For years now, tech experts have been warning that the Internet is eventually going to "run out." At first that sounds silly. How can you run out of something that's digital? Just throw a few more servers in there and make the Internet bigger.
Unfortunately, adding more servers isn't the problem; it's getting those servers to talk to other servers. That's because every gadget that runs or connects to the Internet needs a unique number to identify itself.
This number is called the IP, or Internet Protocol address. The current IP addresses standard is Internet Protocol version 4 or IPv4. An IPv4 address looks something like this: "22.214.171.124." You usually don't see IP addresses, thanks to DNS servers. Learn how a custom DNS server can help keep your computer safe.
IPv4 allows for 32-bit IP addresses. That provides roughly 4.3 billion address combinations. Back when the Internet was first developed, that seemed like more than enough addresses. The Internet was never expected to grow this big.
Now there are almost 2 billion computers online and growing. And billions of mobile gadgets are coming into use, not to mention every other Internet connected device from wireless printers to home thermostats, door lock and more. Each one needs its own IP address.
Europe and Asia have already run out of their assigned IP addresses, and America only has 3.4 million left. Internet experts expect those to run out this summer.
When the addresses run out, they'll have to be shared. Most home Internet connections use Dynamic IP addresses. That means your provider assigns you a new IP address periodically.
Now imagine there were more computers than IP addresses. Say you're online and your neighbor's modem requests an IP address. The ISP wouldn't have an IP address to give.
But what would happen if you stepped away for a bit? When you stop using the Internet, the ISP would reassign your address. Then when you come back you no longer have Internet access.
You'd have to wait for someone else to stop using it. That would quickly get annoying. And it would get worse every day as more gadgets go online fighting over the same finite list of available addresses. Think of it like a game of musical chairs where the number of players increases with the same number of chairs.
It's also bad for new companies as they try to get online. Imagine trying to start an online business and finding out you can't because no one has an IP address for your site? Yikes!
ISPs do have some tricks up their sleeves. You might hear the term Network Address Translation. This means assigning several gadgets to the same IP address. However, that's just a temporary measure.
The only permanent solution is Internet Protocol version 6. This has several major advances over IPv4. Unfortunately, it hasn't been widely adopted yet, despite being around since 1996.
IPv6 uses a 128-bit IP address instead of IPv4's 32-bit. An IPv6 address looks like this: "3ffe:1900:4545:3:200:f8dd:fe21:67cf." That's almost painful to look at, which is why DNS servers are going to be more important than ever.
However, IPv6 will allow for roughly 3.4 times 10 to the power of 38 IP addresses. In regular numbers, that's a little more than an undecillion. Never heard of an undecillion? That's a 1 followed by 36 zeros. You could also think of it as roughly the number of atoms in the entire world. It isn't a stretch to say IPv6 addresses shouldn't run out for a while. IPv6 saves the day! So why aren't we using it yet?
One problem is that older Internet hardware, including many of the servers the Internet is built on, doesn't support IPv6. The addresses are just too different and the hardware can't handle the extra memory IPv6 addresses take up compared to the current IPv4.
It's estimated that the cost to upgrade to IPv6 is going to take 7% of any company's annual tech budget. Of course, many major companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have already made the changeover internally, but they still have to have IPv4 addresses to connect with exterior IPv4 computers.
On the plus side, your computer is ready for the switch to IPv6 as long as it's running anything after Windows XP, and your Internet modem is probably OK. If not, your ISP will probably upgrade you as needed.
Still, the Internet could get a little bumpy for a while later in the year. However, once we make it through that we shouldn't have this problem again for a long time.