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The Hierarchical IP Addressing Scheme

An IP address consists of 32 bits of information. These bits are divided into four sections, referred to as octets or bytes, and four octets sum up to 32 bits (8 × 4 = 32). You can depict an IP address using one of three methods:

Dotted-decimal, as in 172.16.30.56 Binary, as in 10101100.00010000.00011110.00111000 Hexadecimal, as in AC.10.1E.38

Each of these examples validly represents the same IP address. Hexadecimal is used with IPv6, and IP addressing uses dotted-decimal or binary, but you still might find an IP address stored in hexadecimal in some programs. The Windows Registry is a good example of a program that stores a machine's IP address in hex.

The 32-bit IP address is known as a structured, or hierarchical, address as opposed to a flat, or nonhierarchical, address. Although either type of addressing scheme can be used, hierarchical addressing has been chosen for a very important reason. The major advantage of this scheme is that it can handle a large number of addresses, namely, 4.3 billion (a 32-bit address space with two possible values for each position—either 0 or 1—gives you 232, or 4,294,967,296). The disadvantage of the flat-addressing scheme, and the reason it's not used for IP addressing, relates to routing. If every address were unique, all routers on the Internet would need to store the address of each and every machine on the Internet. This would make efficient routing impossible, even if only a fraction of all possible addresses were used.

The solution to this problem is to use a two- or three-level hierarchical addressing scheme that is structured by network and host or by network, subnet, and host.

This two- or three-level scheme is comparable to a telephone number. The first section, the area code, designates a very large area. The second section, the prefix, narrows the scope to a local calling area. The final segment, the customer number, zooms in on the specific connection. IP addresses use the same type of layered structure. Rather than all 32 bits being treated as a unique identifier, as in flat addressing, a part of the address is designated as the network address and the other part is designated as either the subnet and host or just the host address.


Published on Wed 14 April 1999 by Manuel Poirot in Networking with tag(s): ip addresses