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What Is The Difference Between IPv4 and IPv6?

This article breaks down the differences between IPv4 and IPv6, shedding light on their internet addressing mechanisms, unique formats, and the critical shift towards IPv6 for the internet's expansive future.

Internet Protocol (IP) serves as the digital postcode for any kind of device connecting to the internet. It is a string of numbers, just like an individual phone number to help us exchange messages or data. In other words, an IP address plays a major role in two things: first, in helping people across the wide web to find each other, and secondly, in allowing devices to talk to each other and share information without any setbacks.
In this article, we will take a look into the world of IP addresses, focusing on the two main types you'll come across: IPv4 and IPv6. In peeling back the layers, we will uncover what truly makes this stand apart, looking at the nuts and bolts of how these work, what is good about them, and why moving from an IPv4 to an IPv6 is so important for the future of the internet.

IPv4 and IPv6 Overview

Here, on the huge web, there are two types of addresses: IPv4 and IPv6. While playing an exactly analogous role in helping the devices to make connections and communicate, these could be in some way linked to two totally different personalities. Let's see what differences are between these two types of IPs.

What is IPv4?

In simple terms, IPv4 would be the original blockbuster of the Internet Protocol world. First stepped out with ARPANET in 1983, and born in the early 80s, this is the version that most of the internet dances to—a hulking piece of hardware that takes care of most web traffic. If it would be represented graphically, an IPv4 address would be represented by groups of numbers separated by dots. It is also laid down in a 32-bit format that breaks down into four byte-sized chunks. This enables a total slightly above four billion unique numbers. In those days, this was nearly an endless treasure trove for addresses. But, as it apparently turns out, we were a bit too popular for our good. By 2011, IANA had given away their last lot. And by 2015, the US had to hang a "sorry, we're out" sign on IPv4 addresses.
Despite hitting the address jackpot and then spending it all, IPv4 is still the internet's main squeeze, with over 90% of web traffic cruising along its paths. Some possible solutions were to recycle IP addresses or using Network Address Translation (NAT) to let a whole lot of devices share a single IP address. But, these are just bandages on a much larger problem. The real deal in solving our digital space crunch is moving over to IPv6.

What is IPv6?

IPv6 is the new kid on the block in the Internet Protocol (IP) family, stepping into the spotlight in the late '90s. IPv6 was designed with one purpose in mind: to make sure we do not run out of IP addresses, at least in the near future, and even maybe allow for any kind of future beyond IPv4. Imagine IPv6 addresses to be a string of hex digits separated by colons, though not dots. This system dives into a 128-bit address space, carving it up into eight sections, each made of 16 bits.
Thanks to this beefed-up format, IPv6 can generate a mind-boggling 3.4×10^38 unique addresses. That's a gargantuan pool of addresses, ensuring we're set for a very, very long time. Though in a technical sense that is still a finite number, the jump from IPv4 to IPv6 is much like moving from a small pond to the ocean, giving the digital world plenty of room to grow.

What Are The Differences Between IPv4 and IPv6?

When we normally talk of the internet and how devices connect to it, we mean the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. The two broad types of IP addresses that you may come across are the IPv4 and IPv6. They both serve the same purpose, to find the devices that are on a network and help them to communicate to each another, but there are still some differences between them.
But right off the numbers in their name, they tell a huge difference: the IPv4 addresses are 32 bits long, and the IPv6 addresses are an astonishing 128 bits long. This difference isn't just for show because it means that IPv6 can handle a virtually unlimited number of devices, while IPv4 cannot.
The format of the addresses is another key distinction. IPv4 address looks like a series of decimal numbers separated by dots. In contrast, IPv6 use a hexadecimal address (numbers and letters) and each part of the hexadecimal address is separated by colons. For IPv4 an example can be:; and for IPv6: 2001:0000:130F:0000:0000:09C0:876A:130B.
Now, when it comes to packet sizes—the chunks of data sent over the network—IPv6 also steps up the game. The minimum packet size it supports is 1280 bytes, compared to IPv4's 576 bytes. This means data can be packaged more efficiently in IPv6, leading to potentially smoother internet experiences.
IPv4 has a feature called broadcast, which sends data to all devices in a network. IPv6, however, skips this feature in favor of more efficient methods of data distribution, reflecting changes in how networks are used today.
Looking at the technical nitty-gritty, IPv4 includes 12 header fields in each packet of data, while IPv6 streamlines this to just 8. This simplification helps with processing data faster. Also, setting up devices with an IP address is a tad easier with IPv6. Where IPv4 requires manual configuration (or a separate protocol to assign addresses automatically), IPv6 has auto-configuration built-in, making it less of a hassle to connect devices to the network.
IPv4 packets include a checksum field to detect errors in headers, a feature IPv6 omits, relying instead on other layers in the network stack for error checking. This change reflects a trend towards efficiency and trust in modern error-checking methods.
When it comes to linking IP addresses to the physical hardware addresses of devices (like your computer's unique network card), IPv4 uses a system called Address Resolution Protocol (ARP), while IPv6 uses Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP), which is more secure and flexible.
Lastly, because IPv4 uses numeric addresses that are less intuitive for humans to read and write, it's not as well-suited for mobile networks where configuration might change frequently. The hexadecimal system of IPv6, with its greater capacity and flexibility, is a better fit for the mobile world.
So, which one is better for you?

