IPv6 - The Y2K of the Internet

The following is a (mostly) layman's description on what the big deal with IPv6 is.

IPv6 has been popping its head up recently in my news feeds. There's a good reason for that, too. The internals of the Internet are about to change drastically. If everything is successful, you won't even know it happened.

IP stands for "Internet Protocol." The way it works and why it is used is beyond what I'm trying to say in this article, but I have to mention a few things about it so everything below will be understandable.

Whenever any device connects to the Internet, it is given an IP address. These devices include PCs, smart phones, laptops, tablets (including iPads), VoIP phones, remote webcams, and others. The IP address is what individually identifies the device on the Internet. If you type "garcha twilight required reading" into Google, you are sending a letter to Google that says, "Can you send me information related to Garcha's terrible required reading list?" Google will get the results, look at the return address on the envelope, and mail you back the results. In this scenario Google's address would be replaced with its IP address. Your address would be replaced with your PC's IP address.

This system has been working ever since the beginning of the Internet. The problem is with the size of the address. The current Internet Protocol allocates 32 bits for an address. This translates to a possible 4,294,967,296 addresses. Now, let's see how fast those addresses can get used up. I currently have 5 addresses that are tied directly to me and not shared.

This means that if everyone were like me, only about 1/10 of the world's population could go online. It's easy to see how quickly addresses disappear. We need more address space. IPv6 expands the address space to 128 bits. This brings the possible number of addresses to 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456. To visualize this, if every current possible IP address was contained in a 1.6 inch square, you would need an area the size of the entire solar system to contain the new number of possible IP addresses. (source)

Who cares?

You should. We're almost out of IP addresses. According to the BBC, the world will be out of current possible IP addresses by September of this year. (source) To remedy the problem many Internet powerhouses, such as Google and Facebook, will start testing IPv6 functionality on June 08. (source) Hopefully, they will be able to get everything working in time.

How will this affect you?

If you have an Internet connection, you may need new hardware. Older, cheaper routers and network adapters will only understand IPv4 addressing. The IPv6 standard was released in 1996. Back then, few companies thought that IP addresses would run out. More recently, with the adoption of VoIP phones, smart phones, and other devices that weren't computers and therefore weren't on the Internet, companies started to take IPv6 more seriously. Many new routers and network adapters can use IPv6.

To keep everything working, there are a few workarounds to help the transition. Because your router/modem is the only thing actually connected to the Internet, it can allow all of your devices to use IPv4 while "faking" an IPv6 address on the Internet. Chances are that it won't have to do that with the majority of your devices. Windows has had support for IPv6 ever since 1998 (source), and Linux has supported it ever since 1996 (source). So, this will only apply to ancient IP webcams, hub, switches, etc.

You're really comparing this to Y2K?

Yes. It's the same exact deal. The problem isn't a big deal for most people and companies, but it could be catastrophic for others. Because engineers have been working on the problem, you probably won't notice anything. The media may hype it up, but there is no apocalypse coming. I haven't heard much of a media frenzy yet, though. I guess "possibly some time in September 2011" doesn't have as much of an apocalyptic ring to it as "Y2K."