The Basics of Networking: Understanding IP Addresses and Subnets

Feb 6, 2024

IP addresses. The term often is quite confusing to many. It does bring out our curiosity, just because of the way it works. And so do subnets. These terminologies are thrown around simultaneously. However, there’s a thin line difference between both. 

For you to not fret out, the guide down here will help you understand the crux/the difference between IP addresses and subnets. No matter whether you’re a tech enthusiast or just someone who wants to know more about how the internet works, this guide is for you all.

Initially, to make the process simpler, we will break down both complex concepts. From what they are, how they are used, to why they are important in the world of networking, you’ll get to know everything.

By the end of this guide, you’ll even understand the various benefits of subnetting. Yes, there are many.

So let’s dive in!

Understanding IP addresses

In layman’s language, IP addresses are unique numerical identifiers. It is assigned to every device connected to a network. One can even say that these numbers are the device’s “address” on the internet, just the way we have one for our house. And hence, with this address, only one can send and receive data.

An IP address consists of a series of numbers separated by periods, such as

Now, coming to the types: IPv4 and IPv6 are the ones you will get to see commonly. In fact, IPv4 addresses are the most common and consist of four sets of numbers, each ranging from 0 to 255.

However, IPv4 has been running out for the past few years because of the increasing number of devices connected to the internet. This is where IPv6 addresses came into the picture.

IPv6, as compared to the latter one, uses a longer format consisting of eight sets of numbers and letters. Hence, the addresses provided by IPv6 are practically unlimited and unique in nature to accommodate the growing demand.

But, why are we discussing Internet Protocols?

Navigating the internet. When you enter a website’s URL in your browser, your device sends a request to the website’s IP address, which then sends the requested data back to your device.

Without IP addresses, the internet as we know it would not be possible.

Types of IP addresses – IPv4 and IPv6

IP addresses are fundamental to the functioning of the internet. They serve as unique identifiers for devices connected to a network, both IPv4 and IPv6 (the two main types)

IPv4, which stands for Internet Protocol version 4, is the most widely used version of IP addresses. It consists of a series of four sets of numbers separated by periods, for example, Each set can range from 0 to 255, allowing for a total of approximately 4.3 billion unique addresses. However,  IPv4 is not majorly used these days because of the growing number of internet users.

Now IPv6. This Internet Protocol version provides a much larger pool of addresses. The addresses are represented by eight sets of four hexadecimal digits separated by colons. For example, 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334. The vast number of IPv6 addresses ensures that we won’t run out anytime soon, as compared to the 4th version.

While IPv4 is still widely used, the industry is gradually transitioning towards IPv6 to accommodate the increasing number of devices and the future growth of the internet.

What is a subnet?

After IP addresses come the subnet. A subnet is a smaller subdivision of a larger network. It looks into the efficient allocation of IP addresses. Also, it helps in organizing and managing network resources.

In simpler language, a subnet allows a network to be divided into smaller networks. Each network thus has its range of IP addresses. Because of this division, the network traffic is controlled. There’s a massive improvement in performance as well as security.

The identification of subnets is usually done by a subnet mask. These masks are a set of numbers that determine which part of the IP address represents the network and which part represents the host. The format is almost similar to the IP address, using either dotted decimal notation (for IPv4) or hexadecimal notation (for IPv6).

How IP addresses and subnets work together

IP addresses and subnets are now known to us – but how both are interconnected, even the terminologies?

To make you understand the crux, just know that – In a network, each device is assigned an IP address, and the subnet mask determines which part of that IP address is used to identify the network.

When a device wants to communicate with another device on the same network, it checks if the destination of the IP address belongs to the same network as itself. If it does, the device directly sends the data to the destination device.

However, if the destination IP address belongs to a different network, the device needs to send the data to its default gateway, which acts as the bridge between different networks.

The default gateway receives the data and checks its routing table to determine the appropriate path to the destination network. It then forwards the data to the next hop until it reaches the destination network. It gives the data a route, hence the process is called routing

By using subnets, networks can be efficiently divided into smaller units. Because of this management gets better along with the security. There is reduced network congestion.

And to the last, subnetting also enables the efficient use of IP addresses. The allocation of addresses here is based on the specific needs of each subnet.

All in all, the only thing you have to remember is – IP addresses serve as unique identifiers and subnets, on the other hand, enable efficient allocation. Both together improve performance, and enhance security, leading to optimized network management and better internet functionality!

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