The Internet Is Running Out Of Space

Internet cafe

Photo: Flickr

In 1981, before anyone had dreamed up Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Facebook or imagined the billions of people that would eventually connect to the network that gave rise to them, the early architects of the Internet ratified foundational protocols. At the time, they created an addressing scheme that allowed for approximately 4 billion devices to connect to the network that they referred to as the Internet. This protocol that was settled on, was not actually the first proposal, it was the fourth. And so it was dubbed Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4 for short.Upon this protocol, the Internet as we know it was built. Every device, whether a Mac, PC, smartphone, smart meter, TV, or even refrigerator that connects to the public Internet must use one of the 4 billion possible addresses allocated by the IPv4 protocol. Somewhere around the 4 billionth device to connect to the network you hit the maximum capacity of the Internet. After that, no more devices can connect.


While 4 billion devices connecting to a network seemed unfathomable in 1981, today we are closing in on that number. More than a decade ago, the Internet’s architects realised this day would come and they proposed a new protocol: Internet Protocol version 6, or IPv6.* The new protocol massively expands the number of possible devices connecting to the Internet up to 340 undecillion. That’s enough that every atom on the surface of the Earth could connect to the Internet and we’d still have enough space left over for several other planets.

While the new IPv6 protocol allows the Internet to continue to expand, it suffers from one flaw common to technology. Just as your VHS tapes were incompatible with your DVD player, so too are the IPv4 and IPv6 networks. A web surfer on one network cannot reach a website on the other. As a result, today fewer than 10,000 of the 250 million IPv4 websites are available on the new network. In other words, the IPv6 Internet is a pale comparison to the full and vibrant web that Internet visitors have come to expect.


How serious a problem this is for you today depends on where you are in the world. The explosive growth in Internet users in China, India, and other parts of Asia has meant that IPv4 addresses ran out in April 2011. Europe is projected to be the next region to run out in February 2012, followed by Africa in July 2013, then North America in February 2014, and finally Latin America and the Caribbean in May 2014.

The effects are already being seen. As the supply of IPv4 space has become constrained in Asia, the price of hosting a website in that region has steadily crept up. The same trend will repeat itself as we run out of space in other regions. While proposals exist that would buy more time by allowing people to buy and sell IPv4 address space to better allocate the resource, something that is forbidden by historical convention, the effect on the Internet is predictable: it is going to become more expensive to get online.

Microsoft recently established the spot price per IP address when it bought a block of 666,624 IPv4 addresses from the bankrupt telecommunications company Nortel for $7.5 million, or $11.25 per address. Companies like, and have sprung up hoping to take advantage of the implied $48 billion potential market in IPv4 space. And, while companies that are already established online may not feel the immediate effects of the increased costs, if you need to grow or you are planning on providing a new innovative Internet service, the longer you wait, the more expensive it will be. That, of course, is exactly the opposite of how technological progress is supposed to work.


The solution was developed more than a decade ago — IPv6. With abundant space, the new protocol allows new entrants to the network to continue to innovate without paying a tax for an artificially constrained resource. Unfortunately, because few websites are available on the IPv6 network, few web surfers want to be there. And because few web surfers are there, few websites are willing to go through the hassle and expense of getting on IPv6.

At CloudFlare, we’re creating a gateway that bridges the two networks. Think of it like the Star Trek Universal Translator: we make it so the IPv4 and IPv6 web can talk to each other. An established website can keep its existing IPv4 infrastructure and now be available to new IPv6 users. And, in the other direction, a new website just getting started can host inexpensively on IPv6 but still be available to legacy web surfers on the IPv4 network.

The nature of a network is that it grows in value the more people who are able to connect. As Internet users, it is in all our interest to ensure that everyone, not just the first 4 billion early adopters, or those people who can afford to pay the escalating tax imposed by legacy technology, can have access to the web. The CloudFlare team believes this bridge is essential for continued innovation online and just recently announced that we will provide our IPv6 to IPv4 Gateway to any website for free. It is our hope that other companies will take similar steps to propel the continued growth of the Internet by supporting IPv6.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.