Have you ever talked to a tech support person about a computer issue, and he or she has directed you to search through your computer's settings for the "IP address" hidden away on your hard drive?
You may not have ever noticed, but it's always a series of four numbers ranging from 0-255 divided by periods (e.g. 10.142.131.235). But... why did they stop at 255?
I just got off the phone with my best friend who has been the source of all my computer knowledge since college. He's an absolute expert and works with computers on the regular. Here's how the conversation went:
Me: "So I have a question about IP addresses."
Him: "Sure thing. What's the question?"
Me: "The numbers range from zero to 255, right?"
Me: "Why did they stop at 255?"
Once my buddy finished chortling at my question, which seemed to make sense to me but to computer experts like him was extremely naïve, he explained that "the math just doesn't work that way." This system of assigning your computer its IP address is known as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4 for short). Wired magazine explains it, thusly:
The data delivery scheme used by the vast majority of the net, known as Internet Protocol version 4, uses a series of four numbers (each one ranging from 0 to 255) to uniquely identify every machine that’s directly connected to the internet. That gives a total of about four billion possible IP addresses.
So here's the problem. Today, February 3, 2011, the very last of these four billionish IPv4 address was given out. That's it... they've all been allocated. HMOG! So what do we do? What does this mean? Will the Internets asplode today? No... and here's why from PC magazine:
"This is truly a major turning point in the on-going development of the Internet," said Rod Beckstrom, President and CEO of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the organization responsible for assigning IP addresses. "Nobody was caught off guard by this, the Internet technical community has been planning for... depletion for quite some time."
But things could slow down for a while. Again, Wired magazine reports:
The shortage of addresses could eventually slow down your favorite web services, make it harder for websites to verify your identity, and complicate the design of services that depend on computer-to-computer connections, like peer-to-peer file sharing, Skype and more.
So what's the fix? A new system of assigning IP addresses called Internet Protocol version 6 (you guessed it, IPv6 for short) is already in the works. These addresses involve more characters in the sequence, and a more diverse choice of characters including, not just numbers, but also letters A-F (e.g. 2001:DB8:8::260:97ff:fe40:efab).
But it isn't a quick fix. It also isn't a cheap one. Companies will have to upgrade or buy new network equipment. And only a fraction of websites out there are IPv6 compatible (anyone feeling the Y2K déjà vu, yet?). Which means while the computer or smartphone you're reading this entry on is likely IPv6 compatible, there isn't much web content out there to see in the world of IPv6.
But some companies and internet providers (including Kabletown Comcast, NBCUniversal's new parent company) have IPv6 trials in the works. In the meantime... expect more quick fixes like multiple computers working off individual IPv4 addresses. Which works... but can make your Internets experience sluggish. Companies can also make better use of the IPv4 addresses out there that have already been allocated, but aren't seeing much action.
The reality is this new page in online history is going to take time to figure out, and the transition period isn't going to be perfect. So the good news is the Internets aren't going anywhere. The bad news? The next time your connection fizzles while you're watching the latest Last Word video or bidding on that must-have Hummel Battlestar Galactica figurine on eBay... there's now another possibility on the list of reasons you experience an Internets fail.
So it goes...