We’re running out of IPv4 addresses… But don’t panic.
Even though the Internet’s numbers are almost up, it‚Äôs okay, we can make new ones‚Ä¶
That’s the short version of an issue that goes by the technical name of ‘IPv4 exhaustion.’ The current, fourth version of Internet Protocol addressing — the numerical identifiers that make each device on the Internet visible to every other device online–only supports 4,294,967,296 distinct addresses.
Four billion-plus devices on the Internet might have seemed like plenty decades ago, but we are now reaching that limit. On Feb. 3, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers handed out the last available blocks of IPv4 addresses to regional authorities that will then distribute them to businesses, governments, schools and Internet providers.
If nothing were to happen after that, we would have a lot of trouble. Luckily, we have the opportunity now to transition to IPv6.
Upgrading to IPv6 addressing is a rough equivalent of going from numbers-only license plates to ones that allow any combination of numbers and letters.
While IPv4 addresses could only be built by stringing numbers together in groups of four (for example, 192.168.10.1), IPv6 addresses include eight groups of both numbers and the first six letters of the alphabet (as in, 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334).
So instead of some four billion addresses, IPv6 permits roughly 340 ‘undecillion’…
But you can’t just slap an IPv6 address on a Web server or a smartphone and be done with it. An IPv4 device can’t see an IPv6 site without help and vice versa, and the translation services needed to link the two impede time-sensitive services like Internet calling.
Internet sites and services will need to make that transition first. Most Internet users will have nothing to do, but operators of Web sites will need to make sure their sites are reachable via IPv6 once even a few customers start showing up with IPv6 addresses. Most Internet providers in the U.S. will be able to hand out both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses to their users for years to come, instead of limiting new customers to IPv6 only.
None of this should necessarily require extra work by individual users. For example, Web sites will have the same domain names as today. But Internet providers may be in for some pain as they deal with all the IPv6-incompatible software and hardware employed by their users.
Regardless, the move seems to be inevitable and will eventually make things better for everyone. In the meantime, we‚Äôll let the programmers and engineers figure things out, and worry about what we’ll have to do as individuals when we get there.