[AfrICANN-discuss] How the Internet is running out of room, and what we must do about it

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Tue Jan 11 18:07:21 SAST 2011


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 by Jonathan Zittrain, Leslie Daigle
 January 10, 2011
 Filed under Internet Openness &
Technical Standards <https://www.cdt.org/issue/technical-standards>

   - IPv4 <https://www.cdt.org/category/blogtags/ipv4>,
   - IPv6 <https://www.cdt.org/category/blogtags/ipv6>

*How the Internet is running out of room, and what we must do about it*

*"CDT Fellows' Focus" is a series from CDT that presents the views of other
notable experts on tech policy issues. This week, CDT Fellow Jonathan
Zittrain <http://cdt.org/personnel/jonathan-zittrain> and Leslie
Daigle write about the end of IPv4 address space. Guest posts featured in
"CDT Fellows' Focus" don't necessarily reflect the views of CDT; the goal of
the series is to present diverse, well-informed views on significant tech
policy issues.*

The Internet's framers famously designed it without predicting much about
how, or how much, it would be used. For example, the network's capacity was
conceived less in a count of precisely how many could participate at once –
the way traditional phone circuits worked – and more in flexibly divisible
bandwidth. As that bandwidth got saturated, it would degrade gracefully:
data might move slower for everyone, but no one would get an "all circuits
are busy" message. In ways large and small, what animates Internet protocol
design is a procrastination
if something can work well, it doesn't have to be perfect, and not every
problem or limit must be anticipated and preempted. Potential but still
speculative flaws can be fixed later – possibly somewhere other than inside
the network.

Unfortunately "later" is arriving now for a crucial piece of the Internet:
its ability to tell one attached device from another. Internet architects
designed a simple way to identify participating computers and route data
among them: assign each a unique number: an Internet Protocol (IP) address.
No IP address, no delivery. The routers in between you and your friend use
your friend's number the way a postal service would – the number says
something about where she is. That's made possible because IP addresses are
clustered together, just like street addresses grouped in a ZIP or other
postal code.

The system has an Achilles' heel: there are a limited number of numbers. It
might seem that you could add 1 to whatever the last number is and keep
going, but there's a hard cap in venerable Internet Protocol Version 4
(IPv4): 4 billion IP addresses, which the Internet is outgrowing in much the
same way that applications outstripped the original 64K of memory expected
for a PC running Microsoft DOS. There is now general agreement among
Internet technologists that the end days are upon us: the last block of
fresh IPv4 addresses will likely be allocated to the Internet's North
American address warehouse in early
to be passed out to Internet Service Providers here by mid- to late-2011.

Worse, because of the clustering of addresses, we can't squeeze the last bit
of digital toothpaste out of the tube as fresh numbers become scarce.
There's a gray market for chunks of already-allocated numbers despite
restrictions against selling them – and some telecommunications providers
are rumored to have been purchased only for their numbers! – but such used
numbers carry their own risks. Anyone who has inherited the former phone
number of a pizza shop will appreciate that some numbers are less desirable
than others. Moreover, some IP addresses have at one time been the source of
cyberattacks, or hosted politically sensitive content, and the resulting
blocking of traffic originating from them by various ISPs is rarely
revisited by those ISPs. (Who wants an old Wikileaks IP address?)

Running out of fresh numbers will not stop the Internet from working. But,
unchecked, it will greatly complicate growth. As new computers and devices
come online, something has to give – making more use of existing addresses,
or finding a new way to address things.

In the first category – making do – the procrastination principle has bought
us some time. Enterprising engineers developed an ingenious
baling-wire-and-twine workaround to the one-number-per-computer rule. Known
as network address translation, or NAT, it allows the holder of a single IP
address to share it among a group of computers. This happens nearly every
time you hook up a wireless router and access point at home: your ISP only
gives you one number, and you use your inexpensive router to share it with
everyone who connects to your network. Cable and DSL ISPs are considering
the same thing to put larger networks of multiple customers behind a single
address, at least as an interim
Unfortunately, like most such workarounds, it doesn't really work as well as
having one number per machine: the fancy footwork required to share a number
around can limit the kinds of applications you can run, and greatly increase
the complexity of some software, such as Skype Internet telephony, if it's
to work at all. NAT has bought us some time – much of Qatar has been known
to share one IP address – but it's spackle covering a rapidly-rusting
architecture stretched far beyond its creators' wildest ambitions.

