How the IPv6 Shuffle Will Affect You

Internet pundits have been sounding an alarm cry—literally—for years: We are running out of IP addresses, the basic building blocks of all things Internet. In fact, for the most part, we actually did run out of IP addresses earlier this year, an occurrence that should have had users crying into their FarmVille-harvested soup.

And what did the public have to say about all of this?

Meh.

Why the disinterest in an issue so fundamental to the way the Web works? A number of reasons, but the biggest is that clever engineers long ago figured out how to keep the internet running without adding IP addresses. The current system, IPv4, provides for a bit over 4 billion addresses to be assigned. And yet sometime last year we topped 5 billion devices connected to the internet.

That’s possible thanks to Network Address Translation (NAT) and other technologies, all essentially variations on a data forwarding system. Think of NAT as a bank of P.O. boxes: The post office has only one address, but it manages to deliver mail to thousands of customers by internally managing its postal traffic. If you have a network at home, all of your devices likely share a single IP address loaned to you by your ISP, and your ISP in turn does the same thing, having far fewer IP addresses than it does customers.

But this rickety arrangement won’t last forever. In the next 10 years we could hit 15, 20, or 50 billion net-connected devices, and NAT simply won’t keep up.

Enter IPv6: This new system expands the number of IP addresses available to an ungodly number: 3.4 x 10^38 addresses, to be precise, which is bigger than the mass of the earth in grams. That should cover us, hopefully forever. IPv6 also has other features, including multicasting (which lets you transmit data to multiple recipients simultaneously) and better security, but the big news is the massive address space.

The hard part is what happens now: Translating between IPv4 and IPv6 is already messy, and only about 12 percent of Internet-connected networks support IPv6 today. We’ll get there, but it could take the rest of the decade for the job to get finished.

The really good news is that all that apathy is probably OK: Computer users really don’t need to worry about IPv6 any more than they worry about a Kardashian wedding. It will get sorted out by device makers, ISPs, Microsoft, and their ilk—and you won’t likely have to lift a finger… or even notice when the job is done.

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