Image: NASA private intranet, circa 1993
You have probably heard people talk about IP addresses, and perhaps you nod your head knowingly, or say “uh-hu” when us techie folks mention them, hoping we will quickly move on to a more interesting topic soon. But there’s a lot to talk about: static IPs. Dynamic IPs. IPv6. IPv4. (What the heck happened to IPv5? Anyone?) We can even talk about running out of IPs!
To explain it simply, traffic on the Internet is routed using numbers, much like a telephone number. These Internet Protocol (IP) numbers give information about where the packet of information should be sent next. Much like (415)xxx-xxxx tells a phone switch in New York City to hand the call toward the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Internet a packet going to 50.x.x.x is destined for someone at Sonic.net.
As with a phone number, the next numbers defines the destination more closely; (415)563-xxxx routes the call toward central San Francisco. And, with an IP address, 50.0.1.x tell Sonic.net to send the traffic toward a specific city, toward the customer.
The last segment of the telephone number and of the IP address further identify the individual destination within the local serving area – a specific destination computer in the case of the IP address; a phone that is triggered to ring in the telephone example.
Now – static IPs. A dynamic IP is temporary – it’s given to you to use for a brief period of time, but it’s subject to change. As such, you cannot practically use it for much beyond consumption online, activities where you “make” the call (click for some content), not where your own system is “called”. It’s a bit like borrowing a friend’s cell phone to make a call – you could initiate a call, but there’s no way for someone elsewhere to know the number to reach you at without some prearrangement.
A static IP gives you your very own number on the Internet, an unchanging address which you can refer to. This isn’t particularly interesting for most day to day activities online, but there are some specific situations where a static IP is essential.
One simple example is a home webcam. Want to check up on your pet while your away, or keep an eye on the street outside your home while you are at work? (Wondering if the package delivery man really does drop-kick your packages off the truck at the end of the driveway?) An inexpensive networked camera, configured behind your static IP address can make this this possible.
You might also use a static IP to configure some basic home automation, allowing you to check on your thermostat or turn off an appliance. Or, access a home PC using the built-in Remote Desktop service – there is no need to pay monthly for a service like “GoToMyPC” (which is basically just a $10 per month workaround for people who don’t have a static IP.) You might run a game server, and invite your friends to play head to head. Finally, an employer might require that you utilize a static IP as an additional layer of security for remote access by a connected worker at home.
And, with just one static IP, you can use “port forwarding”, which allows multiple devices inside the home, all accessible by specific addresses that you select and configure. Want to learn more, or have questions? Visit our Forums!
If you’re a non-technical user of the Internet and the idea of these sorts of things makes you want to go outside and pull weeds in the garden, forget I brought it up. But, if you want to do some fun Internet-connected projects, a static IP is a key component. Now you know!