You may not have noticed it, but the internet is running out of space. Growth in the number of people using it – now past the 2bn mark – means that the available pool of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses has been almost exhausted.
In a recent paper on the value of the domain-name system (DNS), five leading US internet experts from organisations such as Georgia Tech and research company Shinkuro Inc provided an elegant explanation of the relationship between domains and IP addresses. The DNS, said the paper, is a tool that makes the internet accessible to everyday people. ‘When computers on the internet communicate with each other, they use a series of numbers called IP addresses to direct their messages to the correct recipient,’ it added. ‘These numbers, however, are hard to remember, so the DNS allows us to use easier-to-remember words [eg, newlegalreview.com] to access websites or send e-mail. Such names resolve to the proper IP numbers through the use of domain name servers.’
In other words, IP addresses make up a kind of virtual ‘real estate’ that domains are built on. Now, as a result of their dwindling numbers, the race is on among internet service providers (ISPs) to switch customers over to a new web addressing system called Internet Protocol version six (IPv6). The new system offers almost unlimited space for domain names, and must quickly replace the current numerical system, IPv4, which has been in use for about 25 years (an ‘IPv5’ tag was once assigned to an experimental platform called ST2, which was only ever used between technology companies such as Apple, Sun and IBM. Work on it was abandoned in the late 1990s).
An urgent transition
IPv6 should enable the internet to flourish rather than falter in the face of overcrowding – a problem that poses a very real threat as companies and individuals will soon be able to register their own, customised suffixes, potentially leading to an explosion of new domain. While IPv4 has an estimated maximum capacity of 4bn addresses, IPv6 – according to European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes – has an unthinkable theoretical limit of around 300 trillion-trillion-trillion.
In early December, Kroes urged businesses and other public organisations to move to IPv6 as soon as possible, stressing that in Europe, total depletion of IPv4 is ‘just around the corner’. The longer the delay, she added, ‘the more it will cost us. The internet will begin to suffer, and innovation and economic growth will feel the consequences. These are not things we can afford at the moment.’ In Germany, some ISPs have already commenced the switch to IPv6 – but as with many watersheds in information technology, all eyes are on the US to see how it will manage its much larger transition. Leading US ISP Comcast has been conducting a trial of the new platform in the California town of Pleasanton. Understanding that the old platform will have to be maintained until the migration is 100% complete, Comcast has equipped its trial users with ‘native dual stack’ hardware that can handle IPv4 and IPv6 at the same time.
In a November blog posting, Comcast internet systems vice-president Jason Livingood said: ‘This is a significant milestone, not just inside our own company but also in the industry – particularly given the “chicken and egg” relationship between the availability of content and software that supports IPv6 and the deployment of IPv6 to end users. Our focus is on identifying any final IPv6 transition issues quickly and fixing them rapidly, so we can soon begin a national deployment.’
A changing landscape
So, how did we get here – and did those technical issues ever occur to the users or operators of the internet’s prototype version?
Partly, they did. During the early 1980s, the internet was used mainly by universities for sharing academic data. The body responsible for managing virtual space for that pre-web version, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA – a division of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN) estimated that about 4.3bn IP addresses would be enough to meet future demand.
In 1989, though, British computing mastermind Tim Berners-Lee created the worldwide web, which allowed computers to network over the internet using HyperText Markup Language (HTML). This software breakthrough, coupled with the first web browsers in the early 1990s, opened up the internet to home users. Demand for IP addresses soared – particularly with the advent of the DNS, which eventually allowed websites to have concise and memorable domain names.
Clearly, there is an enormous leap between IANA’s first sufficiency estimate of 4.3bn IP addresses, and the oncoming capacity for 300 trillion-trillion-trillion. But technological developments and the internet’s popularity have worked hand in hand to expand the landscape. As Joss Wright, research fellow at University of Oxford department the Oxford Internet Institute, puts it: ‘When the internet was invented it was never intended to be as big as it is today.’
With a way out of the domains bottleneck now in sight, experts are confident that IPv6 will help the internet to run more smoothly – and make important, commerce-related systems like online ordering and customer billing more efficient and secure. A larger network of IP addresses will create more work for law firms and companies involved in domain-name registration. Plus, the higher likelihood of infringement in that climate will focus trademark owners on the growing need for brand protection, and the services of digital content watching specialists.