Many users may not be aware that the Internet is quickly running out of an essential element. The good news is that some very smart people have been working hard behind the scenes to make sure that it does not result in a crisis that could cripple the Net.

The bad news is that it will be uncertain how well they have succeeded for some time. If everything works out as planned, users should not even notice the change. Moreover, it will allow everything – yes, theoretically, every thing in the entire world to be connected online one day.

Simply put, the problem is that the Internet has run out of addresses.

Despite all the metaphors, information on the Net is not floating around in some sci-fi cyberspace cloud. All that data is physically embodied as ones and zeroes in the electronic memory of millions of computers. And every bit and byte of it all needs an address in order to be found and used.

To do this, each and every gizmo on the Net: all those PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, routers, gateways, and servers, must have its own unique Internet address, too. They must be matched up with all the websites and locations of other services in cyberspace as well. Then, and only then, can useful information be found.

The clever solutions to this intricate and daunting problem have shaped the Internet as it exists today. Unfortunately, due to the unimaginable, explosive growth of the World Wide Web, a key part of the current addressing system, called “IPv4”, (Internet Protocol version 4) has already become utterly inadequate.

A new method, “IPv6” (Internet Protocol version 6), is already available to replace the old system. Just how quickly the switch must be done, no one knows, but it must be soon. But the changeover might not be simple or trouble-free. Though the standards have long been agreed upon and the transition has already begun, the Net might become crowded, slow, with erratically unreachable sites for a long time before it’s over. Or maybe not.

The problem with predicting just how the transition to IPv6 will go is that nothing like this has ever happened before or will likely happen again, so nobody really knows how difficult the conversion will be.

Working the numbers

Humans prefer names, and so, for our convenience, the DNS (Domain Naming System) was invented to locate information on the Web, with “www”, “.com”, “.org”, and all the rest. Machines, however, work best with numbers, so to tell the boxes apart, the IP addressing scheme was devised.

The original idea way back in 1969 was to link mainframe computers at different universities to share computing power on big scientific research problems. The need was for an open-ended system that could easily allow the addition of more computers indefinitely but yet be rigorous enough to make identifying each one simple with no duplicates or gaps.

Unique IPv4 addresses were the solution, a different one assigned to each machine. Composed of four blocks of three digits each separated by periods, in a form like, an IP address zeroes in, as it were, on a specific device. The first parts basically represent a large network of computers and smaller subnets and the last group specifies the individual computer or gateway.

It’s an elegant solution but it quickly used up addresses. Techniques were developed to extend and reuse IP addresses for private networks. The main one in use today is NAT (Network Address Translation) which hides private local networks behind a single IP address gateway to a larger, public network.

NAT quickly became indispensable for routers for homes and small businesses. It conserves addresses, but NAT fudges the originally envisaged wide-open end-to-end connectivity of the Internet, and raises hosting and performance issues.

Another technique, DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) assigns IP numbers from a pool, and so is best suited for intermittent connections like dial-up rather than always-on broadband. Either way is just making do by shuffling the numbers around as needed.

Mathematically, there are “only” some 4 billion IPv4 numbers available – far less than the current world human population of 7 billion. IPv6 addresses are so much longer that there is an astronomically insanely huge amount of IPv6 addresses possible, too great to be graphically compared.

Like IPv4, IPv6 addresses use binary digits, but they are expressed differently —IPv6 using 0-9 and A, B, C, D, E, and F as well, in groups of 4 separated by colons. Anyway, with all the unneeded zeroes removed, SWCP’s own IPv4 address looks like this: But IPv6 addresses are four times as long as IPv4s. Even with all the extra zeroes removed, they are easily distinguishable by sheer length and the use of colons instead of periods. SWCP’s is 2001:1800:0:11::19. (The set of double colons before the last digits is shorthand to indicate missing zeroes). In any event, most IPv6 addresses can appear much longer than any IPv4 designations, and could contain the letters a-f. For instance, it could look something like this: 2001:0db8:85a3:08d3:1319:8a2e:0370:7334.

