End of days?
On Tuesday the 1st of February, the world officially ran out of four digit IP numbers. This has been predicted for many years and was an inevitability. Now that it has finally happened, will the internet be in crisis?
IP numbers are those strange dotted numbers that you see sometimes when using the Internet. Every computer on the net needs an IP number, rather like a phone needs a phone number, so that other computers can talk to it. And just like one phone number can be shared between several phone extensions, a fax machine and an answering machine, so too can IP numbers be shared between mail services, FTP and websites. For example, on our own server we are using one IP number, 126.96.36.199, to run over 60 individual websites. Likewise, you probably have a whole network of PCs in your office, all running through a single external IP number belonging to your internet service provider.
The IP number is always a group of four numbers, and each number can range from zero to 255. When the internet was first built, this was a brilliantly simple idea, and would give us something like four billion possible addresses. The problem was that no-one envisaged quite how much the Internet would grow, or the demand there would be for IP numbers. Initially, when just ten organisations were involved, each was allocated a huge block of addresses. For example, IBM was allocated 16 million possible addresses. Later, as more organisations and then countries came online, whole countries were allocated blocks of this size, and then as addresses began to run out, the IP address map became more and more of a patchwork of tiny blocks. People began staking claims to far more addresses than they would ever need knowing that in future they would become a tradable commodity.
It is the growth in smart phones which has taken everyone by surprise. In the last year or so, mobile phone operators have created huge demand for additional IP numbers so they can allocate individual numbers to each phone. This was, perhaps, not the smartest way of doing it, but it was certainly the easiest.
This problem of eventual address exhaustion had been recognised many years ago. Back in 1993, a year before the first graphical web browser was released (Netscape), the Internet Engineering Task Force developed Network Address Translation which allows you to run your private networks through a single external IP address and in 1998 they published the standards for IPV6, which is an update to the existing IPV4 numbering system. Whilst our current system of IP numbering can support 4 billion IP numbers, IPV6 can support around 300 billion billion billion billion addresses. This, it is hoped, is more than we will ever need, but just like phone number overhauls, we are going to have to go through an upgrade cycle.
Most of your software is probably already IPV6 compatible, but hardware may be more of a problem. IPV6 requires more hardware to process the larger address space, and hardware manufacturers would have been reluctant to push up costs providing extra facilities for which there was no demand. Hardware such as routers might be upgradable using a firmware upgrade, but more likely is that router makers will want to sell you a whole new home hub. Really you will need to look at anything which has its own IP number, such as network printers, VOIP phones, network enabled web-cam security systems, and ask if you will need to upgrade or replace it if you want to use IPV6.
The important thing to remember is that although the world has officially run out of IPV4 addresses, there is still a lot of slack in the system. Millions of numbers have been allocated but not actually used yet. The internet isn't going to collapse overnight. It will be a gradual transition to IPV6, not a huge changeover day, and the transition will have more effect on servers and routing software than on end-users. If you are buying new kit, particularly expensive kit, you need to ask if it is IPV6 compatible, and does it need to be? For lower cost kit, such as wireless routers, which get faster and cheaper every year, it is probably more cost-effective just to replace them once they become obsolete, rather than worry about upgrades.
28th February 2011
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