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What is a Globally Unique Identifier?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 16, 2024
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Most communication software requires special unique identifiers to track and identify specific messages. This globally unique identifier (GUID) is attached to many forms of communication, including instant messages, emails, and business-to-business data transfers. The GUID is used as a tracking key to ensure a message is sent from the correct sending machine and received by the correct recipient.

The concept of a globally unique identifier in computer science has been available for several decades. These identifiers are based on complex algorithms that ensure a unique ID is generated for each request. Many GUID algorithms use the computer memory access control (MAC) address, which is a large unique number assigned to each computer system.

In the Windows® operations systems, a globally unique identifier is a 128-bit numerical value that is used to access software objects in memory. This value is generated through special functions within the operating system. It is guaranteed to be unique ID within a specific hardware configuration.

Creating a GUID that can be used across multiple hardware servers requires an advanced algorithm. That is because the GUID of a single machine has the potential to be duplicated on another machine. Advanced algorithms typically use special identifiers within hardware operating systems to guarantee uniqueness. Some examples include time stamps with a combination of Internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Many databases use globally unique identifiers as the unique key for data tables. This key is created by using database functions that return the next available unique ID within the system. This type of key has a higher probability of being unique than other generic key generation tools because it is tracked by the central database.

A universally unique identifier (UUID) does the same thing as a globally unique identifier. GUID is typically used in Microsoft® products, whereas the UUID is used in generic software products. GUID identifiers are heavily used in component and object model (COM) software products, which are based on the Microsoft Windows® platform.

A GUID is an extremely large number, which makes it likely to be unique. This becomes important for Internet applications that must keep track of messages and purchases from consumers. The GUID tracks an order to a specific transaction, which helps to ensure the correct product is selected.

Many hardware devices also use the globally unique identifier to track serial numbers during product registration. This helps to identify a hardware device to a specific customer. The unique ID can assist support personal in tracking hardware and software versions, which makes them easier to support.

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