IP is the primary protocol in the Internet Layer of the Internet Protocol Suite and has the task of delivering distinguished protocol datagrams (packets) from the source host to the destination host solely based on their addresses. For this purpose the Internet Protocol defines addressing methods and structures for datagram encapsulation. The first major version of addressing structure, now referred to as Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) is still the dominant protocol of the Internet, although the successor, Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) is being deployed actively worldwide.
Data from an upper layer protocol is encapsulated as packets/datagrams (the terms are basically synonymous in IP). Circuit setup is not needed before a host may send packets to another host that it has previously not communicated with (a characteristic of packet-switched networks), thus IP is a connectionless protocol. This is in contrast to public switched telephone networks that require the setup of a circuit for each phone call (connection-oriented protocol).
Services provided by IP
Because of the abstraction provided by encapsulation, IP can be used over a heterogeneous network, i.e., a network connecting computers may consist of a combination of Ethernet, ATM, FDDI, Wi-Fi, token ring, or others. Each link layer implementation may have its own method of addressing (or possibly the complete lack of it), with a corresponding need to resolve IP addresses to data link addresses. This address resolution is handled by the Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) for IPv4 and Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP) for IPv6.
The design principles of the Internet protocols assume that the network infrastructure is inherently unreliable at any single network element or transmission medium and that it is dynamic in terms of availability of links and nodes. No central monitoring or performance measurement facility exists that tracks or maintains the state of the network. For the benefit of reducing network complexity, the intelligence in the network is purposely mostly located in the end nodes of each data transmission, cf. end-to-end principle. Routers in the transmission path simply forward packets to next known local gateway matching the routing prefix for the destination address.
As a consequence of this design, the Internet Protocol only provides best effort delivery and its service can also be characterized as unreliable. In network architectural language it is a connection-less protocol, in contrast to so-called connection-oriented modes of transmission. The lack of reliability allows any of the following fault events to occur:
IPv6, on the other hand, has abandoned the use of IP header checksums for the benefit of rapid forwarding through routing elements in the network.
The resolution or correction of any of these reliability issues is the responsibility of an upper layer protocol. For example, to ensure in-order delivery the upper layer may have to cache data until it can be passed to the application.
In addition to issues of reliability, this dynamic nature and the diversity of the Internet and its components provide no guarantee that any particular path is actually capable of, or suitable for performing the data transmission requested, even if the path is available and reliable. One of the technical constraints is the size of data packets allowed on a given link. An application must assure that it uses proper transmission characteristics. Some of this responsibility lies also in the upper layer protocols between application and IP. Facilities exist to examine the maximum transmission unit (MTU) size of the local link, as well as for the entire projected path to the destination when using IPv6. The IPv4 internetworking layer has the capability to automatically fragment the original datagram into smaller units for transmission. In this case, IP does provide re-ordering of fragments delivered out-of-order.
Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is an example of a protocol that will adjust its segment size to be smaller than the MTU. User Datagram Protocol (UDP) and Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) disregard MTU size thereby forcing IP to fragment oversized datagrams.
IP addressing and routing
Perhaps the most complex aspects of IP are IP addressing and routing. Addressing refers to how end hosts become assigned IP addresses and how subnetworks of IP host addresses are divided and grouped together. IP routing is performed by all hosts, but most importantly by internetwork routers, which typically use either interior gateway protocols (IGPs) or external gateway protocols (EGPs) to help make IP datagram forwarding decisions across IP connected networks
In May 1974, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) published a paper entitled "A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection." The paper's authors, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, described an internetworking protocol for sharing resources using packet-switching among the nodes. A central control component of this model was the "Transmission Control Program" (TCP) that incorporated both connection-oriented links and datagram services between hosts. The monolithic Transmission Control Program was later divided into a modular architecture consisting of the Transmission Control Protocol at the connection-oriented layer and the Internet Protocol at the internetworking (datagram) layer. The model became known informally as TCP/IP, although formally it was henceforth referenced as the Internet Protocol Suite.
The Internet Protocol is one of the determining elements that define the Internet. The dominant internetworking protocol (Internet Layer) in use today is IPv4; with number 4 assigned as the formal protocol version number carried in every IP datagram. IPv4 is described in RFC-791 (1981).
The successor to IPv4 is IPv6. Its most prominent modification from Version 4 is the addressing system. IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses (c. 4 billion, or 4.3×109, addresses) while IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses (c. 340 undecillion, or 3.4×1038 addresses). Although adoption of IPv6 has been slow, as of June 2008, all United States government systems have demonstrated basic infrastructure support for IPv6 (if only at the backbone level).
Version numbers 0 through 3 were development versions of IPv4 used between 1977 and 1979. Version number 5 was used by the Internet Stream Protocol (IST), an experimental stream protocol. Version numbers 6 through 9 were proposed for various protocol models designed to replace IPv4: SIPP (Simple Internet Protocol Plus, known now as IPv6), TP/IX (RFC 1475), PIP (RFC 1621) and TUBA (TCP and UDP with Bigger Addresses, RFC 1347). Version number 6 was eventually chosen as the official assignment for the successor Internet protocol, subsequently standardized as IPv6.
A humorous Request for Comments that made an IPv9 protocol center of its storyline was published on April 1, 1994 by the IETF. It was intended as an April Fool's Day joke. Other protocol proposals named "IPv9" and "IPv8" have also briefly surfaced, though these came with little or no support from the wider industry and academia.