Cerf, now aged 65 and an Internet evangelist, was one of the men who worked on ARPAnet, the predecessor to the Internet, and so is rightly regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Internet. According to The Guardian, he has recently warned that the Internet is rapidly running out of IP addresses, with late 2009, early 2010 a possible time-scale for when all the IP addresses in the world will have been used.
The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that it’s not only computers that are now able to connect to the Internet, with mobile phones, PDAs, game consoles, televisions, and even fridges all being sold with some kind of Internet access built in. This means that the Internet Protocol version four (IPv4) addresses, of which there were 4.2 billion when it was developed in the late seventies, are running out at a rate of knots.
With every Internet-enabled device assigned a unique IP address, the stocks are running extremely low, with around 14% of IPv4 addresses left. Cerf explained the situation in a way we can all understand to Times Online:
This is like the internet running out of telephone numbers and with no new numbers, you can’t have more subscribers.
But, before you all panic that the world is going to end in 2010, or at least any new iPhone or laptop will be effectively banned from the Internet, there is already a solution in place. It’s actually been in place for over ten years, which is the time this problem was first noticed, but it’s still not been fully implemented.
In 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) adopted Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). This new protocol provides space for 2^128 addresses (340 trillion trillion trillion) or 4 billion IPs for every living person on the planet. So it will outlive any of us.
Most of us will already own a computer which supports IPv6, with IBM’s Unix offering support from 1997 and almost everyone else following suit shortly afterwards. Widows XP SP1 had it included, and it’s the standard protocol version in Windows Vista. So why is no-one yet using it?
It seems no-one is really that bothered until they are forced to, and according to Cerf, that is likely to be within the next year or two. Until then, all us humble consumers can do is make sure we buy devices and sign up to Internet Service Providers who support IPv6 and are prepared for the changeover. Oh, and remember to cross your fingers.