Internet Protocol Explained: Understanding Differences Between IPv4 and IPv6

by Dan Goodin
27 Apr 2022

"Proxy & VPN Virtuoso. With a decade in the trenches of online privacy, Dan is your go-to guru for all things proxy and VPN. His sharp insights and candid reviews cut through the digital fog, guiding you to secure, anonymous browsing."

A lot of tasks we perform on a daily basis – paying bills, ordering food, booking tickets – are performed using the Internet. If you are experiencing lags when performing tasks online, there might be an issue with your IP address. Understanding what it is and how it works can help you troubleshoot network problems. This article describes the basics of the Internet protocol and explains the difference between IPv4 and IPv6 for you to choose the option that ensures secure and effective routing performance.

What Is IP? 

In a nutshell, Internet Protocol (IP) is a set of rules that governs network communication. By these rules, devices exchange data. Just as a home address allows telling one apartment from another, an IP address allows differentiating between devices and ensures the information reaches the target addressee. In this manner, IP is one of the technologies that make the work of the global network possible.

An IP address looks like a series of numbers separated by periods or colons. The numbers range from 0 to 255. An example of such an address would be IP is assigned to the device by the Internet Service Provider (ISP). The number is not random but is, instead, produced by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Each device has its own IP.

How IP works

Imagine you are writing an email to a colleague. You finish it, press “send” and, in an instant, the colleague is reading it. Have you ever tried to imagine what happens in between? How exactly does your email reach the colleague? 

The point is that our language is largely different from the one computers use. That is why to deliver a message to another device, a computer translates it into the language of electronic signals. The translation is performed by different layers of the communication protocol including IP. The role of the latter is to break the message into chunks of data for devices to exchange it and to reassemble the chunks for the addressee to receive the message exactly the same as it was sent.

How to secure your IP address

If compromised, the IP address can give away some information about your online activity, which you might prefer to keep private. To prevent this, you might hide the IP. Apart from keeping your online activity secret, this likewise allows bypassing local Internet restrictions and protecting your data from government surveillance. Here are some simple steps one can take to hide IP:

  • Strong passwords: One central barrier that prevents third parties from accessing your device is the device password. It is a good idea to create a strong unique password instead of using a default one.
  • VPNs: Virtual Private Network (VPN) acts as an intermediary between you and the Internet. VPN encrypts your data and routes it through its private server rather than through your ISP. In this manner, your data is encrypted and comes from a VPN rather than from your own device. There are many VPN services to choose from in 2022: they vary by encryption methods and monthly plans. Many VPNs are free or offer free trials.
  • Proxy servers: Just like VPNs, proxy servers encrypt and hide users’ IP addresses. Unlike the former, however, they do not encrypt web activity, which means your data might be accessed by third parties if a proxy server gets hacked. A proxy server is a good option if you need to hide your IP for a single website. Proxy servers can be of different types and it is a good idea to learn more details about each type to decide which proxy server meets your needs best.
  • Tor: Tor is a web browser that protects your data by encrypting your online activity, replacing your IP with another one, and clearing the cookies and the browsing history every time you leave a website.
  • Anti-detect browsers: Such browsers protect your privacy by creating unique digital prints not only for each device but for each online account. This means you can use several web accounts without being identified as a single user. This is particularly relevant to businesses that need to manage multiple accounts for commercial purposes. Find out more about the best anti-detect browsers here.

IPv4 and IPv6

The security and effectiveness of your routing performance depend, among all else, on the type of your IP address: IPv4 or IPv6. Let us take a closer look at the core features of the two types and the differences between them.

What is IPv4?

Despite its name, Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) is, in fact, the first version of the protocol that has been in use since 1983. This version is based on a 32-bit address scheme. An example of such an address would be 192.0. 2.146. Some core features of this version include

  • connectionless communication;
  • a simple virtual communication layer to connect diversified devices;
  • a small memory footprint;
  • millions of devices using it.

The fourth version of IP stores over 4 billion addresses and supports more than 90% of the Internet traffic. Nevertheless, its resources are about to exhaust. This is not surprising given the fact that the world’s population is 7.7 billion and many people use more than one device. Thus, for instance, a poll carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that a typical household in the US uses more than three devices. The poll took place five years ago and it seems to be unlikely that the number has decreased since then. This is why a newer protocol was designed as a more efficient alternative. 

What is IPv6?

Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) is the newest IP version designed in response to the growing need for IP addresses, which its predecessor is unable to satisfy. In contrast to the fourth version, the IPv6 IP address contains both numbers and letters separated by colons rather than periods. An example of such an address would be 2002:db8::8a3f:362:7897. Some core features of this version include

  • a hierarchical infrastructure that makes routing more compact and efficient;
  • both stateful and stateless autoconfiguration;
  • extended options to control packet sending: traffic class and flow label fields;
  • the Neighbour Discovery protocol solves problems with neighboring node interaction.

