In April of last year, news came through that it had finally happened – the internet had run out of public IPv4 address blocks to use. Many of us have heard this before. Various people have been sounding the alarm over the impending exhaustion of IPv4 addresses. What made this different was that it was the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority – the body that oversees network addresses around the globe – that was making the announcement.
The IANA ran out of addresses for certain regional internet registries back in 2011. Of the regions it highlighted, the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center announced it had run out of addresses later that year.
Because various people and organizations have been talking about IPv4 addresses ‘running out’ for so long, many people have been under the impression we ran out of IP addresses a while ago. It’s hard to imagine the situation when there are proxies out there. However, it wasn’t actually until February of 2017 that restrictions on the allocation of new addresses were implemented. Upon moving on to phase 3 of the process, it was announced that only businesses that did not have any IPv4 space would be assigned one of the remaining addresses. But during April 2018, it was announced that IPv4 addresses had finally run out. This time, for good.
IPv4 address depletion was first predicted back in the late 1980s, a period during which the internet began to undergo the kind of rapid growth that had been unthinkable before. The good news is that the solution to the problem has been around for some time – IPv6, a new and more modern protocol that currently coexists along with IPv4.
While the IANA is responsible for the global management of IP addresses, it is regional internet registries that are responsible for managing the allocation of IPs within their respective territories. There are several market forces that have affected the rate of IPv4 exhaustion and accelerated the rate at which addresses have been depleted.
Ultimately, IPv4 exhaustion comes down to the capacity limit of the internet infrastructure. When the internet was first being conceptualized and built, few people envisaged it ever reaching the size and scale that it operates at today. As a result, the internet was never designed to handle the billions of simultaneous users it now has. This situation has been exacerbated by a number of other factors.
For example, mobile devices are also much more sophisticated today than many people ever imagined they would be. Ever since IPv4 became the accepted standard for digital communications networks, and cell phones morphed into these powerful computing devices, mobile phones have begun to be used as internet hosts, accelerating the depletion of available addresses.
While dial-up internet connections were once the standard method accessing the internet, the unprecedented explosion in the number of new networks being established further contributed to the rate at which IP addresses became exhausted. However, once 2007 came around, broadband internet access became the new standard. It was around this time that the market penetration of broadband first began to climb over 50%. Unlike dial-up connections, broadband connections rely on gateways, such as modems and routers, that are usually not switched off. This further accelerates the pace of IPv4 exhaustion.
Another significant factor affecting the rate at which IP addresses have been depleted is the rapidly shifting demographics of the internet. While there are hundreds of millions of households in the western world, only a small fraction of these had access to the internet during the 1990s. Within 15 years, the fraction of these households that have internet access is now almost 50%.
Finally, our methods for managing and allocating IPv4 addresses have not been very efficient. During the early days of the internet, IP addresses were being allocated to individual users at a much higher rate than was necessary.
IPv6 To The Rescue
The reason that no one seems particularly worried about the IPv4 address exhaustion is that we already have the replacement waiting in the wings. A number of systems are already using the IPv6 standard and it coexists along with v4 already.
One of the most significant differences between IPv4 and IPv6 is that we aren’t expecting to run out of IPv6 addresses for a very long time. However, this is only one advantage of the new protocol. A number of other enhancements have been added to make it more attractive than IPv4. For example, IPv6 protocol is able to handle packets much more efficiently and also offers better security and better performance than IPv4 ever did.
By reducing the size of routing tables, IPv6 has enabled ISPs to manage their customer traffic much more efficiently by aggregating together their customers’ network prefixes into a single prefix.
Another key benefit of IPv6, one that will appeal to both individual users and organizations that make the switch from v4, is that it makes configuring networks so much simpler. Under IPv4, you don’t exactly need to be a tech whizz to be able to configure your network, but it’s also not particularly easy for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. With IPv6, address auto-configuration is built-in and routers will broadcast the prefix of the local link embedded within its router advertisements.
With the depletion of IPv4 addresses now well and truly upon us, for real this time, it is time to look to the future. IPv6 won’t just address the very real and pressing need for us to find some new IP addresses; it will also make for a more secure, more reliable, faster, and much simpler networking experience for everyone. Whether you only plan on using the internet for your social media activities or you are a network administrator working for a large corporation, IPv6 offers several advantages over its predecessor.
This move has been progressing slowly for a while now. The good news is that you don’t need to do anything – it is all behind the scenes stuff as far as most of us are concerned.
Note: Royalty free images from unsplash.com.