Internet protocol (IP) is the system computers use to send data – over the internet – from one computer to another. It’s a central part of how we access the internet every day – but most of us don’t know how it works.
What is internet protocol and how does it work? Today, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about internet protocol.
First, internet protocol is best defined as the method or protocol by which data is sent from one computer to another on the internet. Every computer – also known as a “host” – has at least one IP address. This IP address uniquely identifies the computer on the network, which allows communications to go exactly where they’re supposed to go without getting lost along the way.
How Does Internet Protocol Work?
When you send or receive data on the internet, that data isn’t sent as one big data chunk.
Instead, your data gets divided into many smaller chunks, each of which is called a “packet”. These data packets list both the sender’s IP address and the receiver’s IP address.
In order for the sending and receiving computers to communicate, there needs to be a gateway computer in between. Think of the gateway computer like the operator of an old telephone switchboard.
That gateway computer has jurisdiction over a small part of the internet. The packet is sent through the gateway computer. The gateway computer reads the destination address, then forwards the packet to an adjacent gateway. This process continues until the packet reaches the intended destination.
Why are multiple gateway computers needed? Well, each gateway computer only recognizes its specific “jurisdiction” over one small part of the internet. If the gateway doesn’t recognize the intended address as belonging to its specific part of the internet, then the packet will continue to be forwarded until a gateway computer recognizes the packet as belonging to a computer within its jurisdiction.
Once a gateway computer recognizes the intended IP address, it forwards the data packet directly to that computer.
Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)
Up above, we talked about how data is sent over the internet through packets. The data you’re reading right now was chopped up, delivered through the internet protocol system, and appeared on your screen in a coherent form.
How does that work?
Well, because data is divided into a number of different packets, it can arrive at its intended address through different routes. Some of the data packets will go through some gateway computers, for example, while others will go another route.
That means the packets could arrive at their intended IP address out of place.
At this point, it becomes the job of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to put the data packets back in the right order.
TCP works because it keeps track of the packet sequence in each message. Once all the data packets have been received, TCP assembled it all into a coherent message.
Why is Internet Protocol a Connectionless Protocol?
IP is called a connectionless protocol because there is no continuing connection between the end points that are communicating.
Every data packet that travels through the internet operates as an independent unit of data. It has no relation with any other packet of data – regardless of whether or not they came from the same chunk of data.
Types of Internet Protocol
Internet protocol has evolved over the years as we’ve gradually run out of IP addresses. As each IP address system ran out of unique IP addresses to give out, we’ve had to invent a new system (of course, changing data requirements, bigger data, and a changing internet also played a role).
In the early days of the internet, the most widely-used version of internet protocol was called Internet Protocol Version 4, better known as IPv4.
Today, IP Version 6, or IPv6, is the most recent version of the internet protocol. It was introduced to deal with IPv4 address exhaustion.
IPv6 uses a 128-bit address, which gives us approximately 4.3 billion new IP addresses. Other major changes included increasing the number of bytes used in addressing from 4 bytes to 16 bytes, introducing anycast routing, and removing the checksum from the IP layer, among many other improvements.
If you’re wondering where IPv5 went, it was skipped due to a naming problem. Raffi Krikorian goes into good detail about the issue here, but it basically involves “IPv5” already being used by a team of researchers in the 1970s.
IPv6 Data Packets
IPv6 data packets consist of two main parts: the header and the payload.
The first 40 bytes/octets of a data packet comprise of the header, including the 16-bit payload length field contains the length of the data field in octets/bits.
The header consists of the following fields: Version, Traffic Class, Flow Label, Payload Length, Next Header, Hop Limit, Source Address, and Destination Address.
Then, the header is followed by the payload. The standard payload length for IPv6 (as well as IPv4) is 16 bits, which is capable of specifying a maximum size of 65 535 octets for the payload.
Together, the header and the payload make up the IPv6 data packet and enable communication across the internet.
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