July 13, 2010, 3:45 PM — The Internet promises unlimited connectivity, but such connectivity requires that computers and devices find one another through a common address plan. The current plan, in place since the late 1970s, is running out of open addresses, and a new scheme called IPv6 is being put in place to power the Internet's next stage of growth.
For small businesses that plan ahead, this shift can enhance computing security and application reliability and performance. But waiting until the last minute could leave you scrambling for costly equipment updates, missing an opportunity to turn a necessary change into a business boost.
IPv6 has been around and touted by the networking industry as "coming soon" for many years, yet there is no grand, worldwide launch date. Some parts of the world, notably Asia, and some Internet service providers (ISPs) and related companies, are leading others in the transition. Now, though, it's widely recognized that a day of reckoning is coming within the next couple of years as an increasingly critical IP address scarcity forces widespread changeover.
What Is IPv6?
In 1981, the only computers with Internet access were part of military or research organizations. In this 8-bit environment, the 32-bit address space offered by Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) seemed unlimited, allowing nearly 4 billion possible addresses (2 to the 32nd power) for connected devices. Fast-forward nearly 30 years and millions upon millions of Internet users later, and the end of available addresses is in sight. Once all the addresses are assigned, then, in theory, no new device can be attached to the Internet.
A variety of creative, if not always legitimate, fixes for limited address space already exist. Some large Internet carriers are beginning to "hide" a large network behind a small number of public IP addresses, using the Network Address Translation (NAT) scheme, as consumers and small businesses do. While this workaround provides Internet access for more devices, its complexity can hurt network performance. Other carriers, especially in developing countries, are conducting "black market" auctions of IP address blocks to desperate companies and carriers.
IPv4 formats Internet addresses in a quartet of numbers, such as 188.8.131.52. This is distinct from URLs, such as www.pcworld.com, that are converted to numeric IP addresses by a Domain Name System (DNS) server. A single URL may be tied to multiple IP addresses, or multiple URLs may point to a single address.