What this all means is that while the total number of IPv4 addresses is exactly 4,294,967,296, the amount of possible IPv6 addresses is some 340 undecillion, ( that’s 3.4 x 1038), or to be precise, 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768, 211,456 addresses!

This should certainly take care of the problem as there are almost twice as many IPv6 addresses as stars that exist in the whole Universe – quite enough to literally tag everything on Earth with its own unique IP number if desired.

To give another hint of just how mind-bogglingly many IPv6 numbers there are, Southwest Cyberport has been assigned the smallest block available to ISPs — and we’ve been granted more than the world’s entire IPv4 space!

However, a crunch is coming. Due to NAT and other tricks, neither day nor hour can be determined, but IPv4 address exhaustion will eventually occur all around the globe. There is no fixed turnover date to serve as a deadline, and filling up hoarded unused addresses may ease the predicament some, but there will surely come a point when the very last IPv4 address is taken.

Apples and oranges

How does this become a crisis? Simple: IPv4 and IPv6 are not compatible! Besides the longer sequences, certain changes in size, formatting, and handling of IPv6 packets means that software for IPv4 will not work with them without fixes, and vice versa. While most recent operating systems can run both systems in parallel, the so-called “dual stack” approach, software patches for some web, email, and other applications might not be ready in time.

Implementation of IPv6 protocols is seriously lagging everywhere. Few institutions and even fewer users are in any way prepared or even aware of the change. In fact, there will likely be little demand for IPv6 until all IPv4 addresses are exhausted.

But right now, there are few IPv6-ready devices to connect. Not only that, but there’s nothing but IPv4 devices between them. To keep the Internet connected, dual-stacking and other new techniques like such as repackaging IPv6 packets in IPv4 wrappers, must be worked out for various platforms, debugged, and installed across the entire system.

The transition could be a long, unpredictable, and perhaps bumpy ride to our glorious promised future. But the crisis may pass as smoothly and unnoticed as Y2K did. On June 8 of this year, SWCP joined with Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other major websites on World IPv6 Day for an initial test of the new system. For the first time ever, our website and the others were reachable by IPv6. And we are happy to report that the test worked; few problems were reported, and the other half of the way Internet addresses work, the Domain Naming System, was not affected at all.

And so, the transition has actually started. Recently, Comcast announced a “pilot market deployment” of IPv6 addresses, to be followed by a full nationwide rollout next year. Anticipated problems range from lack of IPv6-enabled network support and devices to real-world security issues, which are expected to be particularly serious during the transition as they cannot be fully tested in the lab. Comcast’s experiment will depend on dual stacks rather than more elaborate solutions. Still it is expected that the initial deployment will break certain applications, and require hardware upgrades at various points in the network.

The change should be worth the hardship. Once the transition to IPv6 is accomplished, the Internet could grow into an all-encompassing grid that would transform our planet like nothing has before.The original vision of a transparent Internet, with clear connections from one end to another would be closer to realization than ever before.

Imagine a smart world where everything can be online – not just information appliances but ordinary objects like refrigerators and medicine cabinets (and all their contents), cars, washing machines, table lamps, air conditioners, toasters, clothes, furniture, etc., etc.

Imagine that every item you own could be as smart and tied-in to your life as your smartphone and you can perhaps sense the potential. For IPv6 promises to enable a brave new world with a full-blown, world-encompassing “Internet of Things” linking intelligent objects in ways whose outlines we can barely imagine. Would it be like a cartoon universe with talking chairs and smug doors, one full of robots of all varieties, or something else entirely? Whatever the IPv6 future holds, there will be no stopping it.

Southwest Cyberport is IPv6 ready: we’ve already made and implemented our own turnover plans. And we’re ready to help you with yours. Call or email our Help Desk to find out how you and your enterprise can make the transition as easily and painlessly as possible.

SWCP will stay on top of the transitional situation as it develops to smooth the changeover for all of our users. You can count on your local Internet experts here at Southwest Cyberport to remain on the cutting edge and to keep you informed. Stay tuned!