Addressing another Internet shortage
by Alan Zisman (c) 2011
published in Business in Vancouver March 15-21, 2011 issue #1116 High
You may type www.biv.com
into your browser’s address bar, but as far as the Internet’s
concerned, there’s no such address. When you press “enter,” your
computer contacts a domain name system database, which sends it to the
address you really want: 188.8.131.52.
Each website or other Internet site has its own numerical address, a
32-bit number from a total of 4.3 billion unique addresses. When the
Internet was being designed in the mid-1970s that seemed like a
comfortably large number. Vint Cerf said that, back then, the Internet
was thought of as an experiment that would be superseded when something
more advanced was needed.
But that short-term experiment never ended. And now we’ve nearly run
out of unclaimed addresses to assign to new users. On January 1, there
were approximately 496 million unassigned addresses, down from 721
million a year previous.
The fine print: networked devices like the computers in your office or
your smartphone only need an address that’s unique to their internal
network. So your computer and mine might have the same address with no
conflict as long as they’re on different networks. Despite schemes like
that to share addresses, though, the pool of new, available addresses
is running low.
There are predictions that the Asia-Pacific region will run out of free
addresses this summer, with Europe running out by late 2011 and the
North American pool drying up in 2012.
The end of Internet addresses as we know them has been predictable for
some time. Since the mid-1990s, the people in charge of these things
have been promoting a replacement for the current addressing scheme:
Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) with IPv6. (No, I don’t know what
happened to version 5.)
IPv6 addresses might look like FE80:CD00:0000:0CDE:1257:0000:211E:729C.
The longer address means that there are vastly more possible addresses:
more than three followed by 38 zeroes – a number that doesn’t yet have
a name, but is in the ballpark of the number of molecules in the galaxy.
So we’ve had a solution to this issue for over 15 years. Nevertheless,
we’re not ready for a smooth transition to IPv6. IPv4 and IPv6 devices
do not easily communicate with one another, though dual-protocol
devices are available.
Windows systems since XP service pack 1 and Mac OS X have supported
both the old and new addressing protocols. But server and router
support has lagged behind with many organizations understandably
reluctant to replace IPv4-only hardware.
As a result, although major websites such as Google and Facebook are
supporting IPv6, only a tiny fraction of Internet traffic (an estimated
1/20th of a per cent as of last October) was using IPv6. With such
minimal use, it’s been hard to make a case for installing new
IPv6-capable hardware. Canadian IPv6 deployment has been estimated at
around 8%, significantly lower than the rate in Japan and several
What to do? As an end user, there’s no need to panic (though expect a
new cable or DSL modem in the next while). If you’ve got a business or
organizational network with only a few addresses accessed across the
Internet, you’re similarly OK – no matter how many users there are on
your internal network – but you should start making plans for a
The big Internet service providers and telecom companies, though, are
going to be facing a crunch soon – especially with the huge growth in
demand for Internet-capable mobile devices. June 8 has been announced
as World IPv6 Day, a day for test runs of new systems (www.isoc.org/wp/worldipv6day).
You can test your IPv6 readiness today by browsing to www.test-ipv6.com.
The transition to IPv6 is coming. It might be messy. But it won’t be
the end of the Internet.