As a term, “IP address” is a lot like “URL” or “DNS”. Every web user is familiar with it, many of them can even point out examples – but as it turns out, only a few truly understand what is an IP address all about and how it works.
Ok, there’s no denying that the inner workings can be somewhat confusing and complicated. And yes – the management of IP addresses is best left to 👨💻 network administrators.
Here’s the thing, though. Supporting all those technical intricacies are some basic IP address parameters that can be handled without deep technical expertise. A simple tweak here and there could potentially enhance web connectivity, user experience, and cyber security.
Now, to start 🎬 you off on the journey, this guide reviews the IP address essentials from the very top — minus all the complex IT jargon that often comes with it.
By the time you’re done, you’ll have figured out 💡 what an IP address is, how it runs the internet, why everyone is using it, what it reveals about you, as well as tricks that you could use to discover and hide your IP address.
What Is An IP Address?
An IP address, for starters, is a unique string of alphanumeric characters meant to distinguish a device from others connected to the same network. “IP” here stands for Internet Protocol. This is a set of special rules that control how devices link up and communicate with each other through the web. Or, put simply, you could think of it as the framework for coordinating the transmission of data between internet-connected devices.
Now, for this system to function smoothly, the internet needs a reliable formula for differentiating the more than 13 billion devices connected to the web . This is where the concept of an IP address comes in.
You see, by allocating each endpoint unit a series of unique numbers, the internet protocol is able to accurately pinpoint all the connected devices — which then makes it possible for data packets to be transmitted from the right sources to their intended destinations.
Your 💻 PC, for instance, has a unique IP address acting as its principal identifier. And the same applies to each of your web-enabled gadgets – including smartphones, tablets, tv screens, gaming consoles, etc. This form of distinction extends even to websites. Each site has an IP address that sets it apart from other content servers connected to the web. These, in fact, are the numbers that ultimately ushered you to this web page. Your IP address pointed out your device as the source of the access request, and then our website’s IP address was used to confirm the target server that would fulfill your request.
How does an IP address work?
Ordinarily, web users get their IP addresses from their Internet Service Providers (ISP).
In your case, for example, the company connecting you to the web is the same one that allocates each of your devices an appropriate IP address.
Your ISP doesn’t have overall authority, though. All the alphanumeric allocations are, instead, sourced directly from their respective national registries. Yes, that’s right. It turns out that every country has its own national registry of IP addresses, from which ISPs get their individual blocks of device identifiers.
National registries, on the other hand, get their portions from regional internet registries supplied by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
All these bodies combine to form a hierarchical flow of address allocation – with IANA at the top to oversee everything globally, followed by regional registries, and then national registries. That said, IANA has actually been around for over three decades now – within which it has rolled out two versions of IP addresses for internet use.
Your devices can now be identified using any of these two forms of internet protocols:
Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4)
IPv4 is the original version – having been introduced in the 80s as a system for defining IP addresses using a 32-bit number.
You won’t see it in its raw form, though. Rather, devices display their IPv4 addresses in human-readable notations for easy management. You might, for example, find yourself with an IPv4 address like 192.0.2.150 or 220.127.116.11.
The only problem with this approach is, its 32-bit codification restricts the volume of unique hosts to 232. That translates to a limit of 4.3 billion IP addresses for all internet-connected devices across the globe.
As such, IPv4 had to be redesigned to accommodate the ever precipitously expanding world wide web. And that’s how IPv6 was deployed in the mid-2,000s.
Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6)
Now, unlike its predecessor, the Internet Protocol version 6 runs on an impressive 128-bit identifier. Each address is defined by four times as many data points as IPv4.
As for the format, this is the sequence you’ll find in your device under IPv6 – “x : x : x : x : x : x : x : x” – where “x” represents any hexadecimal value between 0 and FFFF.
You might, for example, have something like 2001:db6:3333:4444:CCCC:DDDD:EEEE:FFFF as your computer’s IPv6 IP address.
That, however, doesn’t mean that people have moved away from IPv4. Internet Protocol 4 is still the most dominant form of IP address across the globe, whereas IPv6 has so far been adopted by slightly over 40% of web users .
Types of IP Addresses
The deeper you get to learn what is an IP address, the more you might get confused about the many varieties mentioned on the web.
In essence, there are up to eight types of IP addresses. But, they are not based on the same classification criteria. The IP addresses are, instead, spread out across four categorization methodologies.
