What is an IP address? When running a website or just generally working with computers, that’s a term that you will likely stumble upon sooner or later.
Maybe it’s because you are trying to configure a firewall, set up your domain name, or connect to a CDN. Whatever the reason, you likely will not only have to understand what an IP address is but also need a way to figure out your own – either that of your computer or your website’s.
For that reason, in this post we not only talk about what IP addresses are but also what role they play, the types that exist, as well as how to find out and protect your IP address.
In this article:
- What Exactly is an IP Address?
- What Is an IP Address Used For?
- Different Types of IP Addresses
- How Can I Find My Public IP Address?
- How Can I Find My Local IP Address?
- How to Protect Your IP Address
- Congratulations, You Now Know What an IP Address Is
What Exactly is an IP Address?
We are starting off with a definition. An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a unique numerical identifier for devices connected to a network. That includes the Internet, which also is nothing but a large network.
IP addresses play a crucial role in facilitating communication and data exchange between devices. They allow them to locate and talk with each other, ensuring that data arrives at the correct destination.
No IP Address, No Internet Connection
To understand why that matters, let’s quickly talk about how online data transmission works.
When you send information over the Internet, it is broken down into small chunks called “packets”. Each packet contains both the IP address of the sender and the recipient, as well as the actual transmitted data. These packets then travel over the web to their destination.
As they make their way, they pass through various devices, such as routers and switches. These appliances use the IP addresses in the packets to determine where to send them next.
IP addresses consist of two parts: the network address and the host address. The first one identifies the network to which the device is connected, while the host address identifies the specific device on that network. Using this information, the data eventually arrives at the intended goal.
Examples of IP Addresses
So, if IP addresses are of such importance, what do they look like?
There are two different formats. The first consists of four numbers ranging from 0 to 255, separated by periods. Here are some theoretical examples of what that looks like:
The numbers above are in the IPv4 format. It is based on 32-bit numbers and is what the original IP addresses looked like. There are also IPv6 addresses that are 128-bit numbers and appear a bit more complicated:
This format was introduced when more and more devices became connected to the Internet in order to avoid running out of IP addresses. However, the simpler format above is still more common.
What Is an IP Address Used For?
As stated, the main purpose for IP addresses is for network devices to be able to identify and communicate with each other. As a website owner, this is really important because they also apply to web servers. You know, the computers that house your website files. It’s what makes them available on the web so browsers can access them to display websites.
In fact, when someone types your domain name into a browser bar, in reality, they connect to the underlying IP address associated with that domain. That way, website visitors don’t have to remember the numerical identifier but can use the more easily remembered domain.
In short, without IP addresses, there would be no Internet and no way to access the myriad of websites that we use all day. In addition, knowing your IP address is extremely important to correctly configure networks and firewalls and to troubleshoot connectivity issues.
They can also provide approximate geographic information about a device’s location. This knowledge comes in handy for targeted advertising, content personalization, or enforcing content restrictions based on geographical regions.
Finally, they allow you to establish remote connections to devices over the Internet (e.g., a remote desktop), are important for network diagnostics and management, or to restrict or allow access to certain resources.
Different Types of IP Addresses
Besides the distinction between IPv4 and IPv6 addresses, there are other differences worth pointing out.
Private vs. Public IP Addresses
The first things here are private and public addresses.
Public IP addresses are what we already talked about above. They are accessible via the Internet and globally unique. Their function is to identify devices, such as routers or servers, that are directly connected to the web.
Public IP addresses are assigned by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and managed by regional registries to make sure there is no device confusion. As an end user, you typically receive them from an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Private IP addresses, on the other hand, exist within closed networks, such as in your home, office, or other local area networks (LANs). They are valid only inside that network and work to facilitate communication between devices within it. Each device must have a unique private IP address in order to work.
This kind of IP address is either manually assigned by a local network administrator or automatically by a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server within the network. They are not unique and not accessible through the world wide web.
As a consequence, you will often have several devices in the same network with different private IP addresses that share one public IP number through a router.
Static vs. Dynamic IP Addresses
Another distinction that you can make is between IP addresses that are static or dynamic. The first means that the assigned address remains the same, the second kind is changing with every connection.
Fixed IP addresses are usually assigned by hand to a device and do not change over time unless manually reconfigured. You typically use them for devices that need a consistent address for communication, such as servers, printers, or devices that host services like websites, email, or VPNs.
A dynamic IP address is that a device receives automatically, most often from a DHCP server. Those often come integrated into routers or other network devices to make sure anything that connects to them can obtain a valid and unique address. Dynamic IP addresses can change over time, either when a device reconnects to the network or when the lease for the IP address expires.
How Can I Find My Public IP Address?
