IPv6 Uptake Slow Despite Internet Address Shortage

We’ve heard it before but apparently, this time IP version 4 really is going to run out, and we all need IPv6

Apparently, after fifteen years of false alarms, the Internet address space really is running out this time. According to the Internet authority IANA, the world has until April 2012 to fully implement the next version of the Internet Protocol, IPv6, which was designed in 1994 to replace the current IPv4.

IPv4 addresses running out

IP addresses are unique online identifiers made up of four number groups, allowing computers to communicate with each other around the world. The Internet is built around version four of the IP addressing scheme (IPv4) which can accommodate around four billion addresses.

When the web was set up in the 1970s four billion seemed like more than enough but, according to the latest estimates, there are now only 300 million IPv4 addresses left – and the growth of mobile Internet means they are being used up faster than ever.

This month, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which oversees the web address space, allocated another two big batches of IP addresses to net firms, reducing the global pool by 17 million. At current rates, the last block of addresses will be released by 9 September 2011, according to a report by the BBC.

Trefor Davies, chief technology officer at business ISP Timico, told the BBC that the remaining IPv4 addresses were already being rationed. “You cannot just ask for more IP addresses, you have to prove you need them,” he said. “The registries will not let you have more until your reserves reach a certain threshold.”

IPv6 ready to go, but uptake is slow

In the knowledge that the IPv4 system would eventually fall short, the IPv6 standard was developed in a great hurry in the early 1990s, and completed in 1994, when the addresses were first predicted to run out. The new version allows trillions of new IP address combinations, because it uses 128 bits of address data, giving it much greater capacity to accommodate the growth of the Internet than IPv4 addresses, which contain only 32 bits.

The 1994 “deadline” came and went, and IPv6 turned out not to be such an urgent requirement as people found better ways to use the existing Internet address space, in particular reusing addresses within organisations or on local area networks (LANs). For much of the last fifteen years, IPv6 ehthusiasts have issued a series of predictions that the Internet will be all used up when, for instance, it includes all traffic lights, all mobile phones, or all the population of China.

After years of predictions which came to nothing, the IT industry forgot about the problem, but in November 2009, the Regional Internet Registry for Europe (known as RIPE NCC) warned that, by ignoring the availability of IPv6 addresses, the IT industry was adding unnecessary risk and complexity to Internet architectures. Then in January, the Number Resource Organisation (NRO) also warned that the available pool of unallocated IPv4 addresses had dipped below the 10 percent mark.

“This is the time for the Internet community to act,” said Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), at the time. “For the global Internet to grow and prosper without limitation, we need to encourage the rapid widespread adoption of the IPv6 protocol.”

However, four months on, and with the deadline fast approaching, there is some concern about the large number of businesses and ISPs that have still not switched over to IPv6, particularly as translating addresses from one format to the other is not a speedy process.

“It adds quite a lot of latency onto people accessing your network because it has to go through network address translation,” Davies told the BBC, adding that these delays will soon hit general web browsing unless more ISPs adopt IPv6.

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