At the top, they come either as:
- Consumer IP addresses
- Website IP addresses
Consumer IP addresses can be further grouped into:
- Public IP addresses
- Private IP addresses
Then under the category of Public IP addresses, you’ll find these two primary subclasses:
- Static IP addresses
- Dynamic IP addresses
As for website IP addresses, on the other hand, you get to choose between:
- Shared IP address
- Dedicated IP address.
Here are basic insights into each of these types of IP addresses.
Consumer IP addresses: Public vs Private IP address
A Consumer IP Address, to begin with, refers to any Internet Protocol notation acquired from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The recipients, in most cases, are usually individuals and organizations whose networks are powered by ISPs.
Such Consumer IPs come in two packages – you’ll get a Public IP Address and a Private IP Address.
What you’re using to access this web page, for instance, is a Public IP Address. You can, otherwise, think of it as an External or Global IP Address – because the whole purpose is to link your device to the world wide web.
A Private IP Address, however, is the direct opposite. It doesn’t stretch beyond your local network – the digits are only meant to differentiate your device from other locally networked endpoints.
Public IP addresses: Static vs dynamic IP address
Some ISPs give their clients the option of choosing between a Static and a Dynamic Public IP address.
In that case, you might want to settle for a Static IP Address if your goal is to retain the same identifier for the long haul. The IP address here will remain unchanged, hence minimizing the risk of network interruptions.
With a Dynamic IP Address, however, you’ll be forfeiting all the exclusivity for cheaper package rates.
This, in fact, happens to be the standard modus operandi for Internet Service Providers. They essentially keep recycling the same IP addresses between multiple users, with individuals only getting allocations when they log in to their systems.
Website IP addresses: Shared vs dedicated IP address
When it comes to website hosting, you run your site on a Shared or a Dedicated IP Address.
A Shared IP Address is the cheaper of the two, all thanks to its light resource usage. Here, one identification string is allocated to multiple websites running on a shared server.
If you prefer otherwise, a Dedicated IP Address would be the way to go. This would give your site its own unique string, complete with all the accompanying management and control privileges.
Finding Your IP Address
There are multiple ways of tracking and confirming your IP address. The approach you’ll be taking here depends substantially on the type of IP address in question:
Do you intend to find your computer’s IP address? Or are you looking to discover your website’s IP address?
Here are the answers to each of these questions…
What’s my Public IP address?
For people who’d like to look up the public IP address of their PCs, phones, or tablets, there are various local and cloud-based tools that might help you out.
You could, for instance, pose the question directly to Google. Just go back to its search bar and then change your query on what is an IP address into “what is my IP address?”. Upon running a search, the system will immediately display your public IP address at the top of its search results page.
But, if you’d want more information, consider trying out a dedicated IP lookup site like WhatIsMyIPAddress.com. You only need to load the homepage and it’ll reveal your IPv4, IPv6, ISP, and physical location particulars.
What’s my website’s IP address?
When it comes to checking your website’s IP address, you might want to use what we call a “DNS Lookup tool”. This is a specialized platform that digs deep into your site’s Domain Name System records to uncover server details such as your IP address, hosting provider, domain registrar, and HTTP status.
So far, the most outstanding DNS checkers that we’ve tested out are:
Each of these tools allows you to run checks on any URL. You just need to enter a domain name and then fire up the checking tool.
Should I Hide My IP Address?
IP addresses play a very critical role in identifying and linking up networked devices. However, they also reveal very sensitive information that could be used against you. For instance – as you surf the web, cybercriminals might intercept your traffic and then use the IP address information to spy on your location.
Websites are not safe either. On establishing your site’s IP address, cybercriminals could use the details to launch targeted DDoS attacks against your network. Industry research shows that the number of attacks is not only increasing, but the attackers themselves are growing more aggressive and prolific.
It’s because of such risks that individuals, businesses, and sites are now turning to technologies that can hide their IP addresses.
📌 You could, for example, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or proxy server to mask your real IP address. Both are built to operate as a secure intermediary between you and the web. VPNs even go as far as encrypting your data requests to keep all online activities hidden from third parties – including ISPs.
What This Means For You
On the question of what is an IP address, it’s now safe to say that it forms the backbone of the internet. Without it, the world wide web would not exist, and computer networking would be a tall order.
Now, on the flip side, this critical role also means significant risks for poorly managed IP addresses. Any vulnerabilities 👾 here may turn into strategic cyberattacking points, with the potential to quickly bring down your entire website.