If you’ve ever watched an action movie with a tech twist, then you probably know what an IP address is. An IP (or Internet Protocol) address is a string of numbers separated by periods that is used to identify a computer’s physical location in the world. But what else can IP addresses tell us? Read on to find out a bit more about these elusive numbers, and all they have in store.
Why do IP addresses exist?
To put it simply, an IP address is what computers use to make sure they are sending information to the correct location. We humans see a website address that’s composed of letters, symbols, and numbers, but computers send their information off with a numerical IP address on the front of their virtual envelope.
What is the difference between IPv4 and IPv6?
IPv4 was the original IP address, the one that started it all. First created in the early ‘80s, it served its purpose during the birth of the internet and in the years to follow. However, IPv4 had a fatal flaw: it contains an exact number of digits, which means there is a limited number of IP addresses that can be assigned. To be exact, only 3.7 billion IPv4 addresses are available for normal internet use. Since the internet is now bigger than ever and continues to grow exponentially, a new system was needed. That’s where IPv6 comes in.
IPv6 was created in 1996 when it became obvious that the internet was going to need a whole lot more IP addresses. Most people are familiar with IPv4’s style: a set of four numbers, separated by three periods. IPv6 addresses are far longer and contain loads more numbers as well as letters, and they use colons to separate different sections instead of periods.
If you’re currently on a device that uses IPv4 and you’re worried about missing the IPv6 boat, don’t be. Even if your device is not IPv6 enabled, there are lots of tools that have already been developed that will translate between the two. Eventually your ISP will transition your network from IPv4 to IPv6, so you won’t need to do this yourself. Worst-case scenario is that you may be required to change your internet router.
How are IP addresses organized and allocated throughout the world?
An organization called Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, governs the five Regional Internet Registries, or RIRs, that exist throughout the world. These regions are approximately the same size geographically, and incorporate large continental regions. Latin America composes one RIR, called LACNIC; Africa has AfriNIC; the U.S. and Canada fall into ARIN; Europe, the Middle East, and most of Russia are in RIPE NCC; and Australia and most Asian countries are in the APNIC region. Each of the five RIRs then give out IP addresses in blocks to places like ISPs and network providers. Those ISPs and network providers then administer IP addresses to the individual internet connections, like the one that identifies the very device from which you’re reading right now.
As one of the RIRs uses up its allocation of IP addresses, it is then assigned more by IANA. IANA uses a formula to determine when to give the additional IP addresses to a given RIR that factors in the number of IP addresses that remain unused, as well as their projected use in the near future.
One of the unseen areas of the internet world, IP addresses are an integral part of the way the world wide web functions. Without IP addresses, the internet would not be able to function! The next time you see that set of numbers, remember the complexity of the system. IP addresses are a wondrous thing!