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The Internet is full! - The sky is falling!

18th Nov 2010
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There have been a few stories in the press recently to the effect that the internet is ‘nearly full’.   So – I thought I’d add my two penneth… with an almost completely jargon-free summary of the problem.

At the heart of the internet (and also your office network – unless it’s very old) is something called TCP/IP.  TCP/IP is the means by which computers talk to each other over a network.

With TCP/IP, every computer is assigned an ‘IP Address’.  In simple terms, it can be considered as your computer’s ‘phone number’.  Any computer that wants to talk to any other computer over a network needs this number before it can send any data.

An IP address isn’t a single monolithic number, but is structured into sections to contain what might be considered ‘area codes’ (to extend the telephone metaphor a bit further). An IP address looks something like this – (four numbers separated by dots – each of the four numbers can range from 1 to 255).

The design of the IP Address means that there are a total of 4,294,967,296 possible addresses, which probably sounded quite a lot when the thing was designed in 1981 by the US Defence department.

It turns out that it wasn’t nearly enough, and we’re now very close to running out.   What was not predicted was that the internet would become so all-pervasive that your mobile phone has an IP Address, your office printer has one, and your next washing machine, car, and even light switch will probably have them too.

Over the years, there have been various clever approaches to eke out the dwindling stock of numbers - The most successful being Network Address Translation (NAT) which means an office containing thousands of PC’s now only needs a single IP address on the internet (A bit like the way your single office phone number can service lots of telephone handsets in the building via the use of extension numbers – and the metaphor is now stretching to breaking point).

Computers need a bit more structure in their lives than humans, so we can’t just do what British Telecom does and muck about with area codes in random ways. BT splitting the London area codes from ‘01’ to ‘081’ and ‘071’ for example – was their (unsuccessful) solution to the same fundamental problem.

The answer, which has been in preparation for several years, is a whole new numbering system called IP version 6 (IPv6 for short). (The current system is IPv4, by the way – IPv5 was a specialised project that never really got off the ground).

An IPv6 address looks quite different from current four-part addresses.  It looks a bit like this:  2001:db8:1f70::999:de8:7648:6e8.

Because the IPv6 address is much bigger, it allows for many more addresses than IPv4.  In fact IPv6 provides for 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses – well beyond Billions and Trillions and into orders of magnitude that we don’t even have names for yet.

IPv6 has been around for a while, and most modern kit has been designed to be able to support it – Windows Vista and Windows 7 both have it built-in and installed as standard for example.  You only need to configure and activate it.   Windows XP got IPv6 support in Service Pack 1.

IPv6 also incorporates a whole range of technical changes – incorporating all of the lessons learned over the last couple of decades - to improve the efficiency, reliability, and security of Internet communication.

Why should I care?

At some point in the medium term, the internet will switch over to IPv6, and you WILL need to ensure your IT systems can cope with this change.

Will the sky fall in if I don’t do anything tomorrow?

No.  Most of the planet is in the same boat, so nobody’s going to do anything to rock that boat in the short term.

Will the sky fall in if I don’t do anything in the next year or so?

No.  As a small business, your ISP will eventually do most of the work and sort you out with an IPv6 address, and then do some old-to-new translation so your office network can still access the internet.

Will the sky fall in if I ignore the problem completely?


Eventually – you may find yourself with a degrading internet connection – possibly even in a position where future clients won’t be able to find you on the Internet or connect to you.

What should I do?

Make sure that future purchases of network infrastructure (Hubs, Switches, Routers, etc) can support IPv6. The transition will be gradual – albeit inevitable.


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Replies (2)

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By Gina Dyer
19th Nov 2010 11:20

Thanks for the info Charles. I've read so many confusing reports about this over the last couple of days, so it's good to have it in human language for once! It actually reminded me a little of the Y2K panic we had back at the turn of the century! What a red herring that turned out to be!

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By cverrier
20th Nov 2010 11:47

Y2K... Grr

Don't get me started.

It's a classic example of the mainstream media generating a story by hyping up the drama (planes falling from the sky, dogs and cats living together, etc) and then getting another bite of the cherry by writing shocked stories about how the hype didn't come to pass.

Y2K was a real problem.  I had a Financial Services client who had a custom database I'd built for them in the mid-nineties.  The database couldn't handle reports that spanned the 1999/2000 boundary, which of course included the tax year - it took me several hours head-scratching to modify the system to cope - (and a big 'Hello' to all ex DataEase developers out there!).

The sky didn't fall because an awful lot of IT professionals did a lot of work to address the issue (all the time muttering under their breath about the short-sightedness of their predecessors) . There was a real cost to the economy, but the cost didn't involve lots of big explosions, so the public didn't really see it.

IPv4 to IPv6 is the same - it IS a problem, and we ARE running out, but a lot of smart people have been quietly working on the problem for years, and all will be well!


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