If you hope for a snail mail letter to arrive at your intended location, 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?
Every device on the internet 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.
This guide will answer the question, “what is an IP address?” and more. You’ll also learn how IP addresses are used, what they look like, and how to find your IP address.
What Is an IP Address?
In a nutshell, an IP address, or simply an IP, stands for internet protocol address. The idea behind the IP address is based on a long-standing Internet protocol that is the Internet’s underlying foundation. It points to the address of a web server, computer, printer, or another device. It 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 designate an entire group of different devices during a multicast or a broadcast. While single computers are sometimes 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).
Currently, 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 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 are connecting to the Internet every day. 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 128 bits into eight separate blocks with 16 bits, each separated from the other using colons.
The result is an IPv6 device address that would look something like this:
Many networks will implement IPv6 concurrently with IPv4 in a dual-stack design, while newer networks will deploy IPv6 natively but still allow for compatibility with IPv4 if needed. This addresses current government mandates for IPv6 use.
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 must 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 220.127.116.11 and IPv6 address of 2707:2900:210:1:250:1897:24b7:1979. Then, the data packet gets sent to the recipient’s router via several different subnets, networks, and routers.
How IP Addresses Get Assigned
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 customers use 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 briefly 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 reconnect after the IP address change is complete immediately.
For most 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 customers. This is because all customers of one ISP are never all online at the same 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 IPs save ISPs money by serving more Internet customers with fewer IP addresses.
Another huge benefit to dynamic IP addresses is their privacy, allowing 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 their customers’ actions based on their unique IP. But even this has recently been subject to many data protection disputes, especially concerning telecommunications companies’ data retention.
Static IP Address
Static IP addresses always stay the same unless the owner of the IP decides to actively change their IP address.
These are used for 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) to communicate with local printers or computers within a home network.
From a website owner’s perspective, 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 WordPress site owners need 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 data privacy advocates.
What Your IP Address Reveals About You
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. You can only determine the location within a general area for IP addresses in rural locations. 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 enables your ISP to track and monitor your data stream. 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 handling 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 several different ways.
Obtaining an IP address has one basic principle: Individual data packets are initially redirected to a server with its own address, then auto-forwarded to the intended recipient.
You can use the following tools for this specific purpose:
The Tor browser, based on the Firefox browser, will enable a user to browse the Internet anonymously. Unfortunately, since all data packets must 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 the VPN uses. They don’t see your IP address.
Using a proxy server will also allow you to accept data packets forwarded through the server’s IP address. This will hide your IP address.
How Do I Find My IP Address?
Sometimes, 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, you must navigate to System Settings > Network.
Wrapping Up: What Is an IP Address?
You’re now an expert on IP addresses, their use, and why they’re so important in the Internet world.
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.
Get the bonus content: A Guide to WordPress Security
Kristen has been writing tutorials to help WordPress users since 2011. As marketing director here at iThemes, she’s dedicated to helping you find the best ways to build, manage, and maintain effective WordPress websites. Kristen also enjoys journaling (check out her side project, The Transformation Year!), hiking and camping, step aerobics, cooking, and daily adventures with her family, hoping to live a more present life.
Keep reading the article at WordPress News | iThemes Blog. The article was originally written by Kristen Wright on 2022-08-30 10:32:00.
The article was hand-picked and curated for you by the Editorial Team of WP Archives.