U.S. shrugs off world's address shortage

The world is nearing an Internet address crunch, but North America still has plenty to spare. That threatens to fragment plans for the biggest overhaul of the Web in 30 years.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
7 min read
As much of the world nears an Internet address crunch, North America stands as an island apart, threatening to fragment plans for the biggest overhaul of the Web in decades.
Learn more about Net addresses

Global momentum is growing for a new address system, known as IPv6, which promises to vastly expand the pool of unique numbers available for connecting PCs and other devices to the Net. The standard is widely seen as a necessary successor to the current IPv4 system, which some fear could run short of addresses in Asia and Europe within the next few years.

But few analysts expect the problem to affect North America and influential U.S. networks any time soon, thanks to unique conditions that will likely guarantee the region a steady supply of IPv4 addresses for years to come. Since fear of an address shortage is the single biggest argument in favor of a switch, the United States could stay on the sidelines as the rest of the world wrestles with the upgrade over the coming years, networking experts said.

The United States may not see a shortfall because it was granted an enormous number of addresses in the original worldwide allotment.

"Asia hits a problem in two or three years time," said Ovum analyst Iain Stevenson. "You won't see similar problems in other regions for four or five years. And in North America you won't see a problem at all."

The prospects of a costly Internet address overhaul in the United States is in the spotlight following an endorsement of IPv6 last month from the Defense Department. The $30 billion-a-year agency plans to move all its networks to the new Net address standard by 2008, fueling speculation that the switch--already under way in Japan and other parts of the world--may at last be at hand in the United States.

The Defense Department's endorsement could hasten the availability of IPv6 equipment around the world, helping ease expected address squeezes in developing markets such as China and India. But analysts downplayed the DOD plan as a bellwether, noting that the change is motivated primarily by security concerns and not an imminent run on the pool of North American Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which account for 70 percent of the current 4.3 billion possible addresses.

Doubts about the need for an Internet address upgrade persist despite increasing pressure on companies seeking to build online services in regions with larger populations than the United States but with fewer available IP addresses.

There are now about 1 billion original IP addresses left. While that sounds like plenty, many countries are rapidly draining their allotment from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, raising the specter of a shortfall. Those countries include broadband-saturated Korea; India, which has just 2 million IP addresses; China; and European countries, where Web-enabled phones are used by 70 percent of the population.

Web providers around the world have been procrastinating about switching to the new set of addresses. But reluctance is strongest in North America, where the most compelling argument for the shift is least in evidence. Since the two address systems are compatible, networking experts said, there are no other major issues driving adoption outside of address depletion.

Given the enormity of the overhaul, panic is the best and perhaps only effective salesperson. To change to a new pool of IP addresses requires an industry overhaul even greater than that IT professionals went through to keep Y2K just a scare at the dawn of 2000. Shifting to a new pool of dramatically different addresses means making changes to every Internet-connected device, router and switch on the network.

"If you don't have to do anything, most of these people won't do it," said Cody Christman, product engineering director at Japan phone giant NTT, whose DoCoMo wireless subsidiary is one of the few major carriers that has made the leap.

Two googols
Internet Protocol version 6 is its formal name. But those intimate with the details of the Internet Engineering Task Force draft standard simply call it "V6."

Established five years ago, IPv6 creates enough IP addresses for every person on Earth to have 1,000 Web-enabled devices. It does so by quadrupling the size of the IP address itself.

Related story
Commentary: What to do with IPv6?
While the limited number of available IP addresses is a primary concern for IPv6 advocates, they have other arguments for migrating from IPv4. One example is security.

The versions created 30 years ago were 32 bits long. Under that scheme, there are 4.3 billion different number combinations.

IPv6 addresses are 128 bits. The resulting list of IP addresses is two googols long, an enormous number. "It's a nearly infinite address space," said Cisco Systems Vice President Sangeeta Anand.

