Will the new internet address system be a second Y2K?

5 Feb 2008

Yesterday marked an historic step for the web as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) began its revamp of the entire web address system: the numeric underlay of the website names we type in to direct us to a certain page or site.

Currently, most of the world’s internet sites are using a 32-bit site mapping which has been employed since its inception in 1981, meaning there are only four billion possible IP (internet protocol) addresses available.

With 109 million websites and 29.7 billion webpages in existence, IP addresses will run out in the next three to four years unless they are switched over to a new numbering system, much like the assigning of phone numbers or the changing of areas codes.

The new IP system, called IPv6, is 128-bit meaning that instead of four billion possible addresses there will be an innumerable amount: more than can ever possibly be used.

There are currently 6,000 web servers and 250 database servers worldwide, all of which will need to convert to the new IPv6 at a cost which will benefit the user but not them, with the result that not many organisations have begun to make the move.

However, some firms such as US cable company Comcast are already using this new technology, while Microsoft is working on a new set of standard protocols for IPv6 that is already built into its Vista operating system and upgrades of the XP OS.

Microsoft has previously said that preparation for the advent of IPv6 will be a “larger task” than Y2K, or year 2000 compliance, referring to the fact the programmers had not foreseen the difficulties involved in a computer not distinguishing between the representation of 2008 and 1908.

Much like this, the evolution of the internet meant its expansion to the point where four billion unique IP addresses could not cater for demand could not possibly be predicted.

An alternative solution has been proposed – NAT (network address translation), whereby servers can use a single IP address for a large number of hosts. However, data suggests that this is already in use and still the number of available IP addresses are filling up fast.

By Marie Boran