The Scarcest Internet Resource?Saturday, January 9th, 2010 by Harry Lewis
You can’t get the bits if you don’t have a pipe big enough to get them to you. Because of the engineering, political, and geographic challenges of the Internet pipe problem in the US, there has been a lot of attention focused on broadband diffusion — getting high speed connectivity to lots of people. Of course, businesses compete on their ability to deliver bandwidth — at least where there is competition at all. Mostly in the phone space, it seems, though the Comcast-Verizon FIOS argument certainly generates a lot of advertising revenue locally.
But there is another important Internet resource we almost never think about: IP addresses. Or IPv4 addresses to be precise, the 32-bit unique numbers that identify where the bits are supposed to go when any kind of message is sent to your computer. If you go to WhatIsMyIp or any of a number of other sites, you can see your own, shown as four numbers, each less than 256, separated by dots. That’s about 4 billion possibilities in all, a number that seemed unimaginably extravagant at a time that computers were huge.
Today, with computers in everything, even your wristwatch could use its own IP address, and plenty of devices smaller than that. The pool of IP addresses, which were divided into blocks and given out to nations, and within nations to companies and universities and governments, is being rapidly depleted. Not quite as rapidly as had been feared, but still: A story yesterday reported that there are only 625 days of IP addresses left, at the rate the reservoir is draining.
Various things can be done to stretch the supply. Some parties who got more addresses than they really need may be willing to surrender them voluntarily. NAT technology allows multiple connections to use a single IP address, but there are costs to that.
Sooner or later, we are going to run out of addresses. The solution is already known — IPv6, which uses 128-bit addresses. The code is already in the operating systems of computers being shipped today. But the switchover is likely to be hell — think of the switch of broadcast television to digital, with granny suddenly unable to get her soaps. Except that this switch will have a deadline attached to it.
624 days and counting, according to the current estimate ‚Ä¶