Ante Up: Why the Web Needs an Upgrade

There are about 6 billion people on Earth. Currently, only a fraction are online — maybe half a billion of us. But that number is expanding rapidly — and will balloon even more quickly when Internet-enabled mobile phones become the Internet-access device of choice in many developing countries. By themselves, such phones are expected to add another 1 billion souls to the Internet’s population.

Great — the Internet has room for everyone, right? Not exactly. In fact, the Net is running out of addresses for all those people — not to mention their computers, phones, Net-connected cars, and (someday) their Internet-enabled toasters, refrigerators, thermostats, and lightbulbs. Making room for everyone will require a massive, worldwide investment of capital — and could require your company to replace all of its Internet equipment in the next few years.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. The Internet’s basic communications are made possible by a system called IP (for Internet protocol), which requires every Net-connected computer or device to have a digital address, called an IP address. It’s this address that allows computers to find one another on the Net. (Most of the time, this happens under the hood — you type in a domain name, such as www.ecompany.com, and it’s automatically converted into an IP address, like 64.14.26.167.)

The current version of this protocol, IP version 4 (or IPv4), which has been used for about 20 years, has room for only about 4 billion addresses in all (or 2 to the 32nd power, for mathematically inclined readers). That might have seemed like plenty in 1981, but you can see how that number is starting to look a little small now, given the Net’s growth and the globe’s population.

Fortunately, the computer scientists who developed the Internet and preside over its basic standards foresaw the problem. About 10 years ago, they developed a new version of the Internet protocol, IP version 6. IPv6 has room for many, many more addresses — 2 to the 128th power, to be precise. (In nontechnical terms, that’s many billion, billion, billion times the number of addresses IPv4 supports.)

IPv6 also provides some additional features that will better accommodate broadband services like video and audio. For instance, it allows you to prioritize data — so that, for instance, you could give streaming video data a higher priority than e-mail or website traffic. That way, the video won’t get all herky-jerky when Internet traffic gets heavy. IPv6 also offers better support for mobile devices like cell phones and handheld computers, and it would likely allow data to be routed more efficiently from place to place, increasing the Internet’s overall speed.

So if IPv6 has been around for a decade, why aren’t we all using it right now? The problem is that switching from IPv4 to IPv6 requires an overhaul of the Internet’s entire infrastructure, and you can’t exactly take the Net off-line for a day to make the upgrade. IPv6 does include features that make it compatible with IPv4, to smooth the transition. But making the change would still be a little bit like converting a standard automobile with four wheels into an armored tank with caterpillar treads — while driving 60 miles per hour.

IPv6 will also be expensive. To use IPv6, you need routers — the Internet equivalent of traffic cops — capable of supporting it. With high-end routers costing $100,000 or more, no one is exactly rushing out to replace them, as long as the old ones are still working. Your company probably has several of these machines; your Internet service provider, or carrier, may have dozens or hundreds. (See eCompany Now’s e-Business Parts List for more on carriers and routers.) You also need operating systems and applications capable of supporting IPv6 — adding to the expense and hassle of upgrading.

Eventually, however, the move to IPv6 will be unavoidable. The explosion in Net-connected mobile phones alone will put pressure on telecoms to upgrade to IPv6 so they can give addresses to all of their customers. That will happen soonest in areas where mobile phone adoption is high, such as Asia (where several ISPs have already started upgrading to IPv6) and Europe (where the European Commission recently assigned a task force to investigate making the transition to IPv6).

In the United States, IPv6 won’t be very widespread for a while — as long as four or five years, according to some estimates. So don’t sweat it yet; you probably won’t even have to consider IPv6 in your technology budgets for several years.

But sooner or later, we’ll run out of addresses for all of our Internet devices. And when that happens, ISPs and businesses alike will be forced to make the upgrade, regardless of the expense.

Coming up: IPv6 is just the beginning. Next week the Defogger will take a look at Internet2, the next generation of the Internet.

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Ante Up: Why the Web Needs an Upgrade