Friday, July 30, 2010

When the last number has gone, what then?

The internet is a complex maze of origins, pathways and destinations through which packets of data have to be directed.

Whether it's email, web-traffic, file downloads, video or VOIP, all of this data relies on the existence of IP numbers so as to sort out which turns to take and where the packets are to be finally delivered.

When the Al Gore first invented the internet (yeah, right), there wasn't any problem. IP numbers were plentiful, in fact there were about 4 billion of them to go round and in the early days there simply wasn't much demand. Indeed, plenty of people would have scoffed at the suggestion that one day we'd run out of these numbers.

Well bad news.

That day is now less than a year away.

At the current rate of allocation, we have a little over 300 days worth of IP numbers left.

The problem is that people just keep on adding stuff to the internet at an ever-increasing rate.

It's not just computers either. There are a growing number of "smart" devices that hook up to the Net, and each requires an IP number. The webcams which keep an eye on traffic - they need IP numbers. The webserver on which this site is located -- it needs an IP number (perhaps many in fact) and every time you log on to do some browsing, you also need a number.

So what's the problem? Surely they can just make some more numbers can't they?

Who says that 4 billion is the limit?

Well unfortunately, because of the way current IP numbers are formed, we can't just print more of them.

Right now, IP numbers consist of 4 bytes and are usually expressed in the form nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn, where each 'nnn' is a number from 0 through 255. Once we've used up all the numbers from 0.0.0.0 to 255.255.255.255, there are no more -- unless we switch from 4 bytes to more.

And indeed that's just what's planned.

The current system is based on what's known as IPv4. A new system is slowly being rolled out called IPv6 which uses four times as many bytes to create the numbers needed.

IPv6 will offer a massive increase over the humble 4 billion numbers we already have -- in fact it's a mind-bogglingly huge number -- but only a fool would say that it's more than we'll ever need. However, I think it's safe to say that by the time we run out of these numbers, the internet will have evolved to something far more sophisticated and will probably use a totally different addressing system.

So what's the problem then... let's just roll out IPv6 and start handing out new (bigger) numbers before the IPv4 ones run out.

Unfortunately it's not quite that simple. In order to use IPv6 a whole lot of expensive equipment has to be replaced or significantly upgraded -- and that's going to cost, a lot!

ISPs, telcos and others who are responsible for the routing of data around the place will be looking at big bills to become IPv6 compatible and that could mean higher prices for the rest of us, as they pass those costs on.

There are interim solutions that may postpone the fateful day when the last IPv4 number is allocated but some of those techniques will break popular internet applications. Examples of this kind of thing have been around for a while, with many web-hosting companies managing to squeeze hundreds of websites onto the same IP number.

In the meantime, the next 12-24 months will be "interesting times" for the internet industry as they struggle to update and hone their systems to work with the new, much larger IPv6 addresses.

I'll revisit this issue in a year's time, let's see how they've gotten on by then.

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