TOPICS > Science

World Tests IPv6: Why 4.2 Billion Internet Addresses Just Weren’t Enough

June 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
More than 400 organizations and Internet giants participated Wednesday in a trial run of a new addressing system, called Internet Protocol version 6, known as IPv6. Hari Sreenivasan reports on World IPv6 Day, and Leslie Daigle of the Internet Society explains how it will affect your life online.

GWEN IFILL: Now we look at today’s test expanding our ability to surf the Web.

Hari Sreenivasan begins our coverage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ever wonder how your device, be it a laptop, a smartphone, or tablet, connects to information on the Internet? Devices and websites all have addresses that can identify them. They’re known as I.P., or Internet protocol, addresses.

For example, has an I.P. address. Your device finds and connects to the site by exchanging address information. Think of it like sending a postcard.

VINT CERF, Google: Postcards have “from” addresses and “to” addresses, and they have some content. The Internet packets of the Internet are like little postcards. Computers generate them, and they put them into the network, and the network looks to see where is this postcard supposed to go, and it figures out a route to get it to the other side, and then it delivers it to the destination.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vint Cerf is one of the two men who invented how this system works. At the time, the Internet was a Defense Department experiment.

The original Internet protocol had 4.3 billion possible I.P. address combinations, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But, since the early ’70s, the Internet has become crowded with websites and devices galore. We’re running out of addresses.

VINT CERF: Imagine for a minute that you have a telephone number system that runs out of telephone numbers, and you have to add another digit to make a bigger address space for telephone numbers. This is the sort of thing that we have run into.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, today, more than 400 major sites and corporations, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and YouTube, are taking part in a 24-hour test run of the next generation of Internet addresses called IPv6.

Internet giants have been preparing for this trial for more than a year. Going forward, could IPv6 run out of addresses, too? That’s unlikely. The number of addresses that IPv6 allows for is equivalent to 3.4 times 10 to the 38th.

VINT CERF: Three hundred and forty trillion trillion trillion addresses, which is enough to last until after I’m dead. Then it’s somebody else’s problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The amount is so big that experts are calling it unlimited.

GWEN IFILL: So, how will this affect your life online?

For that, we’re joined by Leslie Daigle, chief technology officer for the Internet Society.

Leslie, we’re counting on you to help us out with this. So how did this test today go?

LESLIE DAIGLE, Internet Society: It was great. It — so, we turned on IPv6 on these major Internet sites at 8:00 Eastern last night, and things went smoothly. It was almost a non-event.

GWEN IFILL: Was it just a switch that was flipped?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  Well, as — as indicated in the video from Vint, this is something that’s been in preparation for about a year by a number of parties. And they flipped the switch, but after a lot of preparations.

GWEN IFILL: Was there worry at all that we — that Americans would wake up or people around the world would wake up today, hit their Google account, and be unable to get online?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  There was some concern that that could happen for a small number of users. And that’s in part why we wanted to have the test today just to see what actually really happens when we go live with IPv6.

GWEN IFILL: So, when you go live with IPv6, what are the consequences that most ordinary Internet users would notice?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  Well, after today, I think we can be reasonably confident that, at least initially, they won’t notice anything, at least nothing untoward.

But the opportunities that moving this way bring us is much more of what we have really enjoyed about the Internet, which is continued growth of the Net, continued new applications, and moving on to the future.

GWEN IFILL: So, if this had not been put in place, if this wasn’t ready to be rolled out, were we going to experience diminishing efficiency over time?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  That’s the other path, is increased complexity in trying to squeeze more use out of the limited address space that we have with IPv4, so increased complexity, less efficiency, and a lot of other unknowns.

GWEN IFILL: So, I guess the question is, were — we were fixing something that was truly broken?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  We are. And we have been trying to do that for over a decade. But you know how these things are. When it looks like it’s going to bring you more of the same, it seems, why are we going to do this?

But now we’re at the point where I think it’s well understood that there is only one way forward, and that’s moving on to IPv6.

GWEN IFILL: OK. So, it’s so not unusual for one person to own a laptop, a cell phone that’s Internet-enabled, a wireless router at home or at work, another laptop, and perhaps Internet-enabled television or some other device.

Are all of these different devices what’s putting the stress on the system, or are they all being sent to one single address?

LESLIE DAIGLE: It’s partly that, indeed. And, certainly, if we want to imagine a bright future with all those devices, that’s part of what’s bringing the stress.

But 4.3 billion addresses aren’t even as many as there are people on the face of the planet. So, there never was going to be enough IPv4 address space.

GWEN IFILL: Right now, each person has one address.


GWEN IFILL: At most.


GWEN IFILL: So — and, sometimes, it’s an address that they share with other people or other institutions or within an institution.


GWEN IFILL: So, right now, this — these people would get these addresses — wouldn’t have to get the addresses. But what — I guess — you say there are now going to be more addresses than we could ever, ever fill. What was the need for all of that?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  Well, again, I think it’s important to understand that part of the driving function of the Internet has been unlimited creativity. And it’s already been put to uses that even the inventor of the Internet could not have imagined.

And I think we see that going forward as well. More of your devices and even smaller — smaller than a single device, a single car, for instance, may wind up having several I.P. addresses in it. So, it’s — really, the future is wide-open.

GWEN IFILL: So, bottom line, what is the cost of this for a consumer? Does that mean that the devices we buy in the future will be more expensive? Does it mean access to the Internet will become more expensive? What is the — the cost?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  Hopefully, none of the above. Hopefully, in a gradual transition for the end consumer, the slight addition in hardware costs or access costs will — will actually be rolled into the overall normal progression of things.

For enterprises, for network operators, they look at it and they see costs in terms of upgrading their equipment and making — making a change to their systems to accommodate IPv6. But, at this point in time, I think we’re beginning to see that the cost of trying to continue to accommodate a lack of IPv4 addresses is actually greater than the cost of moving to IPv6.

GWEN IFILL: If that’s true, why hadn’t this happened before? Why is it that the big service providers, the Googles, haven’t done this, just flipped the switch? They could — they were capable of doing this how long ago?

LESLIE DAIGLE:  Well, that’s been the question on everybody’s mind for a decade. But, this year, in February, we — we saw a landmark in event in terms of the handing out of IPv4 addresses, when the last chunks of IPv4 addresses were handed out to the different parts of the world.

And I think, at that point in time, it became clearer to people that, you know, we really are at the end of the road, and we really can’t squeeze any more toothpaste out of this tube.


Leslie Daigle from the Internet Society, thank you so much.

LESLIE DAIGLE: Thank you very much.