The sixth version of IP is based on the 128-bit address scheme meaning that it can potentially store as many as 340 undecillion addresses (as opposed to 4 billion addresses stored by the fourth version). In this manner, an IPv6-based network can store more addresses than the whole IPv4 space can.

IPv4 vs IPv6: A comparison

Although the two versions of IP have shared purposes, there are some fundamental differences in how they are designed.

32-bit address scheme128-bit address scheme
numeric addressing method; the numbers are separated by dotsalphanumeric addressing method; the numbers and letters are separated by colons
12 header fields8 header fields
uses manual configurationuses autoconfiguration
supports broadcast addressesdoes not support broadcast addresses; as an alternative, supports multicast addresses
checksum fieldsno checksum fields to simplify the header and speed up packet sending

The differences in the design result in the differences in how the two protocols operate:

  • Speed: According to the speed tests that are currently available, the two versions of IP show approximately the same speed. In the meantime, the design of IPv6, specifically, the fact that it does not use Network Address Translation (NAT), suggests that it has the potential of demonstrating faster performance than IPv4 currently does. At present, the advantage of the latter is rooted in the fact that it has a lot more users and is better optimized. Chances are that in the future, IPv6 shall win the competition thanks to further tuning and optimization.
  • Configuration: IPv4 uses manual configuration or, the so-called, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). DHCP automates the process of assigning IPs to clients, is easy to implement, and is generally reliable. In the meantime, manual configuration is essentially more vulnerable in terms of security and efficiency than autoconfiguration. Thus, for instance, manual configuration gets fairly time-consuming when there are hundreds or thousands of devices that need to be configured. From this standpoint, IPv6’s shift towards autoconfiguration is a serious improvement.
  • Security: In theory, the two versions of the protocol can offer an equal level of security. The key issue here is that IPv6 is designed to be secure, whereas the IPv4 format has the potential of being secure. Thus, the former uses end-to-end encryption so that the user’s traffic cannot be deciphered by a third party. The latter, in turn, can offer similar security but to enjoy it, one needs to use Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), which is embedded into IPv6 but is optional for IPv4. Along with this, one must keep track of IPsec updates when using it with the fourth version to ensure that the protocol works as intended.

Advantages of IPv6

To sum up, IPv6 has some advantages over the previous version. 

  • It does not need NAT and so it offers a higher speed of performance.
  • It uses autoconfiguration, which is more secure and efficient than manual configuration.
  • The use of autoconfiguration results in simpler administration.
  • It uses a simpler header that allows IPv6 to speed up the sending of packets.
  • It has enhanced QoS (e.g., traffic class, flow label fields).
  • It solves the problem with neighboring node interaction thanks to its Neighbour Discovery protocol.
  • The routing that it offers is more efficient because it is simplified.

IPv4 to IPv6

Given its multiple advantages, IPv6 can be justly expected to entirely replace IPv4 in the long run. At present, however, the two versions of the protocol coexist: the fourth version is used more heavily and is better optimized, whereas the sixth version has a more advantageous design that allows for safer, faster, and more efficient routing. The transition from IPv4 to IPv6 can be performed using one of the three strategies:

  • Dual stack: The strategy allows for a flexible coexistence of the two versions and might be useful to enterprise networks. 
  • Tunneling: The strategy suggests that IPv6 packets are encapsulated into IPv4 packets to enable their routing through the fourth version’s infrastructure. 
  • NAT Protocol Translation: The strategy implies the use of the NAT protocol that “translates” IPv6 to IPv4 and vice versa.
Why do most people use IPv4? Should I use IPv4 or IPv6?

A complete transition from IPv4 to IPv6 would be costly, time-consuming, and hardly accomplishable. IPv4 has been in use for forty years now and so it takes time to replace it with the newer version. If possible, the best option is to have both versions.

Can I use both IPv4 and IPv6?

Yes, some devices allow using the two versions together. The dual-stack strategy will help you do that.

Can I convert IPv6 to IPv4?

Technically, this is possible. In the meantime, because the potential number of IPv6 addresses is far bigger than that of IPv4 addresses, it is impossible to convert them all.

Is there IPv5?

IPv5 was, indeed, developed in the 1980s. In the meantime, the protocol was not widely deployed largely because it used the same 32-bit address scheme as IPv4 does.

What happens when IPv4’s resources get completely exhausted?

Even if the pool of IPv4 is depleted (which should inevitably happen one day), existing IPv4 addresses are expected to work as they used to. There will be a need for more strategies to allow for a healthy coexistence of the two versions.

IPv4 or IPv6 which one to use for gaming?

In a nutshell, IPv6 is a better choice for gaming purposes. One major advantage of IPv6 that might be particularly relevant to gaming is that it offers a higher speed of routing performance. Along with this, it eliminates the need for using port forwarding.

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