My 7/20/08 Missoulian column
On the Internet, almost everything that we depend on – such as a home PC, Web sites, business networks – needs its own unique numerical address (including the millions of devices that run the backbone of the Internet), usually invisible to us, the end user. The Internet depends on these unique numbers – called IP (Internet protocol) numbers – in order for us to receive e-mail, call up a Web page on demand and do everything else we do on the Web every day. And while the Internet will be out of unique addresses in as little as three years, the sky isn’t falling just yet, but the transition will be interesting.
When a metropolitan area grows in population and runs out of available phone numbers in an area code, a new area code is added and that allows the phone company to assign a whole bunch of new phone numbers. (I hope that we don’t need another area code any time soon.)
With the Internet projected to run out of IP addresses, there isn’t such a thing as simply adding a new area code to make it work. A new version of an Internet protocol is needed to replace an outdated version, something like overhauling the whole electronic underpinnings of the phone system.
The underlying issue is that very few people on the ground floor of the Internet foresaw the fantastic growth that was to happen, through no fault of their own. ARPANET – the most recent true ancestor of the modern Internet – was a Defense Department project called Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, started the late 1960s and designed to figure out how to keep military communications going in the event of a war. The basic nuts and bolts of the infrastructure of the Internet today remain about the same as it did when it was a small network for research and government work.
During the ARPANET days, few foresaw the possibility that the Internet would fill up the 4.2 billion addresses initially planned for. Back in the days of ARPANET, the population of the world wasn’t even 4 billion, and the number of users of ARPANET was in the thousands, if that. They must have said that 4.2 billion IPs will last a lifetime.
That unique Internet address – called an IP number – is required for almost everything we use that connects to the Internet, and for millions of networking hardware items that handle all the routing and switching of traffic. There are tricks that stretch one IP address into many for a small network that is connected to the Internet, but the fact remains that there are a limited quantity of IP numbers, and they are filling up fast. And these days, many new consumer items require Internet access and an IP, and the huge numbers of those new gadgets have depleted the limited number available.
The IP protocol handles the numerical form of “www.mywebsite.com” addresses (such as 192.168.0.1), which all the machinery of the Internet needs to work. (The DNS system – kind of like a phone book for the Internet – handles the translation of the user-friendly alphabetical addresses into not user-friendly but machine-friendly IP numbers).
The current IP version 4 – called IPv4 – is forecast to run out of address space soon – as early as 2011, some say. If there were no planned replacement for IPv4, the Internet wouldn’t necessarily crash to a halt, but there would be technical conflicts over IPs, no one could register a new Web site address or connect their own network to the Internet as a whole as there wouldn’t be any available IP numbers. The fast growth of the Internet would grind to a halt, and because the Internet is absolutely indispensable these days, no one needs or wants that to happen.
So what’s on the horizon? A new version of IP, called IPv6, for IP version 6. While IPv4 provides for those 4.2 billion addresses (used up in less than 20 years since the Internet become open to commercial and personal use), IPv6 offers 340 billion billion billion billion addresses. That’s three of those “billions” in a row.
That’s lots of zeros, in other words, and it results in lots of address capability that is many, many times IPv4. The reason IPv6 has so much address space is that it uses addresses 128 bits long (those ones and zeros of machine language), rather than 32 for IPv4. The 128 bits is enough for everyone and their gadgets for the foreseeable future, and then some.
When IPv6 is fully implemented, there won’t be a need for the “faking” of IP addresses that now takes place under IPv4, and there will be room for what’s forecast to be almost everything imaginable that requires an IP address: PCs, phones, MP3 players, even cars, refrigerators and cats and dogs. You name it, it will need an IP and there will be room for it in IPv6. One rancher in Montana could assign an IP number to every one of those millions of cows grazing in the state.
The rollout of IPv6 is already taking place. All Internet connectivity for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing is reported to be completely IPv6. The federal government completed a basic changeover to IPv6 compatibility last month. Major Internet service providers have been planning and working for a few years on IPv6.
But there is much IPv4 hardware in use and will be for quite a few years; the mix of IPv4 and IPv6 traffic is being solved with sophisticated methods to tunnel and adapt the different versions and have them be able to talk with each other until everything is required to go to IPv6 sometime down the road.
For the end user, IPv6 is taken care of with recent versions of operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X. Many new consumer gadgets have IPv6 capability built in and will work transparently. For the average computer user and Web surfer, I think that the transition to IPv6 – with some software updates and maybe some new gadgets – will largely be transparent.