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Net number system at a crossroads

A failure to adequately tackle a range of problems surrounding a potential shortage of Internet Protocol addresses, the Net's numerical addresses, ultimately could cripple the Net.

Alongside the highly public debate over domain names, a little-understood predicament--with more far-reaching consequences--is confronting the new nonprofit corporation in charge of the Net's administration.

Forget about ".com." The critical resource under the Net's hood is numerical addresses, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers now is in charge of those, too.

Every online device or computer needs an Internet Protocol (IP) numerical address to connect to the global network. When the system was being designed, hardly anyone imagined that its 4.2 billion unique addresses would ever be exhausted. Just a few decades later, however, some in the technical community fear that the rapid pace of innovation one day may cause the Net to run out of numbers.

Demand for IP numbers is naturally growing due to the Net's evolution as a meeting place and marketplace.

A privileged few
While most companies have to fight for new IP addresses, others were granted huge blocks of numbers before anyone knew how precious they would be. Class A allocations are blocks that contain more than 16 million IP addresses:
Holders of Class A allocations
• Apple Computer
• AT&T
• BBN Planet
• Computer Sciences
• Compaq's Digital Equipment
• Eli Lilly
• Ford Motor Company
• General Electric
• Hewlett-Packard
• Interop Show Network
• Massachusetts Institute
  of Technology
• Mercedes Benz
• Merck
• Performance Systems
• Prudential Securities
• Stanford University
• Xerox
Further draining the IP pool is the aggressive rollout of "always on" cable Net access and the array of handheld devices that need dedicated IP numbers.

Currently, most online access providers and companies utilize a small batch of IP addresses by dynamically assigning the numbers based on demand when people log on to their networks. But with broadband services such as cable, customers must have their own dedicated number.

"It's going to come to the point where your TV remote is speaking IP to your TV, and they'll each need an IP address," said Paul Vixie, an architect of the Net's address system. Under such a scenario, a typical household could have more than 250 IP addresses, he added.

In a way the potential shortage of IP addresses is most analogous to the shortage of phone numbers that came about with the advent of fax machines and cellular phones, which has spurred the addition of new area codes.

And the perceived scarcity of addresses is just the beginning. As more computers connect to the Net, the databases that map the numbers are growing larger and becoming unwieldy. The ever-increasing size of the network's so-called routing tables has some Net programmers worried.

"There's going to be a point when machines can't handle the size," said Kim Hubbard, president of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which is responsible for allocating and assigning IP addresses in the Americas.

Although there is hope that a new standard, IP version 6 (IPV6), could help alleviate both problems, the timeline for a rollout is sketchy--estimates range from the next 5 to 25 years. That's why many in the Net addressing trenches agree that allocation of these precious resources must meet strict guidelines.

"There is this constant tension about whose interest is being served," said Tony Rutkowski, principal consultant for the Next Generation Internet and a founder of the Internet Society. "It's a combination of how these IP addresses are allocated and to whom--and that is the rub."

New nonprofit in the middle
And now ICANN, which is mediating a number of other contentious debates, finds itself in the middle of the long-standing, international struggle over who should hold the key to the IP address treasure chest.

At a public meeting in Berlin later this month, ICANN is expected to take its most definitive step on the issue, creating an organization to tackle IP addressing.

Since last November, ICANN has been charged with overseeing the Net's technical administration, under a Memorandum Of Understanding it signed with the Commerce Department. ICANN also has been recognized by more than 25 nations in its new role.

So far, ICANN's challenges posed by IP numbering have been overshadowed by other topics, such as authorizing new companies to register domains ending in ".com" or adding new top-level domains such as ".web" and ".firm." Along with the fact that domains have been a well-publicized issue, ICANN's leaders also don't see the IP address issue as terribly pressing.

"We haven't needed to do anything in the way of [IP address] policy yet," said Michael Roberts, ICANN's interim chief executive. "There is potential scarcity. The thing to do is get moving on IPV6, which will deploy in an open and fair way based on reasonable need."

But a failure to adequately tackle a range of problems surrounding IP addresses ultimately could cripple the Net. In fact, charting a new IP numbering course may prove to be ICANN's most important contribution.

In the past, policy and oversight of IP addresses has been left to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the government-funded group that designed the numbering system under the leadership of the late Jon Postel. Under ICANN, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority still distributes address space to three geographically diverse Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), which typically hand out the addresses to large end users such as Internet service providers and universities.

ICANN will be operating under the same bottom-line principles that have guided the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority for the past three years. They call for a system that conserves addresses and routes Internet traffic more efficiently.

