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Without IP Addresses, the Internet Would Disappear

What is an IP Address?

Do you know what an IP address is used for?

If you don’t, don’t worry. Most of the billions of computer users don’t know, either. And to tell you the truth, that’s perfectly fine. Even though it’s your passport to the internet, you never have to think about it.

Here’s a brief definition you can use if someone asks:

An IP address is a network address for your computer so the internet knows where to send your emails, data, and pictures of cats.

Now that you know that, you’re ahead of the curve. In fact, 98% of people on computers right now don’t know what an IP address even looks like. Don’t worry – we promise not to get too technical on you. We’ll clear up the concept so you can get an idea of why the misunderstood IP address is very important to our lives. In the end, you’ll love your IP address.

What IP Addresses are For

The IP address is a fascinating product of modern computer technology designed to allow one connected computer (or “smart” device) to communicate with another device over the internet. IP addresses allow literally billions of digital devices connected to the internet to be pinpointed and differentiated from all the other devices. Just like you need a mailing address to receive a letter in the mail from a friend, the server that has your cat videos needs your IP address to send those videos to your computer.

Your house has a street address to get mail; your computer has an internet address to get data from the web. Your home has a street number; your computer (and your smartphone, your smart thermostat, and anything else that connects to the internet) has an internet number.

Each IP address is unique, and thanks to these addresses, we’re pretty much guaranteed that our emails will come and go as expected and we’ll be able to open Google when we want to.

Want to know something extra cool? Every website has a unique IP address too, but it goes by its name instead. When you go to amazon.com, you don’t see the string of numbers that makes up its IP address, you just see “amazon.com.” But if Amazon didn’t have an IP address, you couldn’t connect with their website and they couldn’t tell you what they have for sale.

The IPv4 Address

The most common type of IP address is known as IPv4, for “IP version 4.” Here’s an example of what an IPv4 address might look like:

24.156.99.202

An IPv4 address consists of four numbers, each of which contains 1-3 digits, with a single dot (.) separating each number. Each of the four numbers can range from 0 to 225. This group of numbers creates the unique address to let you and everyone around globe send and retrieve data over our internet connections.

What happens if we run out of IP addresses?

Guess what – we already did! Major companies (even Microsoft!) were scrambling to buy unused IP addresses from other companies … for millions of dollars.

What went wrong? The past decade has seen explosive growth in the number of devices connected to the internet, from mobile phones to tablet computers and wireless handheld devices. The format of IPv4 wasn’t designed to handle the sheer number if IP addresses we needed.

Fortunately, there was a backup IP address type waiting in the wings.

Goodbye IPv4, Hello IPv6

IPv4 supports a maximum of approximately 4.3 billion unique IP addresses. IPv6 supports, in theory, a much higher maximum number: 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456. If your eyes glazed over when reading that number, just know that we will never run out of IP addresses again.

An IPv6 address consists of eight groups of four hexadecimal digits. Here’s an example IPv6 address:

2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334

For more information on IPv6, check out these frequently-asked questions about IPv6.

Should you hide your IP address?

Your IP address is your passport to the Internet. But it also gives away your location and is used to profile your individual online activity.

That’s why you might consider hiding it.

Can you do that?

Yes! And you can learn how right here.


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