IP Addresses on Endangered List

We’re rapidly running out of IP addresses, so businesses will need to transition to a new protocol sooner rather than later.
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Since 1994, the Internet Engineering Task Force has been warning of a shortage of IP addresses. Fortunately, the Task Force came up with a solution, known as Internet Protocol Version 6, or IPv6. Unfortunately, U.S. organizations have been very slow to transition to the new technology.

However, Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system may help change that.

Vista (and the upcoming Longhorn Server) are not the first Windows operating systems to support IPv6. However, they are the first to have IPv6 support installed and enabled by default. By making it so much easier to use IPv6, Vista will definitely smooth the transition to the new protocol and may even encourage some organizations to switch more quickly than anticipated.

IPv6 101

Currently, the Internet runs on IPv4, which was developed in 1974 by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn. Under this system, internet addresses each have 32 bits and look something like this:

131.107.20.60

IPv4 allows for approximately 4.3 billion addresses. While that may seem like a lot, we’re about to run out. According to Dale Geesey, VP of Consulting for v6 Transition, “Reports based on information from the Number Resource Organization (NRO) indicate that IPv4 address space available from the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) could be depleted within 2 years.” (Read the report here.)

IPv6 solves this problem the same way the post office and the telephone companies solved their problems when they ran out of zip codes and telephone numbers—they added more digits. IPv6 addresses have 128 bits and look something like this:

3ffe:2900:d005:4:104a:2a61:0:0

Switching to 128-bit addresses theoretically allows for approximately 665,570,793,348,866,943,898,599 Internet addresses per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

Researcher Christian Huitema estimates that realistically we could probably use only 3,911,873,538,269,506,102 addresses per square meter and maintain our current levels of efficiency. In any event, IPv6 addresses are practically infinite; you could literally have a unique Internet address for every hair on your head. More practically, each computer, cell phone, PDA, iPod, RFID tag, appliance, car, and devices we haven’t even imagined could each have its own address. Latif Ladid, President of the IPv6 Forum, believes that once IPv6 takes off, “Anything that costs more than $20 will be networked.”

But IPv6 doesn’t just add addresses. It improves security, and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, it could reduce network management costs by a third. It also requires less bandwidth and makes Internet routing more efficient. And in a 2005 report completed by RTI International for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the writers conclude that the benefits of IPv6 will exceed $10 billion per year.

Plus, IPv6 will enable new applications that will benefit from true point-to-point networking. For example, Ladid explains how IPv6 would make it easier to respond to disasters like a tsunami or Katrina. Previously, it took months or even years to restore all the voice and data networks. With IPv6, first responders could send in an “Internet ambulance.” Anyone with a laptop, cell phone, or PDA would be able to connect to an ad hoc network instantly, without any need for an ISP. It would minimize business disaster recovery costs, and it would make it easier to find survivors smart enough to hold on to their electronic devices.

Next page: Why Wait?


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