BOB GARFIELD: The architects of the Internet were forward-looking by creating a network capable of handling more than four billion IP addresses. That’s the combination of numbers and dots that identifies individual devices on the Internet and allows them to send and receive data. Four billion sounds like plenty, right? Oops! Guess not. The Internet is actually running out of IP addresses and the cupboard is due to be bare by early next year. Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast. He has written about this subject. Tom, welcome to the show.
THOMAS E. WEBER: How are you doing?
BOB GARFIELD: Splendid, thank you. I'm going to give you a challenge. You get to explain an IP address so that everyone understands and does not go into a coma in the next 30 seconds.
THOMAS E. WEBER: Ouch. Okay. Well, your IP address is basically your street address on the Internet. You may have run into them yourself if you've set up the Wi-Fi router in your home or had to deal with the cable company. But most of the time, some great Internet back-end technology makes sure that you don't have to see those numbers. You just type in Google.com, you don't type in 184.108.40.206.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the fix. Is it like when we used to have a phone number and then suddenly we had an area code too? Is it just a question of adding digits?
THOMAS E. WEBER: That’s essentially it. The fix is something called IPv6. The bottom line is the new system creates 3.4 times 10 to the 38th possible address.
BOB GARFIELD: Uh, that’s a large number.
THOMAS E. WEBER: I think everyone’s pretty confident that IPv6 can take care of us for anything conceivable.
BOB GARFIELD: Great, so flip the switch and let's get started.
THOMAS E. WEBER: [LAUGHS] If only it were that easy. Everybody knows what the problem is and, and basically how to fix it. In this case, you just need to be able to use a different addressing system. Yet, for the ISPs, there’s just a lot of internal systems that require upgrading to be able to have IPv6 function correctly.
BOB GARFIELD: So naturally this all reminds me, and I guess everybody else, of Y2K, when the power grid was going to go down and nuclear generation stations were going to melt down and, even worse than that, ATMs weren't going to function properly. There were a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions that were not borne out because engineers turned out to be on top of the Y2K problem. Is the world pretty much on top of the running-out-of-IP-address problem?
THOMAS E. WEBER: For starters, I'm not sure I'd say everyone was on top of Y2K. I think it was really only when it started staring everybody in the face, and especially for companies, when investors started asking questions about it, that they really got serious. And there was a pretty huge effort in that year leading up to it to make things go smoothly. I do think this is similar in the sense that it’s a problem but, much like Y2K, when you’re kind of working down to the wire on something, it’s a little scary because you’re not exactly sure of how the fixes that you’re putting in place might operate and whether the way that you’re fixing it might actually screw things up a, a little bit worse. And Y2K, I think, wound up getting kind of mocked afterwards as this false crisis, but there was a huge amount of work that needed to be done to keep things going smoothly.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, we haven't read much about running out of IP addresses; it’s kind of a stealth story. Do you think that’s because of Y2K and the sense that, you know, although, as you observed, you can't prove a negative that crisis was overblown and they're not going to make the same mistake twice?
THOMAS E. WEBER: There’s definitely an element, I think, of, oh, we've heard the tech guys cry wolf before and we're not going to get fooled again by that story. But I also think it’s just complicated and geeky and, you know, a little bit unpleasant of a topic to try to explain.
BOB GARFIELD: So just what could happen when the IP addresses [LAUGHS] run out?
THOMAS E. WEBER: You can get a hundred different answers to that question. I think what will happen is there will be some instances of actual IP shortages, where businesses will seek connectivity and some providers will not be able to accommodate them. But I also do think you’re going to see a lot of use of tricks to get around it, taking one IP address and making it work for multiple machines. Where that doesn't work as well is when the ads that are presented to you are targeted by a whole lot of measures, but one very basic one is they look up the IP address where you’re coming from and they say, oh, that, that comes from somebody who’s a cable customer in New York City, so I'm going to show them this ad, since I know where they are. If a system is in place to have me share that address with a whole lot of other people that website stops being able to identify where I am and it might look like me and all my friends are just coming from some data center out in the middle of Virginia or something like that. Is that akin to having the trains stop running because of the Y2K bug? No. But if you’re a business on the Internet and that’s part of your day-to-day operations, not having it work right is not a very appealing prospect.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you so much.
THOMAS E. WEBER: Thank you. It’s always great to have a chance to talk about Internet protocol addresses. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It’s what keeps me getting out of bed in the morning. Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast.