No Joke: World running out of IP addresses.

by Andrew Emmott on July 29, 2010

in General,Internet

Here’s the story as given to me by a friend. It sounds about right.

The internet protocol used by the majority of web users, IPv4, provides for about four billion IP addresses — the unique 32-digit number used to identify each computer, website or internet-connected device.

There are currently only 232 million IP addresses left — enough for about 340 days — thanks to the explosion in smartphones and other web-enabled devices.

Tech Geek Observations: This is not unlike what I said in the Mac/PC article, where Macs – without a giant global infrastructure of entrenched users – were free to update all their technology to 64-bit.

If you read the above article, there is already a solution to the IP address shortage, one that has been around for years, but the established user bases have been avoiding upgrading. This is not a real crisis of any sort, or at least, not a crisis any worse than the Y2K shenanigans of years past.

This shortage is also a bigger problem for mobile devices, where desktops and laptops will be relatively unaffected. Anything that runs on a lot of firmware will have to be upgraded, en masse, and that won’t be the most convenient process. Personal computers, however, have been ready to use IPv6 for a few years already.

Hopefully, the worst that happens to the average user is that they are forced to sit through a few firmware upgrades on their phone, GPS devices in their car, possibly their router if it is old enough, and little else. If you are asked to upgrade, do it sooner than later, lest you have “that morning” when the switch becomes mandatory and all your stuff stops working for a few hours.

To compare it to the Digital Television switch from last year, the biggest problem was that people didn’t know that there was no problem. Nearly every television made after 2000 was digital ready – The FCC mandated the change a long time ago – and most people didn’t need a converter, but a lot of them thought they did.

This will be about the same – the solution was implemented before the problem became real, and a lot of people might not even notice the switch to a new IP standard.

Like Y2K, this is a natural computer-culture growing pain: Computers are machines in physical space and not capable of “thinking” about an infinitely large spectrum of numbers.  Human design places a limit somewhere.

During Y2K, the difference between two-digits and four is patently obvious to even the most computer illiterate, but decades ago, the few extra bits that would be “wasted” on most database records would have added up to a significant cost increase.

Around 1980, when even the nerds weren’t using the Internet, a span of IP addresses roughly the size of the entire world population seemed about right, and even by the late 90s 32-bit was the standard word length in nearly all processors everywhere, so going bigger seemed an unnecessary hassle. Like Y2K, the original limit was reasonable.

Realistically, 128-bit IP addresses won’t deplete within our lifetime – even if you apply the grossest generalizations of Moore’s Law.

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