taken from the VPN’s pool of addresses. This dynamic allocation further enhances privacy, as it makes tracking a specific user’s activities even more challenging.