IP addresses are the unsung heroes of the internet. They allow us to send emails, share cat memes, binge-watch Game of Thrones, and post brunch pictures on Instagram. In short, IP addresses make the internet possible.
But what exactly are IP addresses and how do they work?
First off, IP stands for Internet Protocol and is the core foundation of the internet allowing devices to connect to the internet and transmit data.
An IP address is a unique number assigned to an internet-connected device by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that ensures proper routing of information to each specific device (smartphone, laptop, TV, etc.). Think of an IP address like your phone number – this number is unique to your device and makes it possible for you to connect and exchange information with anyone in the world.
IP addresses do the same thing but on a much larger and more detailed scale. They make it possible to transmit and receive data from anywhere in the world directly to your specific device – so when you’re watching Game of Thrones on your laptop, it doesn’t play on your roommate’s smartphone at the same time.
There are two main types of IP addresses (known as spaces): IPv4 and IPv6.
(At this point you might be asking, what about all the other IP address spaces? Why do we only get 4 and 6? The other IP address spaces were used for other things, it's a long story, just don’t worry about them).
Anyway, IPv4 is the most commonly used address protocol and has become the backbone of business network infrastructure due to its relative simplicity and (until recently) its availability.
An IPv4 address is a string of numbers composed of four sets of three digits, called octets.
Here’s what a sample IPv4 address looks like:
IPv4 works great, and I wish we could end the article here, but...
There are a limited number of IPv4 addresses in existence – roughly 4.3 billion. This might sound like a lot, but with the explosion of internet-connected devices (mobile phones, cars, smart TVs, speakers, appliances, etc.)
It is estimated that by 2030, about 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet. With this in mind, 4.3 billion IP addresses starts to look a whole lot smaller.
So IPv6 was created to give us a little breathing room – by that, we mean the number of IPv6 addresses in existence is about 340 undecillion, that’s
This is enough for every grain of sand on earth to have its own IP address.
IPv6 addresses function pretty much the same as IPv4 addresses, in fact, chances are your smartphone already uses an IPv6 address to access the internet.
An IPv6 address is composed of eight sets of letters and numbers, called hextets.
This is what an IPv6 address looks like:
The addition of IPv6 addresses means we should have enough IP addresses for all the internet connected devices for the foreseeable future.
IP addresses allow the internet as we know it to function properly. They control the seamless flow of data from all your devices while keeping your data secure. So the next time you’re watching Seinfeld reruns or scrolling through Instagram take a moment and think about the systems that make all of this possible.
Want to learn about how IP addresses can affect your digital marketing strategy in 2020? Check out our guide on IP address intelligence.