Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) defines an IP address as a 32-bit number. However, because of the growth of the Internet and the depletion of available IPv4 addresses, a new version of IP (IPv6), using 128 bits for the IP address, was developed in 1995, and standardized as RFC 2460 in 1998. IPv6 deployment has been ongoing since the mid-2000s.
IP addresses are usually written and displayed in human-readable notations, such as 172.16.254.1 in IPv4, and 2001:db8:0:1234:0:567:8:1 in IPv6. The size of the routing prefix of the address is designated in CIDR notation by suffixing the address with the number of significant bits, e.g., 192.168.1.15/24, which is equivalent to the historically used subnet mask 255.255.255.0.
The IP address space is managed globally by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and by five regional Internet registries (RIRs) responsible in their designated territories for assignment to end users and local Internet registries, such as Internet service providers. IPv4 addresses have been distributed by IANA to the RIRs in blocks of approximately 16.8 million addresses each. Each ISP or private network administrator assigns an IP address to each device connected to its network. Such assignments may be on a static (fixed or permanent) or dynamic basis, depending on its software and practices.
An IPv4 address has a size of 32 bits, which limits the address space to 4294967296 (232) addresses. Of this number, some addresses are reserved for special purposes such as private networks (~18 million addresses) and multicast addressing (~270 million addresses).
IPv4 addresses are usually represented in dot-decimal notation, consisting 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.
In the early stages of development of the Internet Protocol, network administrators interpreted an IP address in two parts: network number portion and host number portion. The highest order octet (most significant eight bits) in an address was designated as the network number and the remaining bits were called the rest field or host identifier and were used for host numbering within a network.
This early method soon proved inadequate as additional networks developed that were independent of the existing networks already designated by a network number. In 1981, the Internet addressing specification was revised with the introduction of classful network architecture.
Classful network design allowed for a larger number of individual network assignments and fine-grained subnetwork design. The first three bits of the most significant octet of an IP address was defined as the class of the address. Three classes (A, B, and C) were defined for universal unicast addressing. Depending on the class derived, the network identification was based on octet boundary segments of the entire address. Each class used successively additional octets in the network identifier, thus reducing the possible number of hosts in the higher order classes (B and C). The following table gives an overview of this now obsolete system.
|Size of network
number bit field
|Size of rest
Classful network design served its purpose in the startup stage of the Internet, but it lacked scalability in the face of the rapid expansion of the network in the 1990s. The class system of the address space was replaced with Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR) in 1993. CIDR is based on variable-length subnet masking (VLSM) to allow allocation and routing based on arbitrary-length prefixes.
Today, remnants of classful network concepts function only in a limited scope as the default configuration parameters of some network software and hardware components (e.g. netmask), and in the technical jargon used in network administrators’ discussions.
Early network design, when global end-to-end connectivity was envisioned for communications with all Internet hosts, intended that IP addresses be uniquely assigned to a particular computer or device. However, it was found that this was not always necessary as private networks developed and public address space needed to be conserved.
Computers not connected to the Internet, such as factory machines that communicate only with each other via TCP/IP, need not have globally unique IP addresses. Three non-overlapping ranges of IPv4 addresses for private networks were reserved in RFC 1918. These addresses are not routed on the Internet and thus their use need not be coordinated with an IP address registry.
Today, when needed, such private networks typically connect to the Internet through network address translation (NAT).
|Number of addresses
Any user may use any of the reserved blocks. Typically, a network administrator will divide a block into subnets; for example, many home routers automatically use a default address range of 192.168.0.0 through 192.168.0.255 (192.168.0.0/24).
In IPv6, the address size was increased from 32 bits in IPv4 to 128 bits or 16 octets, thus providing up to 2128(approximately 3.403×1038) addresses. This is deemed sufficient for the foreseeable future.
The intent of the new design was not to provide just a sufficient quantity of addresses, but also redesign routing on the Internet by more efficient aggregation of subnetwork routing prefixes. This resulted in slower growth of routing tables in routers. 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 ratios will be small on any IPv6 network segment. The new design also provides the opportunity to separate the addressing infrastructure of a network segment, i.e. the local administration of the segment’s available space, from the addressing prefix used to route traffic to and from external networks. 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 manual renumbering.
A 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 no need to have complex address conservation methods as used in CIDR.
All 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 residential networking routers, voice over IP (VoIP) and multimedia equipment, and network peripherals.
Just as IPv4 reserves addresses for private networks, blocks of addresses are set aside in IPv6. In IPv6, these are referred to as unique local addresses (ULA). RFC 4193 reserves the routing prefix fc00::/7 for this block which is divided into two /8 blocks with different implied policies. The addresses include a 40-bit pseudorandom number that minimizes the risk of address collisions if sites merge or packets are misrouted.
Early practices used a different block for this purpose (fec0::), dubbed site-local addresses. However, the definition of what constituted sites remained unclear and the poorly defined addressing policy created ambiguities for routing. This address type was abandoned and must not be used in new systems.
Addresses starting with fe80:, called link-local addresses, are assigned to interfaces for communication on the attached link. The addresses are automatically generated by the operating system for each network interface. This provides instant and automatic communication between all IPv6 host on a link. This feature is required in the lower layers of IPv6 network administration, such as for the Neighbor Discovery Protocol.
Private address prefixes may not be routed on the public Internet.