When you are just starting to learn about networks and how IP addresses work, it can all seem a bit overwhelming, but with a little bit of study you can understand how it all comes together. Today’s SuperUser Q&A post helps a confused reader learn about how IP addresses work for his Wi-Fi network.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Screenshot courtesy of Linux Screenshots (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader Thomas wants to know if both of the computers in his home have the same IP address:

This question might seem stupid, but I wondered if two computers on the same Wi-Fi network have the same IP address? For example, my dad’s computer and my computer at home.

If so, how does the outside world distinguish one computer from the other (like when a server wants to send some data back to us)?

Do the two computers have the same IP address or not?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors Reaces and Abraxas have the answer for us. First up, Reaces:

Both computers are seen as having the same IP address externally. Your router will relay requests to the originating computer and the procedure used for this is Network address translation.

However, if you were to try to communicating with your father’s computer, you would use your internal addresses. These use a custom range intended for internal use only: private address range.

Followed by the answer from Abraxas:

Here is a very quick outline of how IP addressing works in this situation:

You have your home computer with a network interface (Ethernet port or Wi-Fi card) and each of these have unique MAC addresses which identify them globally.

Network interfaces are given IP addresses by your router/modem/switch/access point. Your access point (AP) is part of or connected to a modem/router/switch which gives the AP an IP. This is how things look so far:

Your Computer (IP) –> Access Point (IP) –> Cable Modem (IP)

Here is an example of what those IP addresses might be like. In the example, the 4th octet (the last number of each set) determines your device’s IP address, the 3 to the left of them determine the devices network. –> –>

Essentially, in this example, the modem creates a network called 192.168.1. All devices on the network are given a different x value (1-255), the last digit.

Here is an important distinction. There are 2 types of IPv4 IP addresses, Public and Private. Public IP addresses are the ones you see on the Internet (if you ping google.com you will get a public IP address). Inside of a network you typically have a Private IP address setup (192.168.x.x, 172.x.x.x, and 10.x.x.x) are all IP addresses that do not exist on web servers on the Internet, they are reserved for local networks.

Typically, your home network has a gateway which is something like x.x.x.1 ( or for instance). This means that they are not accessible from the outside world, they are meant to be inside your network.

How do internal network devices get on the internet then?

If you go to Whatismyip.com, you will see an IP address listed that is not your computer, your AP, or your modem/router. This is your Public IP address.

Typically your modem/router has two functions:

  1. Receive an IP address from the outside world and talk to your ISP’s network with that address.
  2. Create an internal network and let them talk through its external interface.

So here, effectively, is what your modem does:

Public IP (Cable Jack) –> [Modem] –> Private Network (IP) –> Ethernet Ports –> [Computers]

The modem bridges the public Internet to your network. requests from your internal network get sent to your modem which forwards them to the Internet. This way only one public IP address is needed for all of your devices to talk to the Internet.

On the Internet side of the modem, you have an IP address assigned by your ISP which is the one Whatismyip.com shows you. This is put ‘on’ the interface of your modem which is attached to your cable/DSL/T1 line. The other side of the modem/router (where you plug in your access point, switch, or computers) is given an IP address that you can configure. The way people are able to have servers visible to the public is that they can tell the modem things like this: “When a request comes to our PUBLIC IP ADDRESS asking for a resource, connect that traffic to INTERNAL IP ADDRESS OF RESOURCE.”

When you send a message your computers, the IP address basically becomes ‘encapsulated’ within various ‘headers’ of your data. Ultimately, the computers seeing your traffic see the external IP address from your modem and not your physical computers internal IP address. More data is sent containing MAC addresses and things like that, but essentially one public IP address can represent an entire network of devices behind it.

More information can be found here: What is an IP address? (Or all over the internet.)

NAT is the process by which your router translates the internal addresses to your public address and your public incoming traffic to the correct internal IP address.

There is a lot more to it, but that should provide the general gist of it.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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