The Internet Is Running Out Of Space -- Here's Why That Matters


Photo: pursuethepassion via Flickr

The Internet is running out of unique addresses, and big Internet companies like Akamai, Google, and Facebook want businesses to pay attention.The reason: if businesses continue to ignore the problem, the innovation that has defined the Internet industry for the past 15 years could come to an end.

As Akamai engineering vice president Andy Champagne puts it, “If we don’t have ability to issue new IP addresses, next big app that comes online — Twitter, Facebook — won’t have capacity to get space on the Internet. Cable and broadband providers can’t get new addresses and can’t expand to new markets. We’ll go from environment that’s not constrained technically to one that is constrained technically.”

The Root Of The Problem

Every device connected to the Internet — every Web server, phone, or home cable modem — is assigned a unique number, which is how other computers know how to find it. The problem is that the current domain system, called IPv4, has “only” 4 billion unique combinations. (An IPv4 address has up to twelve numbers, separated by commas, like That seemed like a lot when the Internet was created, but as more types of devices and Web sites go online, it turns out that it’s almost used up.

Earlier this year, ICANN — the organisation that oversees Internet domains — issued the last block of IPv4 addresses to regional registrars. Those registrars will run out of their allotment later this year.

An alternate system called IPv6 was developed in the 1990s, and offers 340 undecillion unique addresses — enough to label every star in the known universe. (340 undecillion is 340 trillion trillion trillion, or 34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.)

An IPv6 address contains both letters and numbers and looks like 2001:559:0:46::6006:2da2. It is not backward compatible with IPv4 — it’s a different kind of network.

But businesses have largely ignored it, for several reasons:

  • A lot of older hardware doesn’t support it, which means businesses would have to spend money for no obvious immediate gain.
  • A lot of users have hardware and software that don’t support IPv6 yet, so couldn’t use the new networks anyway. (You can test whether you have IPv6 connectivity here.)
  • There are workarounds that allow IPv4 to keep working even when addresses are all used up. The main workaround is called Network Address Translation (NAT), and it takes devices on one side of a firewall — like the computers on your home network — and gives them temporary IP addresses that are unique only on that network. Big Internet carriers have their own carrier-grade NAT systems that can assign thousands of users to a single unique IP address.

Akamai’s Andy Champagne admits that IPv4 is not going away any time soon — it will probably be in use for another 10 years.

What Could Go Wrong

If businesses continue to ignore IPv6 and rely on technologies like NAT,  eventually end users will feel the pain:

  • New technologies that rely on having unique IP addresses at each end point, like location-based mobile apps, voice-over-IP calls (think Skype), peer-to-peer networking, and spam prevention (which often works by blocking IP addresses) will stop working, and lots of new types of apps will be closed off, stifling innovation.
  • The risk of broken apps increases as Internet traffic has to travel through multiple NAT devices — one on a home network, one on a carrier’s network, and one on the network of the business providing a particular Web service, for instance.
  • Gateways can cause performance slowdowns and are attractive targets for denial-of-service attacks.

Getting Ahead Of The Switch

With this in mind, several big Internet companies are banding together to sponsor World IPv6 Day on June 8. The goal is to convince Internet sites to begin testing IPv6 now, in preparation for the eventual switch.

Akamai is helping out — and hoping to gain some new customers, of course — by offering a dual-stack IPv4 and IPv6 in its EdgePlatform service, which companies use to accelerate delivery of content (particularly video) and applications over the Web.

This will let Web sites participate in IPv6 day without doing any work on their end — they can keep their IPv4 networks and let Akamai’s local edge servers establish the IPv6 connection to the Internet. As Akamai’s Champagne puts it, an e-commerce site doesn’t want to worry about this esoteric technological change that’s outside their core competency — they just want to keep selling shoes.

Businesses could safely ignore IPv6 day and probably not see any change. But eventually, everybody is going to have to make the switch. Once that happens, businesses who have prepared will have an advantage.

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