An IPAddress is a unique identifier for devices and websites online. It enables devices to find one another, and send and receive data, and also contains information about the physical location of the device.
IP addresses are an essential component of the internet as we know it, because they make remote communication possible.
IP is shorthand for “Internet Protocol“, the set of rules governing how data is transmitted online. As you might expect, the format of an IP address is determined by this communication protocol.
How does an IP address work?
Every device that connects to the internet has an Internet Protocol address. This common language set by Internet Protocol is what enables devices, routers and websites to communicate.
Here’s a step by step description of how it works:
Your device has an internet protocol address assigned to it by your internet service provider.
Each time you go online, you connect via your internet service provider, who routes the connection to you via this address.
If you connect to the internet while you’re outside your house, your IP address will probably be different, since you’ll be using a different service provider. Instead, it will be an address assigned by the ISP of the shop, airport or cafe you’re connecting through.
Not only can your address change over time, there are also different types of IP address.
Types of IP addresses
Private IP address
A private IP is an identifier assigned to all the devices within a private network. Therefore, it’s sort of like an ID number for that particular network.
For example, all of the devices connected to a specific local area network (LAN) would use a private Internet Protocol address. Consequently, that address is only accessible by devices inside that private network.
Public IP address
By contrast, a public address is used for communicating between hosts on the open, global internet. For example, you are currently viewing this page using a public IP address, which is completely unique to your computer. No other device is currently using that same IP address to connect to the internet.
Static IP address
Public IP addresses can be static or dynamic. If static, it will be manually configured and will never change. In other words, it is a permanent internet protocol address.
A static IP address is a better option for large enterprises with a website to maintain. It enables a more reliable internet connection and faster data exchange, both of which benefit the company’s clients. For the enterprise itself, a static IP address has other reputational benefits. For example, it makes it simpler to manage the company’s IP and DNS reputation, and access website whitelists. It also means that firewall settings never need to be updated.
Dynamic IP address
By contrast, a dynamic address is temporary. It is automatically assigned each time a new device accesses the internet. This type of address is normally assigned to individuals by an internet service provider.
For example, the device you’re using now probably has a dynamic address. Instead of you having a fixed address that’s always yours, your service provider will select one from a pool of addresses they own. You’ll be reassigned a new address periodically.
This system is a more cost effective way to manage large databases of addresses, hence the reason it’s used by internet providers.
Website IP address
If you’re a website owner who’s using a hosting company to host your website, you’ll have a website IP address. These might take two formats:
This type of address is applied by the hosting service to many different websites. You’ll normally find this type of address for small enterprises using a platform like WordPress.
By contrast, a dedicated IP is one that’s completely unique, and assigned to an individual website. Having a dedicated IP makes it easier for website owners to get their site whitelisted.
IPv4 v IPv6
An IP address full format is a string of digits separated by dots. These digits are the language understood by the internet’s computers, for example, servers.
The length and composition of that string depends on which generation of addresses it comes from: IPv4 or the more recent iteration, IPv6.
IPv4 used to be the standard version for all devices. An IPv4 address is in 32-bit number format: a string of 32 1’s and 0’s. But more commonly, it is expressed as a “dotted quad” in the format x.x.x.x – in this format, each “x” is a value between 0 and 255. The following is a valid IP address example: 220.127.116.11
IPv4 can support a maximum of approximately 4.3 billion unique addresses. But the internet has seen explosive growth since its beginning, and even this huge number would eventually run out.
IPv6 was developed as the new standard to alleviate this issue. In IPv6, the size is increased from 32-bit to 128-bit. Additionally, letters can be included along with numbers.
The following is an example IPv6 address:
This new version can theoretically support an infinite number of unique addresses.
Once created, IANA assigns blocks of addresses to regional internet registries (RIRs) who will give out these blocks to internet service providers (ISPs). This is the chain of events that eventually results in you receiving your own IP address.
How to find your IP address
If you’re using Windows, you can look up your IP address by typing CMD into the search box and hitting enter. In the pop-up that appears, type IPCONFIG and hit enter; your IP address will appear in the text below.
If you’re using a Mac, the process is slightly different. You can find your IP address by navigating to System Preferences and selecting Network.
To find your mobile phone IP address, head to Settings, then WiFi menu, then Network menu. Normally your IP address will be listed under the advanced section.
IP address security threats
Cybercrimnals can use your address as an attack vector to target your device. There are a number of ways they might obtain your address, for example, using certain communication apps reveals it to whoever you’re chatting with.
Therefore it’s really important to understand the risks you face if your IP address does fall into the wrong hands. Here are a few you should be aware of:
Advanced hackers can “spoof” or impersonate your address. enabling them to gain access to a private network, or intercept your communication with a website. This puts your private information at risk.
Downloading illegal content in your name
Another thing a hacker might do with your IP address is use it to download illegal digital content – or anything else they don’t want to be associated with. This might include copyrighted content, pornographic material or content associated with terrorism. In any case, the activity would attract problems for you, not the hacker.
Physical location tracking
Your Internet Protocol address contains data about your physical whereabouts. It can therefore be used by a hacker to track your physical location and movements.
Attacking your network
Hackers can even use your address to deploy a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack to your network. This enables the attacker to shut down your network by flooding it with requests. Unfortuately, with DDOS attack software now available to buy, this is becoming a regular issue for gamers.
How to protect your IP address
As a potential vector for stealing your digital identity, deploying attacks to your network and even tracing your location, it is always a good idea to protect your IP address.
Fortunately, there are two very easy ways of doing this:
Use a proxy server
Use a virtual private network (VPN)
How a proxy server protects your address
A proxy server acts as an intermediary, routing all of your internet activity through its own server. This means the digital address that shows up online will be this server’s – not yours.
The disadvantage of using a proxy server is that the server itself sometimes tracks your online activity. So although your address might be concealed, your browsing activity won’t.
How a VPN hides your IP address
A VPN re-routes your connection through its own servers, meaning your real Internet Protocol address won’t show up. Therefore, you can browse online under the guise of a totally different address, while your own remains hidden. But beyond that, a VPN also encrypts your browsing activity, meaning there is no compromise to your online privacy.
A VPN should always be part of your digital security set-up. Beyond keeping you safe, it can help you unblock geo-restricted content, or even get you access lower prices for online goods and services.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the use of an IP address?
Without this unique identifier, the internet would be an infinite mass of information with no direction – we’d all be shouting into the void. Internet protocol addresses allow you to find and transmit data to specific users or platforms, and vice versa.
What if someone knows your IP address?
If you’re unlucky, your address can be used to track your location, impersonate you digitally to gain access to sensitive information, or even deploy an attack to your network.
What are the two types of Internet Protocol addresses?
Addresses can be in one of two formats: IPv4 or the later version IPv6.
What’s the history of IP addresses?
The whole concept of the internet protocol address originated with ARPANET – the very first iteration of the internet, used by the US Government for internal communications. That system used a protocol known as TCP/IP – Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol.
Transmission Control Protocol enabled separate nodes in a network to establish a connection and exchange data. Meanwhile, the Internet Protocol managed the routing of that information, ensuring it reached its destination node thanks to the unique IP address.
Although every website has a unique Internet Protocol address, you’re unlikely to see it. Instead, you’ll see its domain name – for example website.com. Websites broadcast this naming format instead of their raw IP address because it’s easier to use than a long string of numbers.