Is The Internet Running Out Of Space? IPv6 is the Answer.

We all tend to think of the internet in infinite terms as any ever expanding web of opportunity & possibilities. Each time we purchase an internet enabled device such as a Smartphone, or iPad we manage to hook one more device into the huge worldwide network without even thinking how it works – even in our own space in Australia we have always assumed the world wide web to be  unlimited, almost like its own universe.

Recent news reports have surfaced about the internet running out of space.  I.T. people have known about this limitation for some time, but there has been little incentive to do anything about it.  This month we look at what the problem is, what impact it may have and how it may be fixed.

When your computer connects to the internet, it is given a unique ‘IP address’.  It’s like being given a room number when you check in to a hotel.  Some computers (e.g., email servers) get to keep the same room number all the time so people know where to find them, but your computer might actually get a different room number each time you connect.  Your room number will look something like ‘216.27.61.137’.

The problem is that computers talk in binary (ones and zeros), so in binary your address looks like 11011000.00011011.00111101.10001001.  With a finite number of ones and zeros in this 8 character.8 character.8 character.8 character number, that’s a total of 4.3 billion unique addresses. But now that’s not enough and some of those addresses are reserved for internal company networks and other reasons, which make the usable number even smaller.  The world now has too many computers that want to be on the internet and we’re running out of hotel rooms.

If we did nothing about it, we would literally not be able to connect any new computers to the internet.

But the internet boffins have been aware of this problem for some time and in Dec 1998 they launched a new standard for hotel room numbers (called IP v6).  This new address would look like 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334 and would allow for 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 unique addresses!!  If you want to read that out loud, it’s 340 undecillion, 282 decillion, 366 nonillion, 920 octillion, 938 septillion, 463 sextillion, 463 quintillion, 374 quadrillion, 607 trillion, 431 billion, 768 million, 211 thousand, four hundred and fifty six.

The challenge is that the old address and the new addresses can’t natively talk to each other. If your computer can handle a new IP v6 address (Windows XP Service Pack 2 or newer software like Windows 7), it won’t be able to talk to anything on the internet that’s still using the old IP v4 address. And because the internet is literally a collection of other people’s computers, we can’t just pick a date and change every computer over at the same time.

The whole situation then is kind of similar to the Year 2000, ‘Y2K’ bug.  The good news is that the internet boffins know about this problem too, so they are working on transition mechanisms to allow the old and the new to talk nicely to one another.  There has been no sense of urgency until now to do anything about it, as it’s going to cost them time and money to fix, but it’s not going to make anyone any money.

As users we all need to make sure we have IPv6 compliant devices, generally most modern computers are configured to handle, however some older hardware, switches and routers may need firmware upgrades or replacement hardware.

If you have any questions or concerns about the Internet or any technology need, talk to your local Computer Troubleshooter