The sky isn't falling

11 March 2011 | Alex Hawkes

A strange event has occurred in the world of telecoms. The final batch of IPv4 addresses has been assigned by IANA to the various Regional Internet Registries.

Of course, this isn’t exactly news; it’s been on the cards for a number of years now, and it will take an estimated 18 months for the last of these addresses to filter down to ISPs. But it does mark a significant milestone in the life of the internet.

The original IPv4 system generated some 4.3 billion addresses; back when Vint Cerf, known affectionately as “the father of the internet”, led a team of researchers to create the protocol in 1977, there was no concept that we’d eventually run out. But the explosion in mobile devices has left its mark. As Cerf remarked to the Sydney Morning Herald recently: “Who the hell knew how much address space we needed?”

The transition to the new IPv6 protocol will inevitably create difficulties, but there seems to be a general feeling that they will be overcome. World IPv6 day, to take place on 8th June 2011, will see several large companies conducting a global 24-hour test of the new protocol. Certainly, IPv6 is much more ambitious in its scope: based on 128 bits, it generates 3.4 x 1038 addresses – an inconceivably large number. Several industry specialists have commented to me that the only way we can possibly exhaust the pool is if we extend our horizons beyond our earthly sphere.

I’ll leave the worries about how to improve latency to Mars to the experts. But it does strike me that just as no one could have foreseen the massive growth in demand for IP, we can’t really predict how this growth will continue. The whole tale reminds me of IBM’s infamous prediction in 1945 that four or five computers would be enough for the world until 2000. Is it too early to start taking bets on the introduction of IPv8?

Angela Partington, Editor