"Panic now and avoid the rush when the internet runs out of IP addresses in June next year', was the (slightly hyped) message from 6UK, the non-profit organisation launched on Thursday to raise awareness about the need to adopt the IPv6 internet addressing scheme.
The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has provided £20,000 in seed funding for 6UK. It hopes this will encourage other firms to join 6UK and help promote the switch, which is essential if internet usage is to continue to grow.
BIS's David Hendon said the government was supporting the initiative because of its goal to have the best national broadband network in Europe by 2015. Shifting to IPv6 was essential to this, and to achieving the government's other aim of a universal 2Mbps broadband service, he said.
The shift is also essential to enable "the internet of things", where machines and sensors will communicate with each other over the internet. Up to 50 billion devices are expected to connect via the internet, 10 times more than there are IPv4 addresses.
This included greater use of mobile smartphones, each of which may need several IP addresses while on the move.
Large-scale projects such as smart energy meters, smart grids, better transport management, remote health monitoring and RFID-based supply chain management, among others, will be impossible without IPv6.
These projects all had vast social implications, not least in fighting climate change and maximising the efficient use of resources, Hendon said.
It's been known for at least 15 years that the original internet addressing scheme, IPv4, which uses a 32-bit address space, was inadequate. IPv6, which uses a 128-bit address space, gives trillions of times more internet addresses. But the world has been slow to adopt it.
"IPv4 was just about adequate (for its original purpose) as a military network," Vint Cerf, who co-authored the original paper that set out the principles of the internet, told Computer Weekly.
However, the two addressing schemes are not compatible. Network address translation software can help, but it is "clunky" and won't scale. "It's postponing the inevitable," Cerf said.
Cerf, whose present job is Google's internet evangelist, said about 1% of internet traffic used IPv6. "The (IPv4) internet will run out addresses. That's guaranteed," he said.
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which issues addresses in blocks of 16 million, has only 12 of the original 256 blocks left and the world is consuming one block a month.
When it has only five blocks left, IANA will immediately issue one each to the five regional internet registrars. These are the bodies that redistribute addresses to the rest of the world through a network of 7,100 local internet registrars.
Cerf said there would be a period of perhaps 20 years while the world switched to IPv6. "If you are not running dual stack networks (ie supporting both addressing schemes) you will be restricting your ability to reach a global market and to grow," he said.
Several speakers at the launch noted that China had already adopted IPv6 for its academic network, and Google, the search engine company, had made the switch, which had taken three years. "China considers IPv4 the legacy network," Cerf said.
Philip Sheldrake, a director of 6UK and of Intellect, the IT industry trade body, said companies should specify IPv6 in their procurements. "You don't have to do it now, but you should certainly look at it when you do your next technology refresh," he said.
6UK, whose sponsors include network consultancy A10 and Nomient, was providing guidance and education to firms that wanted to know more about how to manage the switch, he said.