What is IP (Internet Protocol)?

By Hal Werner

The Internet Protocol (IP) is the principal communications protocol in the Internet protocol suite for relaying datagrams across network boundaries. Its routing function enables internetworking, and essentially establishes the Internet.

IP has the task of delivering packets from the source host to the destination host solely based on the IP addresses in the packet headers. For this purpose, IP defines packet structures that encapsulate the data to be delivered. It also defines addressing methods that are used to label the datagram with source and destination information.

IP addressing entails the assignment of IP addresses and associated parameters to host interfaces. The address space is divided into networks and sub networks, involving the designation of network or routing prefixes. IP routing is performed by all hosts, but most importantly by routers, which transport packets across network boundaries. Routers communicate with one another via specially designed routing protocols, either interior gateway protocols or exterior gateway protocols, as needed for the topology of the network.

IP routing is also common in local networks. For example, many Ethernet switches support IP multicast operations. These switches use IP addresses and Internet Group Management Protocol to control multicast routing but use MAC addresses for the actual routing.