Alright, let’s say you need to find out your public IP address for whatever purpose. There are different ways you can do so, depending on your use case.
Find the Address for Your Own Device
First, let’s cover how to find the IP address of your own device, such as your laptop. You would do that, for example, to increase website security by limiting your site login to your own IP address.
Nothing easier than that.
In fact, you can simply google “what is my IP”, and the search engine will tell you.
Unfortunately, as you can see, it’s your IPv6 number. To get the IPv4 format and additional insight, there are also web services like What Is My IP Address? or What Is My IP?. They can also give you information such as the Internet service provider to which your IP belongs and even its geographical location.
In addition, you should be able to get this information from your router by logging in to the admin interface. This really differs from device to device, so consult your manual. Some even (shockingly) display this information without having to log in.
Look Up Your Website’s IP Address
As a website owner, one of the things that happens more frequently is that you want to find out your site’s IP. This could be to configure an SSL certificate, adjust DNS settings, or simply to troubleshoot your server.
To do that, usually, your first port of call is your hosting provider. They are the ones who can tell you your IP address for such purposes.
At the same time, there are also tools similar to the ones mentioned earlier, such as Website to IP lookup. Simply enter the domain for the website which you want to have the IP for and it will tell you.
Finally, you can also use the command line interface, aka the Command Prompt (Windows, see below) or Terminal (Mac). Open it, and enter ping example.com (replace with your own domain), and you will see the IP address that belongs to it.
Quick warning: It is possible for several websites to share an IP address. In fact, this is a very common practice in shared hosting because it allows providers to put many websites on a singular server, which is more cost-efficient. In addition, if a site is using a CDN and you ping it, you will get the IP address from the CDN server instead. For that reason, it’s always best to try and get your IP address from your hosting provider, as that is the most reliable source.
How Can I Find My Local IP Address?
That only leaves the question of how you can find out your local IP address. That would be necessary, for example, to identify network conflicts or configure devices.
On a Windows PC, there are two main ways to find your IP. For one, you can go to the Start menu and then Settings > Network & internet > WiFi/Ethernet (depending on how you connect to your router).
Another way is to use the command prompt:
- In the Start menu, type cmd into the search bar and press the Enter key on your keyboard.
- In the window that opens, type ipconfig and then press Enter again.
- Once done, you will see the information on your system’s network. The IP address of your computer is displayed next to IPv4 Address.
If you’re using MacOS:
- Open the Launchpad and select System Preferences.
- Once opened, click on the Network icon and select the connection you are using (for example, Wi-Fi) from the left sidebar.
- Your local IP address will show up alongside the name of the network you are connected to.
How to Protect Your IP Address
As we have established, IP addresses are crucial information. They control the connection between devices and make them available on the Internet. On the flipside, that also makes them a potential inroad for others to do harm to web-connected devices.
For example, it is possible to use a public IP address to perform a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack on the server of a website to make it unavailable. In such an attack, a server becomes flooded by fake traffic to overwhelm the machine and bring it to a crawl. IP addresses can also play a role in location tracking, spam generation, and identity theft.
Private IP addresses are also worth protecting, especially in unsecured networks. Doing so keeps your computer from being infected and prohibits other network devices from stealing passwords and login information during transfer.
Available Safety Measures
In order to avoid these kinds of scenarios, here are some ways to protect your IP addresses:
- Use a VPN – A VPN encrypts your Internet connection and routes your traffic through a remote server. This changes your visible IP address to that of the VPN server, making it difficult for others to trace. You can use this to connect your private IP in public wi-fi networks.
- Employ a proxy server – Similar to a VPN, with a proxy server your traffic goes through another device first. This protects your IP address though not as effectively or securely as a VPN. It’s an option that also exists for websites.
- Enable a firewall – This helps to protect your devices and website from unauthorized access and potential cyberattacks. You can implement firewalls both in your home network as well as as part of your website’s protection system. They will keep out DDoS attacks and other malicious connection attempts. It’s also one of the ways that WordPress.com protects your site.
- Set up a CDN – As mentioned earlier, doing this turns your site’s IP address into that of the CDN server when pinged. That way, you can protect your website’s IP address from being found out by third parties. Many CDN providers also offer firewalls, DDoS protection, and other security measures as part of their service.
Congratulations, You Now Know What an IP Address Is
IP addresses are one of those intangible parts of everyday life that we use regularly but might not really know about. However, as you have hopefully understood by now, they are what enables the entire thing that we call “the Internet” and connecting your various devices to it.
Above, we have covered why IP addresses matter, the difference between public and private, as well as static and dynamic addresses. We have also given you ways to determine what your IP address is or what your website’s IP address is – and how to protect it.
We hope that by now, if someone asks, “what is an IP address”?, you feel in a position to confidently answer that question.
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