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Three Questions: The Internet's Next Generation

Three Questions: The Internet's Next Generation

Three Questions: The Internet's Next Generation

Add this to the list of things you didn't know you had to worry about: the most commonly used version of the Internet is almost out of room.

The global organization that helps coordinate the allocation of Internet addresses is warning only about 200 million are left. That may sound like a lot, but the Number Resource Organization says more than 200 million addresses were assigned in just the last nine months.

The NRO has warned the current version of the Internet, known as Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4, could run out of addresses by the end of 2011. The group says it has a solution: a newer, bigger Internet. It's called IPv6, and it would vastly expand today's version of the Web.

Axel Pawlik, head of the Number Resource Organization, spoke with VOA from Amsterdam.

How exactly can the Internet run out of space?

That’s fairly easy. As you probably know, the Internet was designed in the 1970’s and rolled out in the 1980’s, and it was designed as a fairly large computer network. However, at the time the engineers who did the designing did not forsee that it would grow this rapidly.

So basically the Internet design is based on every computer connected to it having a number…like a telephone number, but slightly different. So there are a fixed set of numbers and basically the Internet is approaching its design growth.

Now it’s important to remember that the Internet as we know it today will continue to function. The only issue for those who will not move to the next version – Internet Protocol version 6 (or IPv6) – will have difficulties either hooking up new customers or reaching the whole of the Internet. Because part of that new Internet of the future will be running on IPv6, and increasingly large parts. So if you stay behind with IPv4 then there is a real risk that some of the new big Internet will not see you, or if you’re an Internet Service Provider, you would not be able to hook up new customers.

What exactly needs to happen to make this change?

This change to IPv6 should basically be fully transparent to the end user. If you have a computer today and you set it up on the Internet, all the major operating systems are preconfigured to use IPv6, so ideally there’s nothing you have to do. What has to happen is the Internet Service Providers will have to do something.

For instance, in your home you may have a wireless network or one of those home router things hidden in the cabinet, that thing might need to get replaced. And that is something that the ISP will have to do.

How many addresses does IPv6 offer, and will it run out of room?

Oh God. The reason I say that is that IPv6’s address space is so big that there are barely any words to express that. We’ve been thinking of every molecule in the universe – stuff like that. It is just so immensely huge that we, at this time, could not see when we would run out. We are thinking roughly on the terms that it needs to run for the next 50 to 100 years before we need to have some major technological change on the Internet, so that’s the time frame that we’re looking at.

But frankly, we can’t say because technology advances. Who would have thought that today I would be talking to you on an iPhone. "What?" you would have said 20 years ago. So this little iPhone has a couple of Internet addresses already, and there are other gadgets in my house and your house and your car possibly, and this is just going to multiply. So there is a demand, and basically today we cannot say when we would run out of space on IPv6. Hopefully never, because it would be overtaken by some natural technological development.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.