IPocalypse Now? The Last IPv4 Blocks Were Allocated Thursday

CYBERSPACE—"It is completely depleted. There are no more,” said Rob Beckstrom on Thursday, during a press conference in Miami.

The ICANN CEO was of course referring to blocks of IPv4 addresses, the final five of which were allocated yesterday by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

"A pool of more than four billion Internet addresses has been emptied this morning," said Beckstrom, adding, “This is one of the most important days in internet history.”

It is also a day that ICANN has been warning about for several years, though some very knowledgeable people had thought that it would not happen this quickly. In November, Vint Cerf, the co-inventor of TCP/IP, said that IPv4 addresses would run out in two years, though he may have been referring to free IPv4 addresses as well, many of which are still available and will continue to be allocated.

The real point of yesterday’s press conference and announcement was undoubtedly to light a fire under internet service providers and other network providers that have been dragging their feet making plans to switch over to IPv6. Beckstrom said the transition will probably take years to complete and cost billions of dollars globally. Once done, though, the new standard will contain trillions of available addresses, dwarfing the billions that have already been allocated.

The Wikipedia entry for IPv6 reads, “Like IPv4, IPv6 is an Internet Layer protocol for packet-switched internetworking and provides end-to-end datagram transmission across multiple IP networks. While IPv4 allows 32 bits for an Internet Protocol address, and can therefore support 232 (4,294,967,296) addresses, IPv6 uses a 128-bit address and the new address space supports 2128 (340 undecillion or 3.4×1038) addresses.”

Though expensive and time consuming, the transition is necessary and, according to Internet Society chief technology officer Leslie Daigle, will prevent the internet from becoming "balkanized" with localized addressing frameworks.

Another challenge, according to Wikipedia, “is that IPv6 does not implement interoperability features with IPv4, and creates essentially a parallel, independent network. Exchanging traffic between the two networks requires special translator gateways, but modern computer operating systems implement dual-protocol software for transparent access to both networks using 'tunneling'.”

Despite reaching its 12th anniversary as a Standards Track protocol, by December 2010, IPv6 was still a long way from achieving general worldwide deployment. John Curran, chief executive of the nonprofit internet registry group American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), said in September that only 32 percent of ISPs offer IPv6 services to businesses.

Despite the exhaustion of IPv4 blocks and the massive amount of work yet to be done with IPv4 implementations, the internet will not stop working and an IPocalypse is not in the making. If anything, according to Google engineer Lorenzo Colitti, those who are slow to transition will eventually see a degradation of service.

"The Internet won't stop working; it will just slowly degrade," Google engineer Lorenzo Colitti said. "Things will get slower and flakier."

The big online players are not waiting for that to happen, however. On June 8, reported AFP, “Google, Facebook and other major internet players will add IPv6 addresses to their systems in a one-day trial run to let all parties involved check for trouble spots.

"We need to kick the tires on it at a global scale and see if there are some unforeseen problems," Colitti said. "There is really a rallying cry element to it. No single player can do it alone; we need to work together."

Beckstrom is singing a similarly optimistic song. "The future of the internet and the innovation it fosters lies with IPv6," he said, adding that even though the depletion was expected to take far longer, that it is happening now simply “gives us an opportunity to shift to an internet protocol that offers a pool so large that it is difficult even to imagine."

Indeed, with about seven billion people on the planet, if everyone expects to have a mobile device with its own address, IPv6 is not a luxury, but a necessity.