IP addresses are an important part of how the internet works, but one that most people don’t understand.
That’s because the use of IP addresses mostly happens behind the scenes. Your average user never has to think about the configuration of letters and numbers. But the internet processes, network, and devices that all communicate with each other need them to function properly.
If you want to better understand the basics of how IP addresses work, one of the most important things to learn about is all the different types of IP addresses and how they communicate with one another.
What Is an IP address?
The first step to understanding the different types of IP addresses is knowing what an IP address is to begin with. IP stands for internet protocol, which is the “set of rules governing the format of data sent over the Internet or other network.”
In other words, it’s pretty much the basis for how the internet works and different devices communicate with each other. An IP address is an important part of that process, since it’s the identifier for each device connected to the network. The internet needs a way to differentiate between different computers, routers, and websites. IP addresses is how it does so.
For most items that have an IP address, people also assign them names that are easier for humans to recognize and remember. You may have given your computer a name like “Suzy’s Mac” or called your smartphone “Joe’s Android”. But when it connects to your router or a specific site on the web, all the tech involved will identify it by the unique IP address it has at that time.
IP Address Example
It’s a little easier to visualize what we’re talking about if you can see what an IP address looks like. It’s a string of numbers separated by periods. You can see what the IP address for your own network looks like right now on HostGator’s What is your IP address? page.
You’ll most likely find an address there that has:
- Four different numbers, separated by periods
- Each with one to three digits
- All of them falling between 0 and 255
Most IP addresses have the same basic format (although there are some notable exceptions we’ll get into later in this post). But there are a few different types of IP addresses to be aware of.
The Different Categories of IP Addresses
There aren’t just two types of IP addresses. Actually, there are a number of different categories that each include a couple of different types of IP addresses. Sounds complicated, right?
It’s not that hard to understand when it’s laid out in clear terms. Here’s what you need to know.
The 2 Types of IP Addresses Consumers Have
Every person or business with an internet service plan will have two types of IP addresses: their private IP addresses, and the public IP address.
Private IP Addresses
Every device that connects to your home internet network has a private IP address. Most obviously, that will include any computers, smartphones, and tablets used in your household. But it also likely includes any bluetooth devices you use like speakers or printers, any smart products you’ve set up, any smart TVs or Rokus you have, and so on. With a growing industry of internet of things (IoT) products, the number of private IP addresses you’re likely to have in your own home is growing.
Your router needs a way to identify each of these items separately, and many of the items need a way to recognize each other. For example, when you go to pair your bluetooth headphones with your smartphone, you need the products to recognize each other. Your router therefore generates private IP addresses which are unique identifiers for each product that differentiate them all on the network.
There are ways to find out what the private IP is for most of the devices on your network if you want to know, and ways to change your IP address on most devices as well. But for the most part, you won’t need to know what private IP address each item has. That’s information your router will use, but most of the routing devices connected to your network interface will have more recognizable names for anytime you need to find them, ones that either you or the manufacturer supplied.
Public IP Addresses
Your public IP address is the one primary address associated with your whole network. Where each of the connected devices has their own IP address, all of them are also included under the main public IP address for your network.
Your public IP address is provided to your router by your internet service provider (ISP). They generally have a large pool of IP addresses they’ve bought and distributed among their different customers. This is the address that all the devices outside of your internet network will use to recognize your network and anything connected to it. This is also the address you saw if you clicked on the page we provided from HostGator to learn your IP address up above.
Your public IP address is tied to all your internet activity. If ISPs get a notice about illegal activity happening on their servers, the public IP address tells them which customer is behind it. So if you download media illegally or send emails that count as spam, your public IP address is how those behaviors can be tracked back to you.
The 2 Types of Public IP Addresses
Public IP addresses come in two main varieties of their own.
Dynamic IP Addresses
Dynamic IP addresses automatically change frequently. Most internet users will be provided with a dynamic IP address from their ISP. ISPs buy a big block of IP addresses and automatically assign one to each customer. Then, they’ll periodically assign them a new one and put the older one back in the pool to be recycled for another customer.
That may seem like a strange approach to providing IP addresses, but it works out to be cheaper for ISPs and makes general maintenance easier. When the movement of IP addresses between different networks is a common and automated process, nothing special has to be done to re-set up an IP address for a customer after they make a move.
