We’re Almost Out of IP Addresses But Here’s How We’ll Cope

I’ve been writing about the pending shortage of IP address for half a decade, but it seems the day is almost here. It’s expected that tomorrow, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that parcels out the IP addresses that act as the true address for every site and device on the web, will announce that IPv4 addresses are gone. But this isn’t a “woe to the web” moment, because we’ve known this was coming for a while, and we’ve even known that ISPs and major websites weren’t going to adapt in time for the transition to IPv6, a longer addressing scheme that promises to solve the problem. So here’s how folks will cope while site owners and ISPs finally get off their duffs and make the switch.

What’s the Deal?
In short, a website address like gigaom.com is actually a nickname for a numeric address like There are theoretically somewhat over 4 billion Internet addresses available under the IPv4 system. These addresses tell packets where to go on the web. Without them, your requests for information would never know where to go. But there aren’t enough of them to meet the burgeoning number of web-connected devices or web services out there. So the Internet will need to move to IPv6 addresses, which provide 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses — enough for web sites, smart grid devices, mobile phones and connected TVs. Essentially, it’s enough to help the web scale, so ubiquitous connectivity is possible. But getting there requires work — work that some folks haven’t started.

How Will Companies Jerry Rig a Workable Solution While Transitioning?

While Comcast and Verizon (s cmcsa) (s vz) have been testing IPv6 for a year or two, there are many ISPs and smaller web sites that haven’t messed with their networking because things were working just fine. It’s far easier to deal with today’s problems as opposed to tomorrow’s problems. However, IPv6 isn’t backward-compatible, so the fact that we’re out of IPv4 address means people have to figure out what to do now. Here are the options:

Better use of existing IPv4 addresses. Some firms have hoarded IP addresses or have unused ones lying around they might transfer to the highest bidder. Some of the regional authorities that handle the apportioning of addresses allow this, but some do not. However, this only gets people so far and also has drawbacks for users if the address isn’t entered in routing tables correctly or accurately transferred.

Sharing IPv4 addresses through the use of Network Address Translation (NAT). ISPs already do this for many residential customers. Essentially, a NAT box sits at the front end of a home or business network and has a single IP address. The NAT then sends traffic to multiple devices behind the NAT which have private IP addresses that aren’t listed to the public Internet. NATs offer a way to get multiple devices on one IPv4 address, but it breaks the link between a web service a single device. There’s an extra step in delivering a packet which causes problems for law enforcement trying to ID a device by its IP address and also for web services that would like to use an IP address for authentication or to route something as simple as a VoIP call to a singular device as opposed to the whole network.

Operating dual networks. For those already running IPv6 trials, there are two options that involve running an IPv4 network to communicate with those using IPv4 and an IPv6 network for sites and ISPs that use IPv6. One is called tunneling, which basically involves wrapping an IPv6 packet in an IPv4 packet so it can travel over the IPv4 network and is unwrapped at the other end if it hits an IPv6-capable end point. This can also be reversed to get IPv4 packets across IPv6 networks.

The other is called dual stack, which is exactly what it sounds like. A host runs both an IPv4 network and an IPv6 network side by sid,e and the packets can use either network protocol to talk to the end point. The images above and below are taken from an FCC report on IPV6.

What Does This Mean for You?

The web won’t break tomorrow, but the stopgap solutions may degrade your quality of service as your ISP struggles with workarounds and the inevitable glitches that will come with the switchover to IPv6. In the long term, the services offered by an IPv6 web, such as direct device to web service connection, are theoretical today, but a source of innovation that could be hijacked until the transition is complete. Running dual networks is also costly, so site owners and ISPs will incur extra costs that they may or may not pass along to you as a consumer. But really, most people will hardly notice unless they’re operating a web service, selling gear to ISPs or an ISP.

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