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Is the Internet as We Know It Over?

  |   jim's digital lab

Consumers and businesses that count on the Internet have been alarmed by some dire warnings that the Internet is going to stop working. Some have suggested that you won’t be able to launch a new business on the Internet. How will we buy and sell stuff without the Internet? How can we possibly connect with friends and family on Facebook or on Twitter? Why didn’t someone tell us the Internet is over?

I’ve heard these alarms in the Communication Links office, from my 4-ball partners on the golf course and at casual dinners with friends. It appears that a couple of recent articles created some quasi-controversial conclusions about the Internet, and the viral nature of blogging and website news posts has created something akin to Internet Armageddon. Don’t believe everything you read!

In fact, the Internet is NOT going away. Screaming headlines notwithstanding, the real answer is that the Internet is no different from any other technology…it evolves and changes to accommodate the needs of more and more users worldwide, many of whom are now using multiple technology platforms in their work places and in their homes. What’s the real story behind the hysteria, and what is being done to ensure the Internet does not devolve into chaos?

When Al Gore created the Internet (it was him, wasn’t it?), the international technology bodies that emerged to help govern worldwide Internet connections all agreed to a standard called IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4). If you’ve ever registered a domain with a registrar such as GoDaddy, you’ve created a domain name…something like “mydomain.com.” However, it isn’t a domain name that enables the sending and receiving of data around the Internet, it is the inter-connected network of computers using numeric IP addresses that makes it possible for packets of information to find their way from Point A to Point B, with many “hops” in between. If you look at your domain manager console on your host Internet provider’s system, you will see your domain name (URL), but you’ll also see the Internet Protocol (IP) address. It might look something like this: 192.168.1.1. That grouping of 4 sets of numbers separated by a “dot,” or period, is what IPv4 stands for. And, it is this number that is assigned to domain names and all kinds of devices on the Internet.

The truth is we ARE actually running out of IP addresses using IPv4…some suggest we already have. By recycling older numbers that have been given up by companies or individuals, we aren’t there just yet…perhaps 4%-5% of all possible IP addresses are still to be used. 2011 may be the last year that IPv4 addresses can be assigned, so we are close to the end of this particular standard. Vint Cerf, one of the so-called “fathers of the Internet,” set up the early IPv4 protocols in 1977 which laid out a plan for 32-bit addressing. The sheer mathematics gives you 232nd finite combinations, or (in round numbers) some 4.2 Billion numeric addresses. When you consider the rapid rise of mobile phones, wired and wireless printers, in-home routers, TiVo boxes and multiple computers per household, all having some assignable IP address so they can work on a network, it’s easy in hindsight to ask why this wasn’t foreseen by the experts? Most early Internet pioneers were thinking inside the box…business computers linking to business computers, each of them needing an IP address. Who thought of mobile phones connecting to other wireless phones, or TiVo boxes hanging off home networks…or heck, who even thought consumers would even set up an in-home wired or wireless network with their own network routers?

Over the last decade, Cerf himself has been raising the alarm over the rapidly diminishing supply of IP addresses. And, as so often is the case in the technology field, there is a ready-made solution already taking hold. It is called IPv6 and uses 128-bit addressing. While I don’t have a mainframe computer to crank the numbers, I’ll rely on the experts who say this new addressing scheme will give us 2128th power, or some 340 undecillion addresses. How big is that? 4 billion = 4 + 9 zeros. 340 undecillion = 340 + 36 zeros! In essence, every one of the 6 billion people on the planet today could have several trillion IP address assigned to them…and, we’d still have a few trillion addresses left over for good measure.

While IPv6 is in its infancy, most Internet Service Providers are beginning to adopt this new system, or at the very least planning for the technology shift. Many are slow to change because of the potential for confusion among consumers and the need to run IPv4 and IPv6 systems in parallel. The good news is that the technical infrastructure providers and equipment manufacturers and browser developers all have a grasp on the need to roll out the system soon. Many host providers, including GoDaddy (which we use to host our clients’ websites), are already IPv6 compliant…even if few of them are using these new addresses just yet. The newer versions of web browsers have no trouble with 128 bit IP addresses, so there should be little standing in the way of adoption of the new standard other than stubbornness and a small amount of industry agita over incorporating these new industry standards into their businesses. The even better news is that IPv4 IP addresses will continue to work after the switch over to IPv6. It’ll all be relatively transparent to users.

No…the Internet is not over or even close to being placed on life-support. It’s just evolving in an almost organic way to adapt to an exploding base of users. The next time you’re out with friends, or standing on the 1st tee negotiating the Nassau dollar bets, just let your friends know there are 340 undecillion IP addresses possible with IPv6. That should be one heck of a conversation starter 🙂