What IP Means and How It Works

What does Internet Protocol mean and how does IP work?

Internet Protocol (IP) refers to a set of rules that govern how data packets are transmitted over a network. You don't have to know anything about what IP means to use network devices. For example, your laptop and phone use IP addresses, but you don't have to deal with the technical side to make them work.

However, it helps to have an understanding of what IP means and how and why it's a necessary component of network communication.

Internet Protocol

IP is a set of specifications that standardize how things work in devices connected to the internet. When put into a network communication context, an internet protocol describes how data packets move through a network.

A protocol ensures that all the machines on a network (or in the world, when it comes to the internet), however different they might be, speak the same "language" and can integrate into the framework.

The IP protocol standardizes the way machines over the internet or any IP network forward or route their packets based on their IP addresses.

Network administrator looks at a server rack.

IP Routing

Along with addressing, routing is one of the main functions of the IP protocol. Routing consists of forwarding IP packets from source to destination machines over a network, based on their IP addresses.

This transmission usually occurs through a router. The router uses the destination IP address to determine the next destination through a series of routers.


When Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) couples with IP, you get the internet highway traffic controller. TCP and IP work together to transmit data over the internet but at different levels.

Since IP does not guarantee reliable packet delivery over a network, TCP takes charge of making the connection reliable.

TCP is the protocol that ensures reliability in a transmission. Specifically, TCP guarantees:

  • No packets are lost.
  • The packets are in the right order.
  • The delay is at an acceptable level.
  • There is no duplication of packets.

All this is to ensure that the data received is consistent, in order, complete, and smooth (so that you don't hear broken speech).

During data transmission, TCP works just before IP. TCP bundles data into TCP packets before sending these to IP, which in turn encapsulates these in IP packets.

IP Addresses

IP addresses may be the most interesting and mysterious part of IP for many computer users. An IP address is a unique set of numbers that identifies a machine on a network, whether it is a computer, server, electronic device, router, phone, or another device.

The IP address is essential for routing and forwarding IP packets from source to destination. Without IP addresses, the internet wouldn't know where to send your email and other data.

In short, TCP handles the data while IP handles the location.

The most common type of IP address is an iPv4 address (for version 4 of the IP technology). Its 32-bit addressing provides about 4.3 billion IP addresses, but with the proliferation of mobile devices and Internet of Things devices, more IP addresses were needed. A new type of IP address, iPv6, has been deployed, and it's 128-bit addressing provides a quantity of addresses so vast that theoretically, we will never need more.

IPv5 was never deployed, primarily because it used the same 32-bit addressing as IPv4.

IP Packets

An IP Packet is a basic unit of information. It carries data and an IP header. Any piece of data, including TCP packets on a TCP/IP network, is broken into bits and placed into packets for transmission over the network.

When the packets reach their destination, they are reassembled into the original data.

When Voice Meets IP

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) takes advantage of this ubiquitous carrier technology to disseminate voice data packets to and from machines through services like Skype.

IP is where VoIP draws its power, the power to make a service cheaper and flexible by making use of an already-existing data carrier.

The first VoIP call predates the internet as we know it. It was part of an ARPANET experiment conducted in 1973.

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