The first to support the new addresses were the infrastructure makers. Cisco, Juniper Networks, Foundry Networks, NEC and other makers of equipment at the heart of a Web network all make IPv6-capable network equipment, said Juniper director Kevin Dillon.

Makers of operating systems for various types of devices are also beginning to address the issue of IP address depletion.

Microsoft, whose operating system runs 80 percent of the world's computers, has adopted the new addressing scheme in its Windows XP operating system, but it's switched off by default. The latest version of Apple's operating system is also IPv6-compatible.

The open-source community has also begun incorporating IPv6 into its own operating systems.

Device makers seem to be further behind the curve, except in Asia, where Hitachi, Sony and other makers are meeting the world's first commercial demand for IPv6 handheld devices and broadband modems.

But the world's largest handset maker, Nokia, has only recently developed prototypes of cell phones that could use one of the new addresses to reach the Web. Nokia Chief Technologist Robert Hinden couldn't pinpoint when the company will have a bigger commitment to the new addressing scheme.

"It's our intention to support it in all our products," he said. "But it's not trivial."

Waiting for IPv6
If doubts about the necessity of IPv6 persist in North America, panic is real elsewhere in the world, where companies are racing to create new Internet businesses in fast-growing markets with a severely limited address pool.

"A billion sounds like a hell of a lot," said Martin McNealis, a Cisco senior director. "But places like China and India are now coming online. People are talking about 1 billion home telephones getting IP addresses. It starts to sound smaller and smaller."

The problem was underscored last year in Japan, when NTT DoCoMo became one of the first large-scale carriers to throw the switch on IPv6. DoCoMo is the world's largest Web-enabled cell phone service provider, with 40 million subscribers, and company executives had become increasingly anxious that cell phones could soon soak up the regional supply of IPv4 addresses.

Backers of the address-system change said new technologies that give Web access to unlikely devices will accelerate the depletion of the IPv4 address pool even in the United States. Some of these new technologies include voice over IP (VoIP), which requires that home phones have IP addresses, and radio ID tags that retailers are experimenting with to monitor their store shelves.

"The availability of commercial IPv6 services will be critical to sustaining...innovation that has distinguished the Internet's development over the past 30 years," said Guy Almes, chief engineer of Internet2, a project to create a new high-performance Internet for use by universities and public research institutions.

Since there is little concern over an address shortfall in North America, supporters are leaning heavily on other promised advantages of IPv6, most notably added security measures built into the protocol.

Security features were a key motive behind the Defense Department's endorsement of the IPv6 standard last month, according to John Stenbit, assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration. "We're now getting from beyond the point of talking about it and into the point of actually getting programs done," he said.

That deployment could in turn generate interest in IPv6 from security-conscious U.S. companies, rendering the address shortage issue moot, backers of the new protocol suggest.

One of the biggest challenges for IT managers is making virtual private network connections available to lots of devices at once. Current methods "break down" quickly, said Christman, who offered IPv6's nearly limitless supply of addresses as a potential cure.

North American IT administrators could also use IPv6 to better juggle the "always-on" connections demanded by the growing number of Web-connected devices workers now use.

"With the (Defense Department's) announcement, a lot of CTOs and CIOs realize that IPv6 is going to come here," said Christman. "The push is going to come."

That faith stands in contrast to current demand, according to analysts. There are now only a handful of early customers for IPv6 systems beyond Web providers and telephone companies. They are mostly large research institutions, such as Japan Gigabit Network and Internet2.

Cell phone providers are also expected to be big customers. But outside of NTT DoCoMo, only Malaysian cell phone provider Maxis said it plans to use the new addressing scheme by year's end, when it launches a new set of Web-enabled phone services.

NTT subsidiary NTT/Verio later this year will launch an ambitious effort to interest U.S. corporations in the plusses of IPv6 networking. It's already making the new networking capabilities available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., Christman said.

Despite some signs of momentum, however, analysts warned that IPv6 sales in North America face an uphill battle for now.

"The market is saying we can handle this stuff," Ovum's Stevenson said. "But there's no demand."