Internet Sites, Carriers Are Laying the Groundwork for a New Routing SystemBy BEN WORTHEN And CARI TUNA
The Internet is about to run out of new addresses, a milestone that is spurring Web giants like Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. to develop new versions of their sites and prompting carriers like AT&T Inc. and others to upgrade networks.
This week, the organization that oversees Internet addresses is expected to dole out its last batch of existing Internet protocol addresses, a step akin to telephone companies running out of numbers to give customers.
Internet protocol addresses are numerical labels that direct online traffic to the right location, similar to the way a letter makes its way through the postal system. Such routing is generally invisible to users—when they type in www.facebook.com, for instance, they are actually connected to a computer located at the numerical address 188.8.131.52. It is those numbers that are in dwindling supply.
While there is a new Internet addressing system ready to go that greatly expands the number of addresses, it isn't compatible with the existing system. So in June, Google, Facebook, Yahoo Inc. and others will switch over to the new addresses for one day in the first wide-scale test of the new network, dubbed IP version six, or IPv6.
A permanent shift to a new Internet addressing system is still years off. But it is now inevitable, said Lorenzo Colitti, an engineer at Google who is helping to oversee the search company's transition to IPv6. Switching to the new network, "is critical to preserving the Internet as we know it," he said, adding it's the only way that Google will be able to be accessible to future users of the Internet.
The shift—similar to the move to 10-digit telephone dialing—is necessary because of a quirk in the way the Internet is designed. The Web is made up of networking equipment like routers and servers that decode electronic signals using an addressing system developed more than 30 years ago.
That addressing system is called IP version four, or IPv4, which allows for about 4.3 billion possible addresses. In the 1970s, that number of IP addresses was more than enough as the Internet only connected a small number of government and university researchers.
But now all sorts of devices connect to the Internet as does an ever-growing percentage of the world's population. That has caused the number of available addresses to drop from more than 1 billion in June 2006 to just 117 million in December 2010, according to the American Registry for Internet Numbers.
More than a decade ago, the Internet's founding fathers developed the much longer IPv6 addressing system that allows for a near-infinite number of websites and devices. Still, less than 0.25% of people currently access the Internet with IPv6 connections, Google says.
If the changeover to IPv6 goes well, the transition—likely to happen gradually over a number of years—won't have a big impact on consumers. Some older operating systems and home routers won't work with the new addresses, but ones bought in the last couple of years should, according to networking experts.
Telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. have been upgrading their Internet and cellular networks. For instance, over the past few years, AT&T has spent "hundreds of millions" of dollars retooling its Internet network for large companies, in addition to regularly buying networking equipment that's compatible with the new addressing system, said Dale McHenry, vice president of enterprise network services.
When Verizon Wireless begins adding cellphones to its new 4G network later this year, every device will be given one of the new breed of addresses, though the phones will work with websites addressed under the old system, too."It's part of our device requirements," said Chris Neisinger, executive director of technology at Verizon Wireless. "It has to be IPv6 compatible to be on the network."
Businesses, however, need to install networking gear compatible with the new addresses and build connections to their websites for people using the new addresses.
Last year the federal government's chief information officer said all new technology purchases made by government agencies must be compatible with the new addressing scheme and ordered the agencies to upgrade websites amd equipment.
Companies like Cisco Systems Inc., which makes routers and switches, stand to benefit. "It's a gold mine because everybody eventually has to upgrade" to equipment that is compatible with IPv6, which Cisco began selling several years ago, said Joel Conover, a Cisco senior marketing manager.
At Facebook, the company said it began planning for a transition to IPv6 three years ago, steadily upgrading its equipment with gear that supports both the new and the old addressing scheme. It launched its IPv6 website last summer, though it is rarely visited.
That site, www.v6.facebook.com, needs to be typed in manually and can only be viewed by people with an IPv6 connection, meaning that more than 99% of Facebook visitors who use the old addresses would get an error message.
Facebook, Google and others announced the June test last month along with the Internet Society, a nonprofit focused on Internet policy, in order to test how well their IPv6 sites work.
Up to now, the new addressing scheme has been stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem: No one wants to develop services using the new scheme until there's a network for accessing them; no one wants to build the network until there are services to drive demand.
One of the reasons Facebook is participating in the June test, dubbed World IPv6 Day, is to try to break that standoff, says Jonathan Hellinger, Facebook's vice president of technical operations.
Other companies haven't yet begun revamping their websites. Bryan Panovich, manager of network services for Eaton Corp., said the Cleveland maker of electrical and hydraulic partsis in the process of securing IPv6 addresses, but isn't planning to update its websites until more customers and other visitors to the sites are using IPv6 connections.
Running out of the old addresses should help hasten the switchover. "The handing out of the last space is irreversible," said Leslie Daigle, chief internet technology officer for the Internet Society, adding that it should show "those who have to move that this is not a hypothetical."