To keep all of these machines straight, each machine on the Internet is assigned a unique address called an IP address. IP stands for Internet protocol, and these addresses are 32-bit numbers, normally expressed as four "octets" in a "dotted decimal number." A typical IP address looks like this:
The four numbers in an IP address are called octets because they can have values between 0 and 255, which is 28 possibilities per octet.
Every machine on the Internet has a unique IP address. A server has a static IP address that does not change very often. A home machine that is dialing up through a modem often has an IP address that is assigned by the ISP when the machine dials in. That IP address is unique for that session -- it may be different the next time the machine dials in. This way, an ISP only needs one IP address for each modem it supports, rather than for each customer.
If you are working on a Windows machine, you can view a lot of the Internet information for your machine, including your current IP address and hostname, with the command WINIPCFG.EXE (IPCONFIG.EXE for Windows 2000/XP). On a UNIX machine, type nslookup at the command prompt, along with a machine name, like www.howstuffworks.com -- e.g. "nslookup www.howstuffworks.com" -- to display the IP address of the machine, and you can use the command hostname to learn the name of your machine. (For more information on IP addresses, see IANA.)
As far as the Internet's machines are concerned, an IP address is all you need to talk to a server. For example, in your browser, you can type the URL http://188.8.131.52 and arrive at the machine that contains the Web server for HowStuffWorks. On some servers, the IP address alone is not sufficient, but on most large servers it is -- keep reading for details.