An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numerical label assigned to each device connected to 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.
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 in December 1998. In July 2017, a final definition of the protocol was published. 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.
Multiple client devices can appear to share an IP address, either because they are part of a shared hosting web server environment or because an IPv4 network address translator (NAT) or proxy server acts as an intermediary agent on behalf of the client, in which case the real originating IP address might be masked from the server receiving a request. A common practice is to have a NAT mask a large number of devices in a private network. Only the "outside" interface(s) of the NAT needs to have an Internet-routable address.
Commonly, the NAT device maps TCP or UDP port numbers on the side of the larger, public network to individual private addresses on the masqueraded network.
In residential networks, NAT functions are usually implemented in a residential gateway. In this scenario, the computers connected to the router have private IP addresses and the router has a public address on its external interface to communicate on the Internet. The internal computers appear to share one public IP address.