Should You Use IPv4 or IPv6?

Deciding to move over to IPv6 or stay with IPv4 isn't black and white; much consideration must be taken. IPv6 serves us the future and ensures that we won't have to face the trouble of internet expansion without the worry of running out of addresses. Yes, there are even tricks to stretch the life of IPv like sharing IP addresses among several devices, but it often results in slower Internet speeds and glitches.
While an internet connection provisioned through IPv6 may not be faster than that provided with IPv4, it reportedly may be able to provide a pool of unique IP addresses virtually unlimited to users. So, why the heck hasn't the entire digital universe finally switched to IPv6? One drawback is that IPv4 and IPv6 are like two different languages; they can't communicate with each other. It's not an easy job to shift all and everything to IPv6. Whereas most of the online world still heavily relies on IPv4, shifting all of that overnight would cause nothing less than pure chaos in each and every device's IP address. We would lose access to countless websites and apps, creating a digital turmoil.
The transitioning from IPv4 to IPv6 will be a progressive process. The two will work side by side through an intelligent setup that has been referred to as Dual Stack. This will allow devices to work with IPv4 and IPv6 addresses at the same time, meaning the two can coexist until IPv6 takes over.

Here's What You Need for IPv6 Adoption

  • Router compatibility: Think of your router as a sort of traffic policeman at a hugely busy crossroads that is telling the data where to go. It will be necessary for the router that he knows the new traffic rules referring to IPv6. Today, though, not all of them are up to this task yet. So, if IPv6 is on your to-do list, it might be time to check if your router supports it or consider an upgrade.
  • ISP Support: Having everything set up at home won't mean much if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) isn't sending IPv6 traffic your way. Nowadays, more ISPs are coming up to speed, but you can still check them quickly to make sure that they do support IPv6.
  • Ensure Your Devices Speak IPv6: Your devices would need to talk IPv6, just as you would learn to talk a new language. Most modern operating systems will be ready to speak, so, in that case, you're using something from Windows Vista and up, relatively recent macOS releases, or a current Linux distribution.

Comparing the Security Between IPv6 and IPv4

When the internet's big brains were developing IPv6, they decided to bake security right into the protocol with something called IPSec. IPSec is like the secret service of internet protocols, working quietly in the background to encrypt and authenticate your data, keeping it safe from prying eyes. With IPv6, IPSec is part of the package, making secure communication a standard feature rather than an optional extra, as it is with IPv4.

What's IPSec, Anyway?

Imagine sending a secret letter where only the person with the key can read it. That's what IPSec does for your data. It scrambles the information into a code that only the intended recipient can decrypt, adding a layer of security to keep your data safe as it travels across the internet.
While IPv4 can also use IPSec, it's like adding sprinkles to your ice cream; it's optional and up to you to put them on. With IPv6, those security sprinkles are already included, making it a bit more straightforward when it comes to setting up secure connections.


IPv6 may be the future, but the road there is complex. The Dual Stack approach is very practical, but if you want to go with this approach, you would need to use IPv6 side by side with the widely still-supported IPv4.

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