What is DHCP?  What you need to know about Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol

DHCP stands for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. Every network you use will have a DHCP server, and it will likely play a key role in determining your device’s IP address, all of which are essential for making sure your device can send and receive information on the internet. 

But before going any further into what DHCP does and how it determines your IP address, let's take a step back and define a few key concepts. 

What are protocols and why do we need them?

How many computers are there in the world? Who knows, but it’s likely billions – just think of all the devices that can now access the internet, from mobile phones to TVs. 

Every time you click a link, or search for a website, you’re requesting packets of information from this ecosystem – these requests can only be actioned if each computer has a unique address to send the packets of information to. This is known as an IP address

IP stands for Internet Protocol. Protocols are, simply put, the procedures that govern how packets of information are transferred between devices. Protocols exist at different stages (known as layers) of the information transfer process, and can take many forms – not just IP. 

Together, they form what is called a protocol stack, consisting of all the protocols you need to complete a task such as transferring information. IP and DHCP are both parts of the Transmission Control Protocol Stack

These stacks of protocols allow the billions of computing devices around the world, all using different software and hardware, to transfer information efficiently between themselves. 

What does DHCP actually do? 

DHCP is located in the application layer of the protocol stack, which is all about converting messages into forms that are understood by the recipient device as well as the sender. 

DHCP essentially provides your device with an IP address so it can send and receive information. When you want to go online, devices that are configured with DHCP send a request to your network’s DHCP server for an IP address. 

Once that request has been actioned by the server, you now have an IP address that no one else on the same network is currently using, so there can be no mix-ups transferring information. 

DHCP servers will have a whole bank of IP addresses that currently aren’t in use. This is why DHCP is dynamic. Your IP address isn’t fixed, and could change from one week to the next.

If it wasn’t for DHCP, you’d have to enter your IP address manually, which can be an error-prone process that would take a lot longer than an automatic assignment. 

Static and dynamic IP addresses 

It is also possible to obtain a static IP address that stays the same even if you log out and back into a network, as opposed to IP addresses dynamically assigned by a network’s DHCP server. 

This is useful if you want to do something like hosting your own games, or access a computer remotely. But as the address will be unique and unchanging, meaning your activity would be easily traceable – at least without a VPN. 

Best VPNs for static IP addresses

Do I still need a VPN if I have a DHCP?

IP addresses assigned via DHCP are safer than static ones, as they aren’t unique to your device and could be associated with a completely different one tomorrow. 

However, it is still possible for someone to discover your IP address whilst you're using it – unless you’re using a VPN. VPNs funnel your traffic through a private server before reaching the internet, thus masking your IP address with the address of the server. 

Conclusion

DHCP is a really useful protocol. With constantly changing IP addresses, it's a great addition to your privacy toolbelt. However, you can still be identified with it. If you want to get the most out of DHCP IP addresses, we recommend throwing a VPN in the mix to further boost your privacy, and encrypt your internet traffic.

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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