Technology & Science·Analysis

World IPv6 Day spotlights expanding internet

For years now, industry observers have been warning about a development called "IP exhaustion," basically cautioning that the web is running out of real estate.
The internet is running out of room, due to worldwide use that has eclipsed the expectations of the people who programmed the structure of the internet. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

While the internet is a vast virtual universe, it’s not infinite. In fact, it’s very close to reaching capacity.

But with World IPv6 Day on June 8, the Internet is taking steps towards expansion.

For years, industry observers have been warning about a development called "IP exhaustion," basically cautioning that the internet is running out of real estate.

"We’re literally living on borrowed time," says Jag Bains, director of network operations at PEER 1 Hosting, a company that hosts websites for clients.

Every device that communicates with the internet — from a website to a smart phone to a net-connected fridge — is assigned a unique numerical label called an Internet Protocol (IP) address. It’s a string of numbers separated by periods, like 159.25.16.93, which the average web surfer might never see, but which will be familiar to anyone who has ever set up a home internet connection.

How will IPv6 change the internet?

  • Expand the number of IP addresses from four billion to 340 undecillion
  • Improve security, because IPv6 comes bundled with stronger security features
  • Increase efficiency (and thus potentially result in a faster internet)
  • Greater reliability for mobile technology

When the internet as we know it was conceived in the 1980s, programmers set it up to accommodate approximately four billion IP addresses, under a system called Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4). But as more people and devices have gone online in recent years, this seemingly large playground has become increasingly constrained.

As a result, programmers and network engineers have been working to upgrade the web to Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which boasts significantly more virtual real estate: approximately 340 undecillion IP addresses. (That’s 10 to the power of 38.)

The new addresses look something like this: 2001:db8:1f70:999:de8:7648:6e8.

Besides giving us appreciably more web space, IPv6 is said to be more efficient (and thus potentially faster), more secure and more reliable for creating connections using mobile technology.

There is IPv6-enabled hardware and software already operating on the internet, even though there hasn't been an official switchover to the new protocol yet. On June 8, a group of organizations that has been raising awareness of IP address exhaustion, including Google, Facebook, Harvard University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, will be taking part in World IPv6 Day. They'll help test the new protocol — and see which parts of the internet are using it — by offering their content over IPv6 to the public for the first time.

The Internet’s landlord

To understand the move to IPv6, it helps to have a basic understanding of how IP addresses are managed in the first place.

The web is governed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), an international non-profit body that allots parcels of IP addresses to five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs). The RIR for North America is called the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN).

The RIRs, in turn, distribute IP addresses to individual organizations or internet service providers like Bell or Telus, which take those address blocks and subdivide them further.

As of February of this year, the IANA had depleted its remaining store of IP addresses, which means that the only inventory left to hand out is what has been given to the RIRs. Some experts say that within six to nine months, RIRs could begin to deny IP requests, because there will simply be no more free IP addresses.

This was something the internet’s overseers didn’t expect to happen, at least so soon. Back in the ’90s, four billion IP addresses seemed ample. But that was before the proliferation of e-commerce and mobile internet access.

"One of the things that definitely sped things up is the amount of devices that we all now carry," says Bart Trojanowski, an Ottawa-based software developer and consultant.

"We used to have only one computer at the office, or our house, and now we have multiple devices that are connected to the internet — we have mobile phones, we have game consoles that are connected to the internet, and thus need IP addresses."

Cloud computing — that is, storing mail, documents, images, video and audio on servers on the web rather than on personal computers — has also hastened IP exhaustion, says Trojanowski. Cloud computing is being marketed heavily to businesses and to consumers, most recently with the June 6 announcement of Apple's iCloud service. 

Surfing the future

Thankfully, there were some prescient programmers who saw this shortage of IP addresses coming even back in the ‘90s, which is when plans for IPv6 were first drafted. ARIN, the RIR for North America, has been handing out IPv6 addresses for experimental use since 1999.

At some point — likely a few years from now — the ongoing upgrades to the hardware and software running the internet will reach the point where the web will be operating solely on IPv6. But for the foreseeable future, it will be a mixture of IPv4 and IPv6.

"It’s important not to see it as a transition, where Tuesday I’m going to be using IPv4 and Wednesday I’m going to be using IPv6," says Paul Andersen, president of Toronto-based eGate Networks and a member of the board of trustees of ARIN.

"It’s really more at this point that we’re adopting, because they’re separate protocols."

While the two protocols are very similar, they’re not, strictly speaking, compatible. That means some workarounds by ISPs and communications carriers are necessary during the transition to make everything work together smoothly.

"If you run a Rogers connection at home, and you only have an IPv4 address, you cannot route directly to an IPv6 website, and vice versa," says Bains.

"They might run on the same network infrastructure, but without some added techniques and appliances, you cannot route between an IPV4 address base and an IPv6 address base."

So what precisely is going to happen on June 8?

Andersen says that organizations like Google will be using "dual-stack configurations," which means that when its servers receive a request for information they'll try to respond using the IPv6 protocol first. If that fails, the server will fall back to IPv4 to deliver the content.

Consumers won't have to do anything during the transition period. All the changes are happening through upgrades at their ISP and the network carriers.

"For the average home user, the adoption of IPv6 will be seamless," says Andersen.

The real challenge, he adds, is for the people running the networks to get it all right. "There is the potential for some misconfigurations out there, but that’s not a factor of IPv6 — that’s a factor of any network. The average end user is not going to notice the difference."