A LONG TIME coming, IPV6 - the communications protocol that enables internet traffic to move between addresses - has gone live and subsumed an estimated 1% of all internet traffic. It marks the biggest change in internet operations since the 4th revision (IPV4) in 1981. So what's the big deal? IPV4 only offers 2EXP32 (or just over four billion) address spaces and they ran out some time ago. So the internet has been limping along with a number of ad hoc and temporary solutions.
With seven billion people owning five billion mobiles, as well as more than two billion PCs, laptops and tablets, it is clear that four billion addresses cannot satisfy demand. Anticipating the capacity eclipse, IPV6 has been under development since 1998, and a full specification available since 2004, with various lab and field trials conducted since that time.
Will this affect you and me? Very unlikely. How about our companies? Definitely. But it will be a creeping change for most. So there is no need to worry. Extensive activity and small roll-outs have been underway for well over a decade and this IP version seems stable and bug-free. So what are the big implications?
In the beginning, the ‘fathers of the internet’ had to choose an IP address space big enough to encompass all possible users on the future internet, and, in the 1970s, a 32-bit address field looked big and inexhaustible. After all, human experience of networking at that time was limited and mainly based on the telephone and a very few computers. So 2EXP32 looked like a reasonable engineering choice.
Then, a recent piece of accepted wisdom held the limit to mobile network growth was one device per person. Only 30 years ago, 50 million mobiles for the UK looked like a likely upper limit. But we have well over 100 million accounts for a 66-million population and this is growing rapidly.
Today, we understand a lot more about networks and growth, but we are still surprised by phenomena like social networking. The cloud could also be a big surprise event with artificial intelligence and other services creating unforeseen growth patterns.
So the big question is: will IPV6, offering a 128-bit field, be exhaustible? I would argue for a yes. Those who say no often cite an estimated 2EXP248 atoms in the observable universe compared to an estimated 2EXP58 in our Sun. In this context, 2EXP128 looks big.
But new manufacturing and production techniques are going to demand addressing on a vast and disposable scale. I am not just talking about putting one in every TV set, but things that are grown biologically, replicated, printed and synthesised at a nano-scale. In the next industrial phase, every item manufactured will become addressable and carry a full history.
And the reason this should be so? It is a component of a path that leads to sustainability and the efficient use of energy and materials.
In fact, it is the only route to sustainability we can see. However, this leads to a considerable churn/birth/death rate in the address space as many items will be consumable, perishable and, in some sense, disposable. So addresses will have to be assigned at high speed in a similar way product serial numbers are assigned - but far faster and on a much bigger scale.
Consider clothing, food and medicines. All organic-based, and all demanding addressing. Even electronics and computing elements are being drawn toward the biological, or at least the nano-scale end of design and production.
We can only guess at where science, technology, human and ecological demands will lead, but the process has started and the IPV4 bottleneck has been removed. Hopefully, migrating towards an IPV6 world will continue to be pain-free.