An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numerical label assigned to each device (e.g., computer, printer) participating in a computer network that uses the Internet Protocol for communication. An IP address serves two principal functions: host or network interface identification and location addressing. Its role has been characterized as follows: "A name indicates what we seek. An address indicates where it is. A route indicates how to get there."
The designers of the Internet Protocol defined an IP address as a 32-bit number and this system, known as Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), is still in use today. However, due to the enormous growth of the Internet and the predicted depletion of available addresses, a new addressing system (IPv6), using 128 bits for the address, was developed in 1995, standardized as RFC 2460 in 1998, and its deployment has been ongoing since the mid-2000s.
IP addresses are binary numbers, but they are usually stored in text files and displayed in human-readable notations, such as 172.16.254.1 (for IPv4), and 2001:db8:0:1234:0:567:8:1 (for IPv6).
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) manages the IP address space allocations globally and delegates five regional Internet registries (RIRs) to allocate IP address blocks to local Internet registries (Internet service providers) and other entities.
Two versions of the Internet Protocol (IP) are in use: IP Version 4 and IP Version 6. Each version defines an IP address differently. Because of its prevalence, the generic term IP address typically still refers to the addresses defined by IPv4. The gap in version sequence between IPv4 and IPv6 resulted from the assignment of number 5 to the experimental Internet Stream Protocol in 1979, which however was never referred to as IPv5.
In IPv4 an address consists of 32 bits which limits the address space to 4294967296 (232) possible unique addresses. IPv4 reserves some addresses for special purposes such as private networks (~18 million addresses) or multicast addresses (~270 million addresses).
IPv4 addresses are canonically represented in dot-decimal notation, which consists of four decimal numbers, each ranging from 0 to 255, separated by dots, e.g., 172.16.254.1. Each part represents a group of 8 bits (octet) of the address. In some cases of technical writing, IPv4 addresses may be presented in various hexadecimal, octal, or binary representations.
Decomposition of an IPv4 address from dot-decimal notation to its binary value.
The rapid exhaustion of IPv4 address space, despite conservation techniques, prompted the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to explore new technologies to expand the Internet's addressing capability. The permanent solution was deemed to be a redesign of the Internet Protocol itself. This next generation of the Internet Protocol, intended to replace IPv4 on the Internet, was eventually named Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) in 1995. The address size was increased from 32 to 128 bits or 16 octets. This, even with a generous assignment of network blocks, is deemed sufficient for the foreseeable future. Mathematically, the new address space provides the potential for a maximum of 2128, or about 3.403×1038 unique addresses.
The new design is not intended to provide a sufficient quantity of addresses on its own, but rather to allow efficient aggregation of subnet routing prefixes to occur at routing nodes. As a result, routing table sizes are smaller, and the smallest possible individual allocation is a subnet for 264 hosts, which is the square of the size of the entire IPv4 Internet. At these levels, actual address utilization rates will be small on any IPv6 network segment. The new design also provides the opportunity to separate the addressing infrastructure of a network segment — that is the local administration of the segment's available space — from the addressing prefix used to route external traffic for a network. IPv6 has facilities that automatically change the routing prefix of entire networks, should the global connectivity or the routing policy change, without requiring internal redesign or renumbering.
The large number of IPv6 addresses allows large blocks to be assigned for specific purposes and, where appropriate, to be aggregated for efficient routing. With a large address space, there is not the need to have complex address conservation methods as used in Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR).
Many modern desktop and enterprise server operating systems include native support for the IPv6 protocol, but it is not yet widely deployed in other devices, such as home networking routers, voice over IP (VoIP) and multimedia equipment, and network peripherals.
Decomposition of an IPv6 address from hexadecimal representation to its binary value.