Internet Running out of IP Addresses

June 16, 2010

You may have seen a story in the news about how the Internet is running out of IP addresses. Don’t panic. Here’s what you need to know about it.

Every device on the internet must have a unique numerical address. This address is known as an IP address.  IP stands for Internet Protocol, in case you were wondering. If your computer is connected to the internet, your computer has an IP address. . You may not see it, but it’s there. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be able to access anything on the Internet. For most computers, their IP address is dynamic meaning it may change from time to time.

An IP address is four numbers separated by periods. Each number can be as big as 255. It looks something like this: 208.69.36.230. With its current design, the IP address allows for about 4 billion unique IP addresses. Back in the 70’s when they designed it, that sounded like much more than ever would be needed. But they failed to realize what the future would bring.

In the 1980’s, they began to realize the limitation of the IP Address. In the 1990’s, they knew something had to be done. So they began working on a new scheme for IP addresses. Estimates for how long it will be before we run out of IP addresses vary widely because there are a lot of factors that I won’t bore you with. Some say we will run out by September 2011 while other say it will be longer.

What happens if we run out? It doesn’t mean the Internet will crash and not work. It just means that there may be times when some computers can’t get an IP address assigned and, therefore, can’t get on the internet.  New computers that have static IP addresses (not dynamic) will not be able to get new static IP addresses because none are available.

This is a major problem, but there is a solution available. The original scheme for IP addresses is now called IP version 4, or IPv4 for short. The new scheme that was created is called IPv6. Whereas IPv4 was four numbers (each number can be a value from 0 to 255) separated by periods, IPv6 is eight numbers separated by colons and each number is a 4 digit hexadecimal number. It looks something like this: 2001:0db8:98a3:0000:0000:45e2:0370:7334.

You might say, “No big deal. Let’s just start using IPv6.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. IPv6 is already in use, but only on a small scale. In order for usage of IPv6 to increase there are a lot of upgrades that have to happen, both software and hardware. Those upgrades cost money. Because of that, the move to IPv6 has been slow.

So now you are wondering how this affects you. Here’s what you should know. IPv4 and IPv6 can both operate simultaneously on the internet. Most of the initial work to switch to IPv6 has to be done by the Internet Service Providers. Until they have done the work they need to do, there’s not much you can do about it.

At some point, home users will have to get new Modems (Cable, DSL, etc.) and Routers and make sure IPv6 is enabled on their computers. Businesses will need to upgrade that same equipment, but in addition, they may also need to upgrade switches, access points, servers, and certain software that communicates over the internet. But it will be at least a year or two. And it will start with the biggest companies and with the government. It will slowly trickle down to medium sized companies, small companies, and home users. This will be a transition that will take years.

The bottom line for small businesses and home users is that you really won’t have to worry about this for at least a couple of years, probably longer.

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