Earlier this month, the Internet had its first wake-up call in terms of technical implementation difficulties. For those who aren’t familiar with what IPv4 and IPv6 are, basically understand that every device that accesses the Internet gets an IP address – like 184.108.40.206 which is the IP address for this site at present – but that there’s only a finite space for IP addresses in that form (IPv4, it’s called), and at the broadest, coarse level, it’s full. Which is a problem for a growing Internet.
Well, it’s a problem in that it’s a barrier to growing the Internet, especially with the explosion in the mobile arena – with users having more and more different ways of accessing the Internet, and each wanting an IP address to play with.
One might, slightly naively, wonder why it’s only now that we’re looking at this… but the IPv4 exhaustion problem is nothing new – I first remember reading about it in 1997. And here we are in 2011, 14 years later, actually hitting the barrier that we knew was coming.
Now, some smart cookies have already been working on the solution, it’s called IPv6 and it’s been refined over the last few years – but it’s already best part of two decades since the initial designs for IPv6 were founded… so why is it only now that it’s a problem?
Simple: the innovation that is IPv6 just hasn’t been implemented fully yet. Many devices and systems sport IPv6 support – it’s certainly nothing new to most networking equipment manufacturers, or systems engineers that work with networking code. But Internet Service Providers – ISPs – have been reluctant to roll it out. Partly it’s because migration from IPv4 to IPv6 isn’t quite as simple as flicking a switch, but no small part of it has been ‘putting it off till tomorrow’. Unfortunately, yesterday’s tomorrow has caught up with us.
What we will see in the short term are refinements and extensions of other innovations to stifle the bleeding of IP addresses (it’s exhausted at the most coarse level of granularity, the next level – the regional registrars – have maybe until the end of the year before allocation there is exhausted). I think we’ll see expansion of one technology in particular: NAT. It’s not a silver bullet, but the ability to put multiple devices behind a single outward facing address (imagine two computers in a house sharing an Internet connection – both machines inherit the IP address of the router connecting to the Internet) – but it does mean you can have multiple machines hidden away under that connector.
What we’ll also see is trading, those who got allocations much bigger than they needed, I think they’ll start to sell them off either in blocks or individually. Whatever happens, though, there’s going to be a scramble to innovate to keep the wheels of the Internet turning, while IPv6 gets more fully implemented.
Who knows? There may well be other innovations that come out in the meantime that staunch the bleed of IPv4 further without compromising functionality – but it just reminds us that when you’ve innovated and got the next generation of whatever you do ready… don’t just innovate, implement too.