The Internet running out of IP addresses

January 22, 2011

In just a few weeks, the world will run out of internet addresses. That’s the dire prediction of Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet”. Cerf said he could have never anticipated that what he thought was just an “experiment” in 1977, would ever outgrow the 4.3 billion IP addresses they initially counted with.

Cerf, who is also credited with the creation of Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), was instrumental in the early days in the funding and formation of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, by joining the ICANN Board shortly after its foundation and eventually becoming its Chairman. Cerf has also worked for Google as its Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist since September 2005, and there he became well known for his predictions on how technology will affect future society, encompassing such areas as artificial intelligence or the advent of IPv6.

IPv6 is meant to replace IPv4, whose addressing structure is insufficient for today’s number of publicly routable addresses assigned to every Internet device or service, specially after the boom in Internet-capable mobile gadgets. This problem has been mitigated for some time by changes in the address allocation and routing infrastructure of the Internet. Classful networking and particularly Classless Inter-Domain Routing delayed the exhaustion of addresses substantially. In addition, network address translation permitted large Internet service providers to allocate only one public IP address to each of their customers, by masquerading the customer network behind this address with specially configured customer-premise Internet routers.

However, IPv4 address exhaustion is forcing the transition of the Internet to IPv6, as it is the only practical and readily available long-term solution. IPv6 is endorsed and implemented by all Internet technical standards bodies and network equipment vendors. It encompasses many design improvements, including the replacement of the 32-bit IPv4 address format, which allows 4.3 billion possible addresses, with a 128-bit address for a theoretical capacity of 3.4×1038 addresses. Although IPv6 has been in active production deployment since June 2006, most providers of Internet services and software vendors didn’t start deploying IPv6 until 2008.

One of the biggest obstacles to move on with the transition is that all devices on IPv4 will need to be upgraded to support IPv6, as the two versions aren’t backwards compatible. Consumers will need to upgrade the software on their computers and networking equipment and, in some cases, buy completely new hardware. However, although upfront costs of moving to the new protocol will be high, any further delays would push costs even higher. In June, Vint Cerf, appeared in an online video urging ISPs to do more to transition to IPv6.

Update (World IPv6 Day):
On 8 June, 2011, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Akamai and Limelight Networks will be among some of the major organisations that will offer their content over IPv6 for a 24-hour “test flight”. The goal of this “World IPv6 Day” is to motivate organizations across the industry – Internet service providers, hardware makers, operating system vendors and web companies – to prepare their services for IPv6 to ensure a successful transition as IPv4 addresses run out.

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