What is IPAM (IP address management)

Transformations in network technology

The ability to manage IP addresses within a network is crucial for effective network management, especially as networks become more complex and have to manage more demanding loads. Assigning hundreds or even thousands of IP addresses to devices that may be highly distributed or disparate is no simple task. Once devices leave the network, those IP addresses may need to be deleted, plus there’s always the risk of IP address conflict. 

IP address management or IPAM solutions empower network administrators to track and manage IP address space within their networks. 

Defining IPAM (IP Address Management)

IP or internet protocol addresses assigned to a device accessing a network. This IP address becomes this device’s primary identifier while it’s connected to the network. The most recent version of this protocol is IPv6, used by around 42% of network-connected devices as of September 2023, according to Google. Other devices are still utilizing the previous version, IPv4. No, there was never an IPv5; this version number was assigned to an experimental protocol designed for streaming services. It never saw the light of day as a mainstream IP version.

Modern enterprise networks may have thousands of devices connected at any one time. IP addresses are critical for ensuring that data is only transferred where it’s supposed to go and that unauthorized devices aren’t allowed to access the network. An IP address helps other devices on the network understand if they’re sending data to a router, a server, or another type of device. IPAM or IP address management is one aspect of DDI (DNS, DHCP, IPAM), a catch-all term for unified IPAM solutions and other network management services within an IP-based network. Infoblox is one example of a DDI (DNS, DHCP, IPAM) platform.

IPAM solutions perform several critical network management tasks including IP address tracking, keeping IP address repositories up-to-date, and quickly assigning, changing, and deleting IP addresses to help ensure smooth, fast, error-free connectivity across the network.

Without systematic IPAM solutions, IP addresses may be duplicated and cause conflicts. This can lead to website downtime, emails never arriving, and a host of other problems that can cause businesses to grind to a halt. 

Core Functions of IPAM

Understanding the primary uses for IPAM can help network administrators justify the cost of investing in IPAM solutions to their relevant finance teams.

IP address space tracking

Tracking IP address usage manually simply isn’t feasible in modern networks. IPAM provides regularly updated lists of all IP addresses currently in use, available IP addresses, and critical details about these addresses. This includes the hardware they’re associated with, the hostname, the status, and any subnets. 

Integration with DNS and DHCP

DHCP or dynamic host configuration protocol assigns IP addresses to many types of devices that connect to a network. These devices may be smartphones, tablets, or laptops. They need an IP address instantly, but may disconnect again minutes later, so that IP address can then be reassigned. This process, also known as DHCP leasing, means a smartphone could have hundreds of different IP addresses in a relatively short space of time, and the network needs to be able to manage that information. IPAM solutions integrate with DHCP, managing these constantly shifting IP addresses, even across multiple subnets.

Domain name system (DNS) servers have the task of transforming the domain names of websites and other internet accessible portals into IP addresses. This allows users to type a web address, and know that they’ll actually get transferred to the right place on the web. DNS transforms a domain name to an IP address, which an internet browser can then use to transfer data to content delivery network (CDN) servers to resolve the initial request. IPAM solutions can tell the difference between DNS and DHCP address information, which could improve the performance and availability of websites.

IP address conflict detection

Because IP addresses can be assigned so fast, it is absolutely possible to get two (or more) connected devices on the same network with the same IP address. Clearly, this is not desirable for effective network management. How does one part of the network know where to send data if there are two identical IP addresses to choose from? It’s like a postal worker trying to deliver a letter to two identical houses with matching addresses on opposite sides of town. There’s no way to make the right choice without help.

IP address management includes conflict detection tools to prevent these situations from occurring. Every device gets a unique IP address and duplication and conflicts should become rare.

Benefits of IPAM

Today’s networks are more distributed than ever, which could provide challenges for network administrators in terms of IP address management. IPAM solutions centralize the management of IP address spaces, reducing the need for multiple spreadsheets or slow communication between disparate aspects of a network. This makes network administration easier and increases the visibility of what’s happening within a network. 

Reducing conflicts and IP address duplication enhances the reliability and rapidity of the network. Even as mobile devices move between subnets, the IPAM tools should ensure each piece of hardware gets a new IP address as needed, reducing downtime and the need for tedious network troubleshooting.

This naturally improves the efficiency of the network overall, again, making life much easier for overworked network administrators. A single repository of IP addresses managed through one user interface reduced the time required to manage the IPAM tool settings or gain information on the network.

Businesses also gain the benefits of easier adherence to compliance rules and guidelines thanks to all the required data being instantly accessible through a single portal. This makes auditing easier and less stressful.

Challenges Without Proper IPAM

Failing to invest in IPAM solutions can lead to repeated IP conflicts across a network. This can slow networks massively and, when users can’t connect to the online tools they need due to an IP address conflict, they might not be able to perform business-critical tasks. Productivity can drop, which can impact an organization’s bottom line. 

Another serious challenge network administrators face is handling growing networks and an increase of connected devices, from IoT devices to smartphones. IPAM helps with capacity planning and ensuring a network has the resources to handle the volume of connections it expects over a specific period of time. Without IPAM solutions, scalability becomes virtually impossible, and networks will stagnate and slow as more users try and access them.

IPAM solutions also lend themselves to improved cybersecurity. Improved network monitoring via a single source of truth for all IP addresses leads to a greater understanding of who and what is accessing the network at all times. Without IPAM, security could miss alerts that could come from significant information about a particular hostname or piece of hardware.

IPAM Deployment Considerations

Most IPAM solutions will come as part of an integrated DDI solution, which ensures the IMAP, DNS, and DHCP tools are all integrated and working together. It is possible to get a standalone IPAM solution, but investing in a broad range of network management solutions is the right choice for most organizations.

You may need to make the choice between cloud-based or on-premises IPAM tools. On-premises solutions can be extremely secure, and managed internally which can help with compliance. However, cloud-based solutions usually offer a third-party managed service, and the ability to swiftly integrate new parts of the network into the DDI solution. Some companies provide a combination of both on-premises and virtual support, which can be a good compromise.

Your network administrator should consider how scalable an IPAM solution is, how flexible it is, and how it will integrate with the various complex aspects of your existing and future network.

Best Practices for Effective IPAM

Network administrators can make IP address management more effective by ensuring they invest in tools that regularly update and audit IP address records. 

It’s also critical to integrate IPAM solutions with other network management tools to ensure a unified overview of the network and to make troubleshooting faster.

Only people who need access to specific network controls should have that access. For security and compliance, and to avoid duplicated work, network administrators should ensure they set up the right user permissions.

IP subnetting is another way to make IP address management more effective, by splitting large networks into smaller subnets. This can limit the use of certain IP addresses to certain groups of devices or network areas, increasing efficiency even further. 

IPAM is a major aspect of network administration and the right tools can help alleviate a lot of headaches, especially during the switch from IPv4 to IPv6. Understanding how to best choose and implement IPAM solutions could help take your business to the next level via more efficient and effective network management.