What is an IP Conflict?

Modern computer systems are networked together in a correlated telecommunications network that spans the entire planet (and beyond, as was frighteningly highlighted when a NASA laptop containing algorithms for controlling the International Space Station was stolen). This necessitates a method for identifying individual computers connected to the network, which is where your computer’s IP address comes in. Like a street address affixed to a house within the postal system, it allows your computer to send information to other computers, and to receive information in turn. This is essential for every networked activity undertaken online, from sending an email to playing a video game (to, if you want to get technical, establishing an internet connection in the first place).

However, while there are billions of possible IP addresses, there are billions of devices using them. The values themselves can either be procedurally generated, or be assigned manually within a given network, and it is possible to have an IP conflict — where two separate devices are given the same address. So, what is an IP address conflict, why (and how, exactly) does one happen, and how are they resolved?

What Is an IP Conflict?

An IP address conflict results from two computers being assigned the same IP address on a network that is small enough for this to be of immediate concern: data cannot be sent and received normally until the conflict is resolved, there are no “layers” of networking separating the two devices. Usually, this involves multiple computers connected to a LAN, or “local area network.” In this case, the term “computer” is a catch-all phrase; anything that is connected to the internet, any whole device, requires its own IP address. This includes mobile internet devices, traditional computers, network adapters, routers, and any wearable gadgets with internet connectivity.

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How do IP Address Conflicts Happen?

The number of possible IP addresses is loosened by additional lines of information; two houses located at “15 Chestnut Street” is confusing, unless one is located in the city of “Anywhere, Alaska” and the other is identified as being in “Somewhere, South Dakota,” which allows their respective locations to be clearly differentiated. This is fundamentally how IP addresses work: different numbers are assigned within local and regional networks, and information is routed to successively more localized networks until it reaches an individual computer. Most frequently, IP address conflicts result from human error: a systems administrator might assign the same static IP address to two computers on the same local area network (a network of devices connected directly to each other, usually by cables) by mistake. It is possible for a malfunction to result in the same IP address being assigned to multiple computers automatically, although dynamic IP addresses (addresses that change periodically) help to correct this issue.

How are Conflicts Resolved?

The solution to an IP address conflict depends upon the nature of how it was generated in the first place. In the case of a conflict between two manually entered static IP addresses, for instance, the conflict can be resolved by changing one of the addresses, then rebooting the system. In the case of a glitch involving a dynamic IP address, the issue can be addressed by a process known as “releasing and renewing” a device’s IP address. This is conceptually comparable to the idea of filing a change of address form at the post office; for a trained network technician operating a help desk, it’s a relatively simple matter, and is covered by every certification program. In cases of inexplicable network outage, this step will usually be taken as a preliminary measure, just in case. An IP address conflict may also be the result of a bad router, within a home or institutional network; in such a case, upgrading your router’s basic operating software will usually fix the problem, and your service provider will usually make such upgrades available through their website.

IP conflicts can bring down an entire network, but can also be readily addressed through standard procedures. A trained network professional or help desk operator can usually resolve any IP address conflicts in only a few minutes. The common fixes are quick, easily implemented, and require little more to take effect (once they’ve been put into place) than a simple reboot of the local system.