The Internet is supposed to be limitless--a boundary-free exchange of digital information and profit. So how can it be running out of real estate?
The answer, according to information technology experts, lies in cyberspace's ever-growing popularity. In theory, each new user who wants to log on needs a new address, as does each new Internet-enabled gadget, like smartphones that can access the Web.
Routers, which allow multiple users and devices to use a single address, are helping stave off the problem for now, but it's only a stopgap measure.
Currently, the Internet has room for 4.3 billion addresses. About one-third of those are already in use, and more than another one-third are spoken for. By 2012, there will be some 17 billion devices connected to the network, estimates research firm IDC.
But an update to the rules that govern how data moves along the Internet could solve the real estate crunch before it starts. A consortium of network designers, operators and equipment vendors is pushing a new ordering system, dubbed Internet Protocol version 6, that is supposed to remap the information superhighway with more on-ramps--in the form of longer IP addresses.
IPv6 also moves Internet traffic along differently, which could eventually mean easier network setup for IT departments. For example, IPv6 devices are able to join automatically, which could benefit online gaming and peer-to-peer file sharing. The different data structure also means service providers could better classify or filter Net traffic.
This may allow companies like Verizon Communicationsor AT&T to prioritize subscribers' voice-over-Internet Protocol calls ahead of their Web traffic, a concept the telcos are already banking on for new revenue streams.
But to get there, most of today's devices will need to be updated or replaced. IT administrators will need training and must test the updated networks. All these costs will add up--to the tune of more than $25 billion over 25 years, according to a study from research firm RTI International.
That's a potential windfall for big IT consultancies like Gartner and IDC, as well as for smaller outfits like Command Information, which already specializes in IPv6.
"Some of the laggers are going to be leapfrogs," Patterson says, citing still-brewing ideas like WiMax, the wide-range, high-speed wireless networks that some firms are experimenting with, or the metro Wi-Fi network Google and EarthLink will be installing in San Francisco. With fresh systems like wireless, he says, it's a lot easier to add IPv6 capabilities than it is to change old equipment on aging networks.
And while the U.S. is catching up--several federal agencies have said they want to be IPv6-ready by 2008--Asia and Europe are leading the race. As the Internet was revving up in China, Patterson says, the billion-plus-person country was allotted fewer contiguous IP addresses than Stanford University. As a result, the country pushed in a different direction, developing one of the world's largest IPv6 networks.
Most broadband providers have already begun registering for IPv6 addresses, and Patterson says some large companies are testing the next-generation networks in their corporate environments.
But with most of the estimated $25 billion price tag riding on training people--everyone from corporate users to individuals logging on from home--many are concerned about investing in a problem that has yet to materialize. And although the system is supposed to save money in the long run, a report commissioned by the U.S. Commerce Department notes that the new network will have to run alongside existing ones for many years, adding costs in the short run.
RTI estimates that only 30% of application vendors will have integrated IPv6 capabilities by 2008. And while market-leading Cisco Systems routers have been IPv6-ready for years, most corporate workstations aren't. Current versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system aren't set up to support IPv6 automatically, although the company's oft-delayed successor, Vista, will.