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority's functions may still be in place, but the chain of command is set to be dramatically altered. Whereas the buck used to stop at Postel, now it will stop at the ICANN board, which ultimately will be advised--and elected--by many representatives in the Net community, including regular online users.

Some veteran Netizens view the shift as necessary, but potentially problematic.

"One of the advantages of [the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority]--and one of its disadvantages--is that it rested with a single individual, and a single individual could easily make a decision," said Bill Manning, a staffer with the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, which housed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and also was headed by Postel. "That nimbleness in being able to respond seems to be a necessary casualty in making [the] transition" to a privatized Internet.

In keeping with its mission to turn over Net governance to the private sector, ICANN has proposed a model that establishes an address supporting organization (ASO), containing stakeholders who will forge new policies concerning IP numbering.

At its Berlin meeting May 26, ICANN will vote on proposed bylaws for supporting organizations, including the ASO. The bylaws will set up an open membership consisting of IP address registries, ISPs, and end users. For a new policy to be enacted a majority of each membership category must approve it.

Election of the new organization comes at a critical juncture in the evolution of the Net's address system, experts say, and is almost certain to stoke the public scrutiny surrounding ICANN.

"It's important that [the ASO] understand the technical issues involved and are not swayed by the political expediencies that have been pressed in the past," said David Conrad, founder of the Asia Pacific Network Information Center (APNIC), one of the three IP address registries.

This sentiment is echoed by ISPs, another faction whose input will be vital to the ASO.

"How this policy recommendation body is formed within ICANN is a concern," said Barbara Dooley, president of ISP trade group the Commercial Internet Exchange.

Numbers don't add up
Not surprisingly, today's system is a far cry from the way things were done in the early days of the Net.

Thirty years ago few architects of what was then called the Arpanet expected it to mushroom into a medium that would change the way people live, work, and do business. IP addresses were viewed as an endless resource that was free for the taking. Out of that thinking came the practice of doling out wastefully large blocks of numbers to companies or groups that asked for them.

Ford Motor, Eli Lilly, and Hewlett-Packard are just three of the holders of the largest "legacy" blocks, known as Class A allocations, which contain more than 16.7 million addresses each. In 1995, leading cable Net access provider @Home appealed to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority after its application for a Class A allocation was turned down. @Home ended up getting numerous smaller Class B allocations, creating some controversy among local registries.

The legacy space doled out to those that had the foresight to ask for it is the source of jealousy for many latecomers. They point out that while Mercedes Benz holds nearly 17 million addresses, only 1.04 million have been allocated to the entire nation of China.

"There are a number of different business issues we foresee in the future that will require IP addressing," said Bill Hurley, manager of new media and relationship marketing for Mercedes Benz. "We are looking to have an IP address for every car."

ICANN no doubt will be pressured to tip the scales toward those who have IP envy.

"Some people in Africa and South America want their own regional registries. Some of the ISPs want to have a bigger role in how the allocation is done," acknowledged Commerce Department spokeswoman Becky Burr, who is overseeing the agreement with ICANN.

"There may be a more complicated mix of players," she added. "But it still will be a fairly straightforward allocation system."

Despite pessimism about shortages in IP space and the politics of allocation, some legacy holders have voluntarily surrendered their blocks for the good of the Net community, such as the Defense Department and BBN, now owned by GTE. Stanford University also is in negotiations to return part of its huge block, according to school and registry officials.

Chain of power
IP numbers are a lucrative commodity in the digital age. Here's a look at the gatekeepers who oversee how the numbers are handed out.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Based on a 1998 agreement with the Commerce Department, ICANN oversees the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and controls how the Net's 4.29 billion IP addresses are used.
Under ICANN, IANA distributes address space to three geographically diverse Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) and is supposed to encourage all three RIRs to operate so that addresses remain unique, are mapped efficiently, and are treated as a precious resource.

Regional Internet Registries (RIR)
Three nonprofit registries dole out available pools of IP based on a shared criteria. All deploy numerical address space to ISPs, local registries, and in some cases small users.

RIR worldwide breakdown
American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN)
Hands out number blocks to thousands of major ISPs such as WorldCom, UUNet, Sprint, and other large users of IP addresses, such as corporations and colleges. Many of ARIN's customers then pass the numbers on to smaller ISPs or end users.
Réseaux IP Européens (RIPE)
This registry allocates IP numbers for all of Europe and gives out number blocks to any ISP no matter the size.
Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC)
Like ARIN it encourages smaller ISPs to go upstream and get IP numbers from bigger providers. Large members include: Japan and Korea Network Information Centers, China Telecom, and China Education and Research Network.
Sources: ARIN, ICANN, Tony Rutkowski