Don't panic: IPv4 address depletion is not a crisis

Yes, addresses are running out, but the Internet will still be with us

Really technical IT issues usually don’t make it into the public consciousness until something dramatic happens, and then they tend to be accompanied by a degree of hyperbole to make it palatable to the broader public. This happened with the Y2K bug at the turn of the last century, and it is beginning now with IPv4 address depletion.

This is a great story. The IP addresses we all depend on to communicate via the Internet — all our Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos — are running out! There are websites with visual countdowns to D-Day when all the addresses will be gone (170 days, as of this writing). Then, according to some scenarios, the Internet grinds to a halt.

One blogger, marketing associate Michael Lupacchino at the IT consulting company NSK Inc., painted the situation with the hypothetical scenario of a couple buying a new TV late next year. “They are really excited because their shiny new set has Google TV built right in,” Lupacchino writes. “However, we ran out of IP addresses in August. Sure, their cable TV will work, but they won't be able to access the Internet — no Google TV for the Doe family.”

Let me be perfectly clear: IPv4 is not going anywhere. Yes, available address space is running out, but it will be years before it is really used up, and even then the Old Internet will continue operating just fine for the foreseeable future.

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Why bother moving to IPv6?

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A new generation of addresses — IPv6 — is ready for use. Most likely, there would only be a noticeable degradation in performance as the new addresses are introduced to networks not fully able to deal with them. But this will take place over a relatively long period, and the likelihood of anyone being cut off from the Internet in the process is small.

I have been writing for years about the eventual (now imminent) depletion of IPv4 addresses and the need to ready networks for Version 6 of the Internet Protocol. The federal government is to be applauded for its mandates to prepare its core networks to handle IPv6 traffic and, finally, to enable IPv6 on its public-facing resources and internal networks. These are necessary steps to ensure that government networks are ready as IPv6 traffic comes online. Those steps also set a good example for the private sector, which should begin preparing itself.

Getting started now with IPv6 is important because network managers will need time to gain experience in handling two sets of protocols at the same time.

But this is not a crisis situation. The April 2011 depletion date refers only to the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses available from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. IANA is the hopper that feeds IP addresses into a large and complex pipeline. Millions of unused IPv4 addresses will remain in the pipeline and in the hands organizations that actually assign them to devices, and it will be years before they dry up.

The main impact will be for networks and service providers rolling out new services and devices on a large scale. Soon, these will have to be assigned IPv6 addresses because large blocks of IPv4 will not be available. The challenge then will be that new IPv6 traffic will have to be channeled through gateways to translate or encapsulate packets to reach networks that have not been IPv6-enabled. It is possible that some IPv4 resources could “disappear” to the new class of traffic, but it is more likely that IPv6 traffic would experience congestion at these chokepoints.

Of course, this is not what we want to happen, and it is important to begin working with IPv6 on as broad a scale as possible now so administrators have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the new protocols.

Like the Y2K bug, the IPv6 transition is real and needs to be addressed. But despite what you might read in the coming months, neither the world nor the Internet is likely to come to an end anytime soon.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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