IP addresses will run out in two to three years

The Internet is running out of the IP addresses, but efforts to make the move from the current Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) system to its successor Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) continue to remain slow.

IPv4, which is used for the majority of activity on the Internet today, is capable of sustaining roughly four billion unique IP addresses, according to the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN). ARIN, one of five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) responsible for managing the distribution of IP address space around the world, oversees Canada, the United States and parts of the Caribbean and North Atlantic Islands.

“IPv4 addresses are depleting at an astounding rate. In the first half of 2010, the IANA actually allocated more IPv4 addresses to the registries than in all of 2009,” said John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN. “As of August 2010, there are only about five and a half per cent of IPv4 addresses remaining.”  

The central Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) registry, which administers IPv4 addresses to the five RIRs, is forecasting IP address exhaustion sometime in 2011, states the Canadian Internet Registry Authority (CIRA).  

“It’s a real issue,” said Byron Holland, president and CEO of CIRA. “It’s just a question of whether it is 24 months before you can’t access large pieces of the Internet or whether it is 36 months,” he said.

Holland suggests Canadian governments, organizations and end users start making efforts to move to IPv6 now. “You don’t want to be in that position where suddenly large parts of the majority of the Internet are not accessible to you because you didn’t get on board and convert,” he said.

“This is happening. There are no ifs, ands or buts,” he said.

IPv6 was developed in the mid-1990’s by a team of Internet engineers as the “ultimate replacement” for IPv4, said Alison Brooks, research director with Government Insights at IDC Canada. The protocol has been tested substantially, she said.

A key difference is that IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, as opposed to 32-bit addresses used by IPv4. “Think of a golf ball as IPv4 and a sun as IPv6,” said Holland in a session on Canada’s network challenges at the Canada 3.0 forum in Stratford, Ont. last May.

The number of addresses available through IPv6 is roughly 3.4 followed by 38 zeros, which is enough to assign trillions of addresses, said Jennifer Austin, senior manager of communications and marketing at CIRA.

But IPv6 adoption continues to remain slow. The average global deployment rate of IPv6, according to BGPmon.net statistics from April 2010, is four per cent.

Countries leading the way include the Vatican City State, which, according to BGPmon.net, is the only country with a 100 per cent IPv6 deployment rate, followed by Cuba at 60 per cent and Fiji at 50 per cent. Canada matches the global average at four per cent and the U.S. lags at two per cent.

Leaders among countries with large networks, according to BGPmon.net, include Uruguay, Japan, New Zealand, Czech Republic and The Netherlands.

The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which released a study on IPv6 adoption in April this year, estimates IPv4 addresses will run out in 2012. And “IPv6 is not being deployed sufficiently rapidly to intercept the estimated IPv4 exhaustion rate,” the report states.

The biggest obstacle right now is awareness, said Holland. “We are doing our best to get the message out, and other organizations are as well, but in a sense, it’s a tough sell,” he said.

The next obstacle is the funding required to replace all the parts of the system, he said. “There’s a lot that has to happen to make the whole chain IPv6 complaint, let alone just the general understanding of a somewhat esoteric technical subject,” said Holland.

IPv6 requires significant capital investment all the way up and down the chain, said Holland. At the top end, regional registries and telecommunications companies need to be prepared to offer IPv6 service, which involves major investments such as changing $100,000 routers, he said.

Manufacturers must ensure their devices, such as laptops and smart phones and wireless home routers, are IPv6 compatible if they want the devices to be able to run on IPv6 networks. And end users may have to invest in the new devices.

“Everybody up and down the food chain has to be compliant. Anybody who isn’t will limit everybody else in that stream,” said Holland.

CIRA is prepared to register requests for IPv6 addresses, Holland said, but many of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Canada are not yet ready to handle IPv6 addresses.

The “non-trivial capital requirements” are a challenge for ISPs, he said. “Until there is real user demand, it’s a legitimate question for them to ask themselves, ‘Why would I do it right now?’” he said.

Telus Corp. is “fully aware” of the IPv6 situation, said Chris Gerritsen, senior communications manager at Telus. But the company cannot comment on the readiness of its network or provide timelines in regards to IPv6 for competitive reasons, he said.

“We acquired the IPv6 address space a number of years ago, since 2003, and have been working through the upgrading and planning for this since that time. We have already deployed some services that are fully IPv6 compliant,” said Gerritsen in an e-mail.

Telus is also continuing to monitor the availability of IPv6-capable consumer devices, said Gerritsen. “We are somewhat concerned a lot of the consumer electronics coming into the market aren’t IPv6 ready. We will be ready and we will support the consumer market when it’s ready,” he said.

BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. were not available for comment on the issue.

What governments, enterprises and end users can do

Government must be one of the organizations leading the charge in terms of education and purchasing power, said Holland. In its submission to Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy Consultation in July, CIRA listed 19 recommendations for Industry Canada, including stimulating the adoption of IPv6.

One step government can take is mandate that any new technologies going into government are IPv6 complaint, and make this mandate known to bandwidth, hosting, hardware, software and services providers, he suggested.

Holland said this is a “perfect and fully legitimate role for the government to play,” which would help “drive demand for IPv6 services and then have a ripple down effect through the supply chain.”

“They are certainly one of the largest buyers of technology in the country and one of the things they should be doing is demanding that anything they are buying at this point is IPv6 compliant,” he said.

The key for enterprises is to ensure that IT managers and CIOs become educated on the issue and develop a plan, said Holland. “Anybody who doesn’t have a plan as an IT manager is not effectively creating strategy for their organization,” he said.

One challenge is that IPv6 is all about “inner plumbing,” which can make it difficult to articulate the need for funding, he said. 

But “technology managers and executives will be confronted with the issue within the next 24 to 36 months” and “it is incumbent upon them to have a plan in place now to help them migrate,” he said.

As for end users, Holland suggests making sure their devices are IPv6 complaint and asking their ISPs whether they are IPv6 complaint as well. “If you only have IPv4 gear, which is the absolute mass majority of all end users, you will not be able to access those IPv6 addresses,” he said.

IPv6 hasn’t been top of mind with government organizations in Canada, according to Brooks.

One reason adoption has been slow is that there is no “crying need” for it yet, said Brooks. “There is the sense that the IPv4 address basket will be used up soon and people will be forced into the situation of having to adopt IPv6, but so far, that really hasn’t happened,” she said.

People are more willing to look at reconfiguring IPv4 addresses as opposed to moving to IPv6, she said. “Everyone is able to do the work around this right now. It’s not really that much of an issue,” she said.

Government catalysts that will likely push IPv6 deeper into the enterprise include the expansion of Voice over IP (VoIP), network mobile devices and systems that feed sensor data to government analysts, such as border sensors and videos, said Brooks.

But the tipping point, according to Brooks, will be the move to push Internet connectivity to all devices, which will require that TVs, fridges, phones, cars, home heating systems, etc. all have IP addresses. At that point, the IPv4 system will be unsustainable, she said.

ARIN, which allocates blocks of IP addresses to large organizations like CIRA and ISPs, will run out of new address space using the IPv4 protocol in the coming year and this will have a trickle-down effect, said Holland.

“It will take a little longer for us and the telcos then to run out of IPv4, so it’s not like the sky is falling and the Internet will stop functioning next year, but new address space will start to run out,” he said.

There is a secondary market potentially opening up around IPv4, but the real solution is to “get IPv6 out the door in a meaningful way,” said Holland.

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

Correction: CIRA is prepared to register requests for IPv6 addresses. The organization does not assign IPv6 addresses, as previously reported. ARIN estimates there is less than six per cent of IPv4 address space left.