Which brings us to a more comprehensive solution. Internet technologists did
not sit idly by when it became clear IPv4 could not last. Over a decade ago,
they specified its successor, IPv6 (don't ask what became of IPv5), with a
few hundred trillion trillion trillion addresses. Such huge swaths of
address space promise something even better than a well-functioning market
for valuable but limited assets: abundance so great that no market is
required, only careful administration. Unfortunately, for IPv6 to work,
nearly every piece of networking software and hardware from one end of a
data transmission to the other needs to be upgraded. If just one link in the
chain hasn't been upgraded to understand the new numbers, IPv4 will still
have to be used.

The idea for transition was that systems would work with both protocols for
awhile, and gradually IPv4 would end not with a bang, but with a whimper –
fading away like, say, the telegraph or telex addresses that used to share
letterhead with telephone and fax numbers. However, even though many
operating system and hardware vendors have been anticipating IPv6 for years
(current Mac and Windows systems now support it out of the box), there are
still gaps in available products and little business dependency on it, and
there has been remarkably little deployment. This is consistent with the
procrastination principle: the only networks that have deployed IPv6 are
those that have found a business model for which it as a requirement. And,
because the benefits are, generally, global rather than local to one
network, the procrastination principle becomes a Prisoner's Dilemma: we're
all better off if we all move to IPv6, but the worst case is if you pay to
move while others don't. So why not wait – forever, if others act similarly
– for everyone else to do it before making the investment?

We've spent a decade with few networks taking the plunge to deploy IPv6.

This holding pattern is not likely to persist. With the larder dry, in the
absence of fundamental innovation in Internet Protocol, we'd see an
unfortunate ramp up in the use of NAT and its complications, coupled with
parties' tussles over existing 'pure' IP addresses like rats fighting over
crumbs. Demonstrated shortcomings of the type of IPv4 address sharing
include degraded performance of network-intensive web services: web pages
where different pieces show up slowly, rather than seamlessly. Customers
will not see a poor network connection – they will perceive poor service
from the product or company.

More directly, IPv6 is gaining ground among new entrants (who have little
choice), so the days of an all-IPv4 Internet are numbered. In developing its
broadband strategy, India went for IPv6. New industries looking at wide
scale networking are also looking to IPv6 in order to have access to
adequate address space, and to be able to build novel network architectures,
unencumbered by the structural assumptions needed to support address

The best future for the Internet is for all networks to deploy IPv6, and pay
the price of working in a dual IPv6 / IPv4 world for a period of transition.
If companies wait until the business impacts of degraded IPv4 network
experience or the identification of opportunities to work with new (IPv6)
networks are upon them, the need to make a transition more quickly than a
multi-year equipment refresh cycle will likely be more costly and difficult.
So how to encourage enough entities to take the plunge?

One way out of a classic problem demanding collective action is through
regulation. A government can incent or compel everyone to contribute.
However, this would require coordinated regulation across boundaries not
recognized by network traffic – the intricacies are daunting, and for the
Internet without precedent. And if successful, governments might gain an
appetite for controlling the direction of an Internet which previously
managed growth and innovation through elective uptake. Few are enthusiastic
about mandated transitions.

Another way out is through leadership by big players. For example,
governments aren't just regulators of information technology, they're
purchasers of it. By insisting that government- and military-run subnetworks
are IPv6, they'll stimulate demand for the newer technologies and encourage
intertwined private parties to follow suit. The US government's Office of
Management and Budget followed just such a route in 2005, requiring all
government services to be IPv6 capable by
In September, Vivek Kundra crystallized requirements for government websites
to be IPv6 capable<http://gcn.com/articles/2010/09/28/kundra-sets-new-ipv6-deadlines.aspx>

China has been leading IPv6 adoption for years, in part because it may
otherwise feel the IPv4 number crunch most acutely, and perhaps because the
government has determined that it's in the country's best commercial
Some large companies have placed bets on an upgrade. Google has been public
about its activities to deploy IPv6, and a business rationale to not be last
to market with IPv6

A cold calculus on such investments for many Net-connected enterprises may
indeed suggest holding off. But what has made the Internet better than the
more proprietary networks that it eclipsed is that its participants have had
a sense of stewardship of the space, justifying the absence of government
planners and sheriffs, or a single corporate umbrella. Engineers from the
public and private sectors labor on Internet protocols with loyalty to a
network functioning as a commons, not simply to their employers' particular
business models. An investment in IPv6 from enough corners is sensible if
each corner decides to factor in the benefit to the overall ecosystem – not
just itself.

If such capacious thinking comes through, the Internet won't run out of
space – and we can go back to procrastinating on its future.

*Jonathan Zittrain is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he
co-founded its Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and **Professor of
Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences**.
He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society. Leslie
Daigle is Chief Internet Technology Officer for the Internet Society.*
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