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The IP Address Shortage Problem Has Arrived

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When a company like Microsoft starts running into some technology problems with IP addresses, you know that trouble is brewing. In early 2015, a network expert at Microsoft said to an audience at a vast networking industry conference, "We've been having a hard time."

The problem seems to have somewhat crept up on them. What is it? The dwindling supply of the common everyday IP addresses that have been around for decades.

It was going to happen someday.

Nearly all the IP addresses in use today are IPv4, for "version 4." The number is a unique code the Internet uses to connect us all. Your IP address identifies both the type of network you're part of as well as your individual "host" or computer. Every computer that's online at any one time has a unique IP address. (The exception is small home networks that share the router's IP address; however, all the individual computers still have a unique connection number.)

If you are on the "WhatIsMyIPAddress.com" home page (MyIP), you'll see your current IP address. It can change depending on whether you're connected at home or some other location.

In any case, years ago the IP addressing system was set up to accommodate millions of IP addresses that might be needed one day. In fact, there are today about 4.3 billion IPv4-type IP addresses throughout the entire world.

But the Internet has grown—or rather, exploded—over the past 30 years, perhaps far more than anyone ever expected. And now, some experts are predicting that the number of new available IPv4 addresses could dwindle to nothing as early as this summer.

Think of it like the telephone numbers system in the U.S. decades ago, before there were prefixes and area codes. At one point, phone companies realized that they would soon run out of phone numbers, so they created the area code concept to solve the problem. Today, new prefixes are still being introduced to handle all of the numbers needed.

That's pretty much the same thing for the Internet and the IP addresses we all need if we want to connect—except that the solution isn't as simple.

Supply and demand.

Microsoft ran into a problem with "private IP addresses," which are special addresses that were set aside for companies to use for internal networks. A company like Microsoft can use the same IP address for different company networks and still connect hundreds of computers with no problem.

Millions of these private addresses were set aside in the mid-1990s, but no one could have predicted all the technological advances that would soon begin to drain that supply of private addresses. It caught Microsoft by surprise—their growth in cloud technology and other business products and services gobbled up the available private addresses that had been allocated.

It's time to be proactive.

Of course, Microsoft isn't (and won't be) the only company that will have to address this issue. Facebook had a similar issue with private IP addresses, but they decided to transition to the future of IP addresses—IPv6. That's the next generation of Internet Protocol addressing, which will supply an incredible number of IP addresses for the entire world.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Facebook "outfitted its public-facing website for IPv6 at an expense that...could cost 7% of most companies' IT budget."

And now that's what Microsoft is deciding to do. The person in charge of IP addressing for Microsoft said, "...we moved into the action of making the shift from IPv4 to IPv6 so that we didn't run into problems internally or externally."

That's the right thing to say for a company that's 1) supposed to be a technology leader and 2) experiencing some embarrassing technical difficulties. However, talk is cheap and implementing IPv6 isn't, which is likely why they've delayed making it a company-wide initiative.

Along the way, however, that solution may cause some problems and headaches.

Everything runs on IPv4.

Any device that connects to an Internet-connected network needs an IP address, and for almost all companies, those IP addresses are still IPv4. For a large company like Microsoft, that means there are thousands of devices they own worldwide that would need to be converted to the new protocol...eventually.

But until all those devices are replaced by new ones configured to IPv6, they'll continue to be connected by the IPv4 protocols. And if Microsoft's growth requires them to add more devices, it's likely they'll want to use the new IPv6 protocol and not the older version.

Overall, it simply means that "someday" has arrived. As a network architect at Microsoft said at a recent World IPv6 Forum conference for networking engineers, "I'm only interested in IPv6 because I am tired of people trying to get IPv4 addresses out of me that I don't have."

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Corporate News, May 20, 2015

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