IPocalypse, Now

By | 2011-01-31

The IPocalypse is upon us. It’s not as bad as the media makes out, but neither is it the nothing problem that Y2K was.

Here’s the problem: IPv4 is the protocol upon which the vast majority of the Internet runs. IP addresses for each broadband connection, and for any publicly contactable server must be globally unique. They have to be unique so that computer A can contact computer B without there being potential traffic to go to the wrong place.

IPv4 addresses are 32 bits long. 32 bits can only hold 4,294,967,296 different values. Many of these are allocated for special purposes, so we don’t have that many in reality, but regardless, the point is they are a finite resource. Four billion addresses isn’t enough to give every person on the planet one address, let alone the multiple addresses that a typical connected first world user will want. The designers of the Internet did not foresee the massive expansion of Internet connected devices that has happened.

IPv4 address are allocated from a fixed pool. The problem the world is about to have is that IPv4 addresses have run out. Every last one has now been allocated by the organisation responsible for allocating them (ARIN). They have been allocated but not necessarily used as yet; but they will be, and as they are, it will mean no new broadband connections are possible, and no new web servers can be connected.

ISPs who have run out of addresses will no longer be able to provide new full-featured connections. The concern for us as consumers is that there is a technology called NAT which allows the sharing of a single address amongst multiple users. However, use of NAT means you cannot accept incoming connections, which limits what you can do with your connection. The futuristic idea of having your house connected to the Internet, where you can turn lights on and off remotely, start recordings on your video or check what’s in the fridge, would all become significantly more difficult, if not impossible.

The solution is IPv6. IPv6 is the next generation of internet protocol. It has a whole range of useful upgrades, but the one that concerns us most is that addresses are 128 bits. 128 bits can store 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 unique numbers. We don’t anticipate running out of IPv6 addresses — so this problem will never happen again.

Adoption of IPv6 has been slow however, most major websites still don’t have an IPv6 address. Windows still doesn’t have fully functional IPv6 support (it’s probably good enough though). Most home routers and broadband modems don’t have IPv6 support; and many ISPs still don’t offer IPv6 addresses.

I’m writing this here only in case it helps my two loyal readers: next time you’re looking for an ISP, ask about IPv6. Next time you buy a router or wireless access point, check if IPv6 is supported. It might not be — but if we all start looking for the feature, and buying equipment using that as a preference then market forces will encourage the changeover.

Strangely, given all the money our government wastes on stupid awareness (scare) campaigns, a little bit toward this fairly mundane, technical issue, would have a really positive effect for the future of the world. That probably sounds like an exaggeration, but I want you to think how much the Internet has already improved our lives. IPv6 is important to continue that improvement, but also to make that improvement available to those countries (and people) that weren’t early in the IPv4 queue and will need addresses of their own as they develop.

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