It also works out to being more secure for customers. When your IP address changes regularly, it’s that much harder for outsiders to hack into your network interface. For most internet users, a dynamic address makes the most sense, but there are exceptions.
Static IP Addresses
Static IP addresses are consistent. A network is assigned one once, and you can count on it to stay the same over months and years. Not many people or businesses need static IP addresses, but there are some rare use cases where going with a static IP address is important. The main one is for any business that plans to host their own server.
If you’ll be maintaining your own server, then a static IP address will ensure that any websites or email addresses on it will be tied to consistent IP addresses. That’s important if you want other devices to be able to consistently find them on the web.
For most people and businesses though, having your own server doesn’t make sense. It’s much more affordable and convenient to go with a web hosting company that already owns plenty of servers and has the resources needed to maintain them safely and effectively.
The 2 Types of Website IP Addresses
If you’re planning to start a website and you do go with a web hosting service provider (which is recommended for almost all website owners), you’ll potentially encounter two types of website IP address options.
Shared IP Addresses
The most common types of hosting plans that website owners opt for involve sharing a server with other websites. With shared hosting plans—the most common and affordable option—your website will typically be one of dozens, if not hundreds of websites hosted on the same server.
That works out fine for a lot of websites, particularly individual and small business websites that don’t yet get a ton of visitors or have many files or pages on the site. But it typically means that your website doesn’t have its own unique IP address. Rather, it shares one with other websites.
That generally doesn’t cause issues, but there are a few situations where it can. For instance, if someone that shares your website’s IP is participating in online illegal activity, your website could end up on blacklists. Blacklisted websites may become inaccessible to some visitors, and emails associated with your domain could end up in spam folders. It’s not a super common issue to arise when you have a shared IP address for your website, but it’s a possibility.
Dedicated IP Addresses
Some types of web hosting plans come with a dedicated IP address (or more than one) included, and in other cases you may be able to buy one as an add-on to the plan you have. Besides helping you avoid potential backlists because of bad behavior from others on your server, there are a few additional benefits to dedicated IP hosting.
For one, it gives you the option of pulling up your website using the IP address alone, rather than your domain name. This comes in handy if you want a way to start building and testing out your website before you register your domain. It also allows you to access your website while you’re waiting on a domain transfer. Those are pretty niche needs, but in specific circumstances can be a benefit.
In addition, it can make using an SSL certificate for your website a little easier. At one time, a dedicated IP address was required if you wanted to use an SSL certificate.hat’s luckily no longer the case. Websites with a shared IP can still invest in an SSL using Server Name Identification (SNI), as long as your web hosting service provider supports it. But having a dedicated IP address can make using an SSL certificate a little easier.
And finally, a dedicated IP address lets you run your own FTP server. That can make it easier to share and transfer files with multiple people within an organization, and provides options like allowing anonymous FTP sharing.
Versions of IP Addresses
That covers the main types of IP addresses, but it’s also useful to know that there are two versions of IP addresses now available.
IPv4 stands for internet protocol version 4. It’s the most common version of IP addresses you’ll see. All the IP addresses we discussed and described in this article are IPv4 addresses. Anything with the XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX construction is an IPv4 IP address.
For years IPv4 has been the main game in town, and for now it still very much is. But with the internet’s rapid growth, there’s concern that the over 4 billion IP addresses it could possibly generate using the IPv4 construction won’t cut it. So while for practical purposes, it’s the primary type of IP address most consumers will encounter, it’s not the only option.
To keep us from running out of IPv4 IP addresses, we now also have IPv6. As you’d expect, this stands for internet protocol version 6 and is set up to allow for a far greater range of addresses than its predecessor. It’s also sometimes referred to as IPng, which stands for internet protocol next generation.
Where IPv4 is a 32-bit IP protocol address construction, IPv6 is 128-bit one. Instead of portions of the address being separated by periods, they’re divided by colons. And addresses can include both numerical and alphabetical digits. An IPv6 address can therefore look something like this: 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334.
That leaves room to create a lot more unique IP addresses for more data in the coming years, as the number of websites and devices in use continues to explode with each new configuration.
Understanding the Different Types of IP Addresses
In your day-to-day internet browsing or website building, you won’t have to worry about IP addresses much. But more knowledge has never been a bad thing.
Now you can pat yourself on the back: by making it to the end of this article, you officially know more about the different types of IP addresses than the average internet user.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.