Now that most of the civilized world recognizes that 184.108.40.206 is an IP (Internet Protocol) address, the folks who run the technical side of the Internet are about to change things.
Like a phone company that's running out of numbers, the Internet engineering task force (IETF) says we're going to run out of IP addresses. Their grand plan to fix this, and other problems of the Internet, is called Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) and it's already up and running in a few places such as Japan and Sweden.
Yet some Internet experts are saying "Hey, wait a minute.”
And many business users are wondering if, when, and how IPv6 is going to affect them, and just what it's going to cost to adopt.
The current Internet numbering scheme (IPv4) was designed in the early 1980s, when Bill Gates was still saying that "640K of memory should be enough for anybody.”
The Internet wizards back then decided to use 32 bits, which can theoretically provide about 4.3 billion Internet addresses. That's not quite enough for everybody on Earth to have one, but a significant portion of the world's 6.5 billion population has never used a telephone, let alone a computer or the Internet.
The real driving issue is the proliferation of devices other than traditional computers that are greedy for IP addresses. Experts foresee a day when your car, refrigerator and electric razor wrestle with your BlackBerry, TV and washing machine for those increasingly scarce addresses. IPv6 is supposed to fix all this with 128 bit-long address fields.
People with far too much time on their hands have worked out that IPv6 provides enough addresses to give one to every molecule in the solar system. Or, as "lostboy2" noted on the geeky discussion board Slashdot.com, "if there are one trillion people in the world and each of them is assigned one trillion new IPv6 addresses every day, it will take more than 931 billion years to use up all of the possible addresses."
So, we're not likely to run out of numbers the way the telcos did in the 403, 416 and 604 area codes.
The phone company analogy is actually an interesting one. We need a unique phone number so that we receive our own, and only our own, telephone calls. The same principle applies to Internet traffic. You don't want to see your neighbour's web surfing results, and vice versa.
On the other hand, think about the last time you added an extension telephone. Did you request another number from the phone company? Probably not, you just shared your existing number. In a similar fashion, a scheme called NAT (network address translation) is widely used to divide a single Internet address, issued by your Internet service provider, among a variety of computers, printers, VoIP phones, etc.
Internet purists hate NAT, but it sure works. It's the reason we haven't already run short of IP addresses.
The new IPv6 standard does a lot more than solve the address shortage problem. It improves the handling of mobile Internet devices, an increasingly important sector of telecommunications. You'll be able to move your portable device from network to network without losing a bit. It also provides seamless integration of voice and data, something that is kind of cobbled together now.
One of the little-known features coming down the Internet pipe is quality of service (QoS.) This allows Internet traffic of a time-critical nature to request higher priority, much as an express train passes slower freights. Business users should expect to pay a premium for riding the express bit-train, but it's a lot better than having your important videoconference disrupted whenever the Internet gets busy.
There are some attempts at QoS in the current Internet implementation, but it's built right into the design of IPv6.
Another much sought-after feature is "stateless auto-configuration.”
Essentially you will just plug in a computer, cellphone, toaster,or whatever, and it will create its own Internet address. It then checks to make sure that it hasn't selected one that's already in use. (Please don't ask what happens if a coffeepot in Kazakhstan chooses the exact same address at the exact same time - that's why we have technical wizards at the IETF).
IPv6 is generally regarded as a sound technical idea, but one that may take up to a decade to become reality.
The U.S. military says they'll get it working by 2008, and Australia's Defence Force has set a sensible 2013 target. IPv6 is designed to be phased in gradually, much like high-definition TV.
At some point, businesses that migrate to IPv6 will need to update their routers, firewalls and intrusion detection systems, and maybe a lot more. Way down the line, you'll be tossing out your IPv4-only equipment and programs along with your obsolete television sets.
Japan's NTT Communications Corp. has just announced the availability of full IPv6 service to its customers for under $3 a month. They claim their service is "the first of its kind in the world.”
A 2004 conference presentation by national advanced Internet development group CANARIE's chief engineer René Hatem, posted on the Internet, noted that "today in Canada, IPv6 brings little benefits, but significant costs," and that "progress is extremely slow."
So, if this has been your introduction to IPv6, don't panic. A just-published article in the trade journal Telephony reports that IPv6 presently accounts for .0001 per cent of the traffic volume on the Internet.
Don't worry, you haven't missed the bus. But it's something to be thinking about, especially if the new functionality solves real business problems for you.
Perhaps the best analogy for IPv6 is not your creaky old phone system where you crawl under the desk to hook up a new extension. Instead, think of it as that shiny 52-inch HDTV plasma screen.
It's time to figure out what it can do and to start planning where you're going to hang it, how you can use its spiffy new features, and, oh yes, how much